Road to COP15 Montreal: Indigenous groups in South Africa benefit from rooibos tea industry; here is how

Rooibos comes loaded with antioxidants that can boost immunity, reduce risks of heart diseases, protect from viral infection and has anti-ageing properties

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Tuesday 29 November 2022
Rooibos, devoid of caffeine and low in tannins, is a healthy alternative to coffee or tea. Representative photo: iStock

As the world inches towards the Convention on Biodiversity’s (CBD) COP15 in Montreal, scheduled from December 7-19, 2022, there is a success story from South Africa that the negotiators could do well to keep in mind.

The mountain bush rooibos is endemic to South Africa and is used to prepare a deep red brew with a deliciously unique flavour.

The San and Khoi communities were the first to learn the health benefits of rooibos’ needle-like leaves that grew widely on their land. But they have remained marginalised in its trade that began in early 20th century during the colonial regime. 

Today, rooibos is a widely traded and exported commodity, sold to over 30 countries, with the United States and Europe being the biggest importers. But the San and Khoi control less than seven per cent of the land under the shrub.

Also read: Road to COP15: DTE’s coverage in the run-up to Montreal

In July 2022, the rooibos industry paid 12.2 million rands (around $709,000) to organisations that represent the communities for sharing this biological resource and associated knowledge.

Discussions are now underway to ascertain how the money would be used to benefit the communities

This agreement between the industry and the communities happened under the CBD’s objective that supports fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of biological diversity with the communities that have protected biodiversity and hold the knowledge on how it can be used.

Rooibos, devoid of caffeine and low in tannins, is a healthy alternative to coffee or tea, studies showed.

It also comes loaded with antioxidants that can boost immunity, reduce risks of heart diseases, protect from viral infection and has anti-ageing properties.

Also read: Legal, controlled trade of wild species can have many benefits: CITES report

Attempts to profit

Multinational corporations have come up with ways to profit from the tea as well as products made using chemical derivatives of the shrub, called Aspalathus linearis in scientific lexicon. But they did not keep the community's well-being in mind.

One such attempt was made by the Swiss company Nestlé in 2010. The company claimed five patents on products prepared from rooibos, such as medicines to treat inflammatory diseases and probiotic foods.

But this time, the San and Khoi communities opposed the move and Nestlé’s patent applications were rejected.

The South African government asked the company to share benefits arising from the use of this biological resource with the communities.

Nestlé agreed to share three per cent of its net sales with the community in 2014. The South African government also initiated a process to identify true owners of the knowledge around rooibos to facilitate agreements between the industry and the communities.

In 2019, the government facilitated an agreement between 10 processors and the San and Khoi, wherein the communities would receive 1.5 per cent of the farm-gate price (net price after cutting marketing costs) annually.

Also read: Road to COP15 Montreal: Namibia’s unique scheme ensures implementation of Nagoya Protocol

This is the first industry-wide agreement in which benefits from rooibos would be shared with San and Khoi, said Amelia Heyns, programme manager at Natural Justice, a human rights and environmental law non-profit in South Africa that represented the communities in negotiations.

“The agreement is significant as it recognises the communities as traditional knowledge-holders of the benefits of the tea,” added Heyns.

This is the second time that indigenous communities of South Africa have had a win against the industry. The San people in the southern part of Africa chew the cactus-like flowering plant ghaap (Hoodia gordonii) to suppress hunger and thirst during long hunting trips. 

The researchers at Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa discovered the plant contained a molecule, P57 and patented it in 1997.

The government research lab then sold the license to UK-based company Phytopharm, which in 1998 subleased it and the marketing rights to US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Corporation for $32 million plus royalties from future sales.

However, Pfizer stopped its work on this plant and withdrew from the agreement in 2003 and another agreement was negotiated with the consumer giant Unilever in 2004.

In 2003, CSIR agreed to share the benefits with the community after the community sued the government. The San would receive six per cent of all royalties received by the CSIR from Phytopharm for products, according to the agreement.

The agreement has been criticised as the San would get a share of profits from what CSIR gets and not from the profits that the companies make.

Pfizer and Unilever haven’t launched any products based on Hoodia. But many products based on the plant are easily available in the unorganised market. The manufacturers do not share benefits with the community due to lack of legal agreements.

Due to uncontrolled harvest, the plant has been put in Appendix 2 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Appendix 2 includes species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction now but may become so unless trade is closely controlled.

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