Khoi and San sign deal that gives them a cut of rooibos riches

Environment minister Barbara Creecy gets up close with !’Aru Ikhuisi Piet Berendse and a bushel of rooibos on November 1 2019.
Environment minister Barbara Creecy gets up close with !’Aru Ikhuisi Piet Berendse and a bushel of rooibos on November 1 2019.
Image: Esa Alexander

For years scientists have trumpeted the medicinal benefits of rooibos tea.

Now the famous reddish drink with the sweet aftertaste will also have widespread economic benefits thanks to a historic benefit-sharing agreement involving the rooibos industry and traditional communities who have used the plant for centuries.

The rooibos and honeybush traditional knowledge benefit-sharing agreement was signed on Friday afternoon on a hilltop outside Cape Town.

It formalises nine years of negotiations that will see Khoi and San communities receive a share of proceeds from the crop — 1.5% of the farm gate price in the form of an annual levy — for an initial one-year pilot period.

The money will help fund community projects selected by Khoi and San organisations.

Stakeholders believe the rooibos deal could pave the way for similar benefit-sharing agreements covering other natural resources such as aloe and cannabis as SA moves to give effect to a UN convention on biodiversity.

It follows similar initiatives in other economic sectors, such as fishing, where traditional rights have been recognised and vested in community co-operatives which will receive formal quotas.

Signatories to the agreement include new environment, forestry and fisheries minister Barbara Creecy, a daily rooibos drinker, who hailed the achievement as a world first and a likely precursor to other agreements.

“This is not the only negotiation we are involved in as government,” Creecy told TimesLIVE. “There are other medicinal plants, and plants with cosmetic qualities.”

Friday’s signing ceremony featured several prominent Khoi and San leaders, among them National Khoi-san Council chair Cecil Le Fleur, who said the agreement was the first to involve an entire industry, as opposed to previous agreements between specific companies and communities.

“Not only is it a first in terms of the status of the agreement, but also in how we will roll it out,” Le Fleur said. “It is extremely complex.”

!’Aru Ikhuisi Piet Berendse with a bushel of rooibos at the signing of the benefit-sharing agreement on November 1 2019.
!’Aru Ikhuisi Piet Berendse with a bushel of rooibos at the signing of the benefit-sharing agreement on November 1 2019.
Image: Esa Alexander

Civil society stakeholders hailed the agreement as a milestone both for benefit sharing and community wellbeing.

Lesle Jansen from Natural Justice, an NGO that specialises in environmental and human rights law, noted the many hurdles involved in formalising the agreement.

“Getting community consensus was a massive undertaking,” he said. Another difficulty was facilitating talks between government, industry and traditional leadership.

Pooven Moodley, executive director of Natural Justice, said: “This journey isn’t just about benefit-sharing, but also about healing and justice.”

Negotiations over rooibos benefit-sharing began nine years ago when the SA San Council approached the government with concerns about a lack of recognition of  their traditional knowledge of both rooibos and honeybush species.

A subsequent study, commissioned by the department of environmental affairs and launched in 2014, confirmed the San and Khoi claims to indigenous tea knowledge, noting that the species are endemic to the region in which the San and Khoi people have historically lived.

Friday’s ceremony was not all about formal paperwork. Some traditional leaders celebrated the agreement with impromptu traditional dance steps inside a large marquee tent adjoining the !Kwa Ttu San Culture and Education Centre in Yzerfontein.

Among the guests was !’Aru Ikhuisi Piet Berendse, who said it remained to be seen whether the tea agreement would be as tasty as the leaf itself.

“Sometimes there is lots of talk, but let’s wait to see if it turns out as promised,” he said.

Claudia Stagoff-Belfort and Margaret Connolly are student journalists on a School for International Training (SIT) study abroad programme


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