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Antony Barnett, public affairs editor
Sunday March 31, 2002
They have faced extinction and poverty for hundreds of years, but now the San Bushmen of southern Africa stand to make millions of pounds from a so-called miracle slimming pill being developed by Western drug companies.
Last June an Observer investigation exposed how British and US drug firms aimed to make a fortune from an appetite-supressing ingredient of the hoodia plant, which grows wild in Africa's Kalahari desert. It has been used for thousands of years by the San to stave off hunger and thirst on long hunting trips.
The drug companies, including Pfizer, the US pharmaceutical giant responsible for Viagra, hope to turn the hoodia ingredient - dubbed P57 - into an international diet pill. Scientists believe that this natural product will have no side effects.
Roger Chennells, a lawyer who in 1999 helped the San win back 40,000 hectares of their ancestral land in South Africa, decided to challenge the drug firms and the South African research institute that originally took out the hoodia patent in 1996.
Now he has helped the San win a remarkable victory. Twelve days ago a landmark benefit-sharing agreement was reached in South Africa which will see the San receive a share of any future royalties.
With the worldwide market in slimming aids and anti-obesity products worth more than £6 billion, millions of pounds could flow to the Kalahari when the pill hits the market.
Although the details of the agreement have to be hammered out, the San are likely to be involved in farming and cultivating hoodia and to be offered scholarships to study so that their ancient botanical knowledge may lead to other commercial products.
Petrus Vaalbooi, chairman of the San council, said: 'We see this as an opportunity to engage with a partner in a way the will achieve benefits that will permeate to the very poorest people within our communities.'
The drug successfully passed the third phase of its clinical tests last December but is still four years away from coming to the market.
Alex Wijeratna, a campaigner from development agency Action Aid, which had taken up the the San cause said: 'It's a lesson to corporations that they can't come in and patent traditional knowledge on plants from local communities and get away with it.'
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