A landmark agreement under the United Nations’ Nagoya Protocol awards South African indigenous peoples benefits from the harvest and marketing of rooibos tea.
The Khoi and San, collectively known as the Khoisan, have for centuries populated the Cederburg Mountains, a region of South Africa and the only place in the world where drinkable cultivars of rooibos thrive. The Nov. 1 announcement culminates decades of negotiations establishing the San people as the first users of rooibos, a discovery that entitles them to a share of rooibos industry profits.
Under the agreement, the San and Khoi receive 1.5% of the farmgate price of unprocessed rooibos, split 50:50. In 2019 this amounts to about $800,000. In addition, businesses that use the likeness and symbols of Khoisan to market their products will pay royalties. The rooibos industry produces 16,000 metric tons annually and is estimated to generate about $35 million in sales globally, with exports to 30 countries. About 80% of exports are to Europe, mainly Germany. Japan and the U.S. also import rooibos which was popularized in the early 2000s as a non-caffeinated beverage by Starbucks and continues to grow in market share.
According to an article in Nature, the San first arrived in South Africa about 100,000 years ago. The Khoi settled in the area about 2,000 years ago. Commercial farming of rooibos began in the early 1900s.
“Inspite of the agreement, the precise origins of rooibos tea remain contentious. Representatives of the San and Khoi say that their ancestors shared knowledge of the plant with colonial settlers. The literature also points to its early uses as a health tea and as a diuretic,” Nature reported.
“Overall, there is a lack of research literature in this field, but what there is suggests that rooibos as a beverage did originate with the groups’ ancestors, according to the 2015 study commissioned by the South African government, called ‘Traditional Knowledge Associated with Rooibos and honeybush Species in South Africa’, according to the magazine.
Martin Bergh, managing director of Rooibos Ltd, based in Clanwilliam, contends there is no proof the Khoisan drank rooibos tea, but concedes they knew of the plant and used it for its medicinal properties.
His company and others harvesting and processing rooibos agreed to the settlement, the first since the Nagoya Protocol was ratified in 2010. The protocol is the centerpiece of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, international law that sets new rules for compensating communities when their knowledge of biodiversity is used by business, science or government. The goal is to preserve and reward knowledge about plants and processes handed down from generation to generation.
Enforcement of the protocol “will provide a framework for compliance in future cases“ according to Lesle Jansen, an attorney with the environmental and human rights law firm Natural Justice, who represented the National Khoisan Council in the negotiations. Jansen was quoted in Quartz: “This is the first time since knowledge was misappropriated over 150 and 200 years ago that the communities are firstly recognized as traditional knowledge holders and, as a result of that, qualify for benefit sharing.”