Fri, Dec 17, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Bushmen seeking hope from helping out fat Westerners

FAT CHANCE A small Tanzanian tribe may give the western world a cure for obesity, but whether the San people will ever see profit is another issue


A drive through the windblown San settlements of grass and wood scattered across southern Africa is a very depressing experience: families ravaged by poverty, unemployment and alcoholism -- their hunter-gatherer tradition a fading memory.

For the past few years their leaders have spoken of a bonanza from western pharmaceutical companies in payment for the San Bushmen's knowledge of a plant that might one day cure obesity.

They have yet to see a penny.

"They are frustrated by the delay, but these are people who take things as they are. There is not huge agitation yet," said Richard Wicksteed, a documentary maker who has filmed them for two decades.

"The average San knows there is value in their medicinal knowledge. Having used hoodia when they were starving, the irony of obese westerners using it to lose weight is not lost on them."

San leaders were gathered in Tanzania for a meeting Wednesday and unaware of the Unilever deal, but once informed they would likely welcome it, Wicksteed said.

"It's very good news if handled correctly," he said.

If a portion of Unilever's millions does reach the San it would buck a long, sad history of dispossession.

These indigenous people of southern Africa have a culture dating back 20,000 years. They have survived the harshest environments, but not the predations of other humans. The more warrior-like Bantu tribes from the north, then European colonialists and finally the apartheid regime swept through their land, killing, appropriating anything of value and pushing the San into dwindling pockets of territory.

The three San groups most closely associated with hoodia -- the Khwe, Xu and Khomani -- number only a few thousand. The total number of San across the Kalahari is estimated at 100,000.

Post-apartheid South Africa tried to redress some of the injustice by granting them ownership of more than 40,000 hectares.

But their communities are broken. Only a handful remain of the hunter-gatherers of western imagination. The rest scrabble what living they can in bleak settlements which are often hundreds of miles from decent roads, schools and clinics.

"This is the last stand of the San -- the last generation that still retain some of their culture and heritage. They are a tiny people with a tiny voice," Wicksteed said.

Some South African firms have already tried to pirate the San's knowledge of the hoodia, and Unilever and Phytopharm are expected to try to stop such practices.

Chris De Plessis, a lawyer who is representing the San in Botswana, said that few ordinary San understood the ramifications of intellectual property rights, and mistrust was growing that their leaders might pocket the hoodia revenue -- if it ever comes.

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