Bioprospecting & Ethnopharmacology: recent advances in local plant medicinal knowledge

ETHNOBOTANY is the ‘study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous (native) plants.’ Needless to say, I attended a science cafe presentation by Nox Makunga, a professor of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University entitled “Medicinal Plants of South Africa: Digging in the past for a future bio-economy.”

Her work on the Cape Floristic kingdom which include various ‘bio-hotspots’, is simply incredible, the more so due to its location of botany alongside ethnographic studies. Her talk thus traversed work on salvia africana, pelargoniums/geraniums, Ysterhout (olea capansis), and Rooibos (aspalathus linearis), to name a few of the plant species mentioned, and included the multifaceted cultures associated with their medicinal use in South Africa.

There is recorded history of ethnopharmocology and “Dutch remedies” for instance going back to the time of Simon van Der Stel and his journey into the interior where the then governor of the Cape Dutch colony came across Mesembryanthemaceae also known as Kanna, Kougoed, “Bushman’s ecstacy” and Sceletium. Makunga has published extensively on the local ‘sack people’, and her piece entitled “The Informal Trade of Medicinal Plants by Rastafari Bush Doctors in the Western Cape” is often cited, alongside her more empirical lab-based studies, (see here)

Even more astounding is the fact she presented some of her own findings on the efficacy of Ysterhout in treating tumours in mice, the use of Southerlandia to treat diabetes and a plethora of plant knowledge, deserving of a devoted online wiki project (see here) — if only to enable the lay health practitioner and informal botanists amongst us to access indigenous knowledge alongside the evidence-based science which is forging ahead in leaps and bounds.

I would very much have loved to record and upload her talk, done in an African oral tradition sans powerpoint, but due to the ‘exigency of the situation’, this was not to be. However what followed was a lively chat about patents, my own input on the very first news story published in South Africa by yours truly, on the problematic patenting of rooibos tea in the USA (and subsequent two-decade battle to return its intellectual property), and my own research conducted on carpobrotus edulis, the common sour fig.

I thus took the professor to task for glossing over a plant with some 500 patents, many of them from biotech companies in Asia, but neglected to situate my own informal work within the context from whence it sprung, namely an ongoing journey into indigenous plant medicine. And should therefore give credit to traditional knowledge practitioner Tumelo Kuena for having pointed out the long-standing traditions associated with this plant, which is more than simply a skin balm, but proven to be effective against microbes and bacteria such as staphylococcus aureus.

Whether or not Sour Figs represent the same potential value chain as Hoodia, Sceletium, Southerlandia and Rooibos tea remains to be seen. Unlike these plants, Sour Figs are endemic to other regions, including Western Australia and parts of the Mediterranean. I find the question of whether or not a patent in Asia for a plant living in our backyard is enforceable given its longstanding use by indigenous peoples, rather intriguing if not challenging.

One can only suggest that an open-source approach, a scheme which allows for the creation of value at the same time as the protection of rights, would be a far better path to follow than yet another decades long battle inside the WTO.