Environmental Affairs on study of rooibos and honeybush species in South Africa

19 May 2015

Report of the study conducted on the traditional knowledge associated with the rooibos and honeybush species in South Africa

The Department of Environmental Affairs has concluded a study on the traditional knowledge associated with two endemic species extensively utilised by bioprospecting and biotrade sectors in South Africa and abroad, namely: rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) and honeybush (Cyclopia spp.)

South Africa has a rich cultural heritage and is the third-most biological diverse country in the world. The country has an expansive history of indigenous and local communities using traditional knowledge on indigenous biological resources for, amongst other things, medicines and food. This biological and cultural wealth provides an important basis for commercial research and development, economic growth and development that underpins the well-being of the entire society and provides an extremely favourable environment for bioprospecting and biotrade for commercial gain.

The rooibos and honeybush species equally have a rich traditional knowledge. These species are being utilised commercially in the development of products such as medicines, food flavourings, cosmetics and extracts. These commercial activities are however regulated through the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, 2004 (Act No. 10 of 2004) (NEMBA) and the Bioprospecting, Access and Benefit Sharing Regulations, 2008 (BABS Regulations). The legislation is further supported by the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefit Arising from their Utilisation under the Convention on Biological Diversity, to which South Africa became a party in 2013.

These laws have increased awareness of Bioprospecting, Access and Benefit Sharing (BABS) activities in South Africa and have provided opportunities for indigenous and local communities to benefit from their role as custodians of traditional knowledge on the useful properties of indigenous biological resources targeted for bioprospecting and biotrade.

In 2011, the department was approached by the South African San Council on behalf of the San people of South Africa, expressing concerns about inadequate acknowledgement, recognition and protection of their interest in relation to the ownership of traditional knowledge associated with the rooibos and honeybush species which are being used commercially.

As a result the department undertook a stakeholder consultative study to validate the rightful holders of traditional knowledge associated with these two species in order to ensure that they derive benefits from the utilisation of these species in the development of commercial products in terms of NEMBA and the BABS Regulations.

The report has documented the origin of traditional knowledge associated with the rooibos and honeybush species; the original distribution of the species in South Africa and linked it with the existing traditional use by indigenous and local communities. The report also details the land history where these species naturally grow including how the land was occupied and how the traditional knowledge has been developed and passed on from one generation to the next, as well as how it was transferred from the original source to other tribes. In addition, the report spells out how the traditional knowledge associated with these species as an information source has provided valuable leads into the scientific and commercial environment; information on the existing commercial farming of these species in South Africa   and information on the existing wild harvesting activities in South Africa, including an accurate description of the indigenous and local communities involved.

The fact that these two species are endemic to the Cape Floristic Region, combined with the fact that the San and the Khoi people were historically residents in the natural distribution of these species for centuries, before the arrival of the settlers, and the fact that the industry has evolved and expanded in these particular areas, largely supports the concern raised by the South African San Council representing the San people of South Africa. The study has revealed that there is no evidence to dispute the claim by the San and the Khoi people of South Africa that they are the rightful holders of traditional knowledge associated with rooibos and honeybush.

In light of the finding, the department therefore urges any individual or organisation involved in bioprospecting or biotrade using rooibos and honeybush species to engage with the Khoi and San communities or people to negotiate a benefit sharing agreement in terms of NEMBA and the BABS Regulations.

To access the report click here.

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Albi Modise
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