By Dominique Herman
Products widely available in pharmacies that contain the natural appetite suppressant hoodia are manufactured illegally, and some of these products are fake or have insufficient amounts of the plant to be effective.
With the consent of the patent owner, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria, only Unilever and the UK company Phytopharm are licensed to manufacture products containing hoodia, and neither company is selling any yet.
In a letter to the South African, German and Swiss governments, the Working Group on Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (Wimsa) urged them to take steps against the continued trade in hoodia plants and products without a share of the profits going to the San Bushmen.
For centuries the San have used the succulent as an appetite suppressant to stave off hunger during long hunting trips in the Kalahari desert and, as a result, hold intellectual property rights to the cactus.
Trade in hoodia products violates international benefit sharing guidelines regarding local communities and access to their genetic resources.
"All commercially traded hoodia products today contain illegally acquired resources and traditional knowledge according to the Convention for Biological Diversity. But so far no user country has made any move to stop the sale of these products," the letter said.
Roger Chennells, the lawyer for Wimsa, said hoodia products came on the market about 11-and-a-half years ago and about 150 products were on sale in Europe and the US, as well as a small number in South Africa.
"Most of them are fake," he said. Either the product contains an altogether different substance masquerading on the label as hoodia or it contains a tiny amount of hoodia.
In a weekend news report, Unilever spokesman Trevor Gorin said the group had tested more than 10 hoodia products available and those "did not have any significant amount of the active ingredient".
Chennells said: "There are (companies) out there spoiling the name of the hoodia."
He added that these "uncontrolled and unmanaged" manufacturers were also contravening advertising standards.
Head of the vitamin section at Dis-Chem, Susy Schmutz, said they sold four hoodia products which had been consistent sellers since their introduction.
Wimsa, with the support of Biowatch, the Berne Declaration in Switzerland and the Church Development Service in Germany, suggested in the letter that a structure to prevent the biopiracy of hoodia and other genetic resources should be established.
In a statement, chairman of the SA San Council, Petrus Vaalbooi, said: "We are thankful that the traditional knowledge of our forefathers is acknowledged by national and international laws and policies.
"As San leaders we are determined to use these laws to protect all aspects of our heritage."
The CSIR entered into a benefit-sharing agreement with the San in 2003.
The San entered into an agreement with the SA Hoodia Growers in February.