From fable to court: tracing the curation of indigenous knowledge in a biopiracy case

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This dissertation presents a constructivist grounded theory study of curation and biopiracy of medicinal knowledge about Hoodia. Hoodia is a succulent cactus used by the San people for sustenance and medicinal purposes, and a victim of biopiracy as indigenous knowledge of its properties has been patented with the aim of commercialisation. The purpose of this study was to generate a theory or framework that explores and explains the processes involved in curation and application of indigenous medicinal knowledge in the scientific, legal and commercial knowledge domains. The colonial 'discoveries' and records of the Hoodia species by Carl P. Thunberg, Francis Masson, as well as the recorded experience of Rudolf Marloth, in a Renaissance Humanist tradition, led to scientific experiments by the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) and commercial trials in an attempt to develop slimming drugs for commercialisation. A landmark royalty and benefit-sharing agreement in 2002/3 awarded intellectual property compensation to the San community for commercial exploitation of their traditional knowledge. Although there have been several Master's and Doctoral research studies about Hoodia, minimal or no attention have been directed toward the curation of information in a biopiracy case. Science has sought to capitalise undocumented indigenous knowledge by applying for patents and developing pharmaceutical drugs using indigenous medicinal knowledge obtained from local people. Using a grounded theory methodology, data was collected through an unstructured interview, reviews of literature and theoretical sampling to extract relevant concepts and themes. The study then identified key players and knowledge domains that added new layers of information and knowledge to traditional knowledge in relation to Hoodia use. The study traces the movement of indigenous knowledge from the San to the CSIR, from CSIR to the commercial entities Phytopharm, Pfizer and Unilever, through the licencing of a patent on Hoodia. An emergent theory based on the concept of palimpsest suggests that erasures of the existing traditional knowledge occurred as new layers of knowledge were added or applied. These erasures took the form of (1) renaming the Hoodia species with Greek or Latin names instead of adopting the indigenous names (Renaissance Humanism), and (2) adding new meaning and complicated symbols, resulting in codification of existing indigenous knowledge (Post Modernism). The main themes emanating from the application of palimpsest as a framework present pressing issues such as de-contextualisation and re-codification of indigenous knowledge, resulting in the erosion of benefits for its originators.