South Africa has a rich natural and cultural resource base that ranks among the top three of the world’s most biodiverse countries. The country is also home to about 24 000 plant species and has an entire floral kingdom within its borders. Our natural and cultural resources underpin a large part of the economy and many rural and urban people rely on them for employment, food, shelter, medicine and spiritual well-being.
Protecting the ancient traditional knowledge of local communities on the medicinal and other values of plant and animal species forms a key part of the government’s sustainable use policy. Coupled with this is ensuring that these communities reap the benefits (monetary or otherwise) from commercial products derived from using their traditional knowledge.
The benefits that South Africa derives from biodiversity or ecosystem services, or the natural capital are estimated at R73 billion, contributing 7 percent of gross domestic product a year. This shows that the government is correct in viewing the biodiversity economy, which is part of our national green economy, as South Africa’s competitive edge in growing the economy and addressing climate change adaptation.
While our country occupies about 2 percent of the world’s land area, we are home to nearly 10 percent of the world’s plants, 7 percent of reptiles, birds and mammals and 15 percent of known coastal marine species.
The cultural diversity and the geographical locations of a large number of our local communities, such as those found in parts of Limpopo, Pondoland and the Succulent Karoo, also mean that there is a great amount of traditional knowledge on indigenous biological resources.
The South African San Council and the Nama communities at Paulshoek and Nourivier in the Northern Cape have benefited substantially from their partnership with HGH Pharmaceuticals on the local and international research on cultivated plant material and extracts from the kanna plant (Sceletium tortosium). This partnership last year resulted in the national and international release of the mood enhancer product under the brand name Elev8 in South Africa and Zembrin in the United States.
This included the creation of jobs from the cultivation of this indigenous biological resource. The jobs and training of local young people will lead to the kind of community development that the government seeks to promote.
The Kommagas community in the Northern Cape is still looking to partner with an international or local pharmaceutical company for the development and sale of its antiseptic soaps and lotions, eczema treatment and non-toxic antifungal spray for crops. The bioprospecting permit received by this community, where there is a 90 percent jobless rate, was the seventh to be issued by the Department of Environmental Affairs.
Benefits arising from the benefit-sharing and material-transfer agreements include the employment of some Kommagas community members as project coordinators and harvesters, the collection of a pre-determined, specified percentage of all distributable cash reserves after costs at the end of each financial year to beneficiaries, and the purchase of harvested kraalbos from Kommagas farmers.
Regulations to manage the commercial or industrial exploitation of South Africa’s biological resources came into effect in 2008. These made it illegal to obtain and utilise any extracts from indigenous plants and animals without a permit, in response to South Africa’s international obligations under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. These are known as Bioprospecting, Access and Benefit Sharing (BABS) Regulations.
With these regulations in place, South Africa became one of the first countries to regulate the use of indigenous biological resources and associated traditional knowledge before the adoption of the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of the Benefits Arising from their Utilisation to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which took place in 2010.
These regulations ensure that indigenous communities receive a fair and equitable share of the benefits that arise from bioprospecting. These regulations were strengthened with the launch of the BABS Guidelines, which act as a primary tool in assisting users, providers, and regulators of indigenous biological resources to operate effectively.
Besides existing BABS legislation, local communities will now enjoy additional protection through international frameworks such as the Nagoya protocol. These communities are not only beneficiaries but are also a living testament to the positive spin-offs of these measures through capacity building, the creation of small businesses and the awarding of bursaries to young people to further their education.
In January, South Africa became the 12th country to ratify the Nagoya protocol. The ratification of international agreements is a major step towards the sustainable development of the country’s green economy. South Africa’s ratification of this international agreement stresses the importance placed by the government on the country’s auspicious position as the third-most biologically diverse country in the world. Only Indonesia and Brazil are considered more biologically varied. It is also indicative of our commitment to the green economy, sustainable development and the use of our natural resources for economic growth.
Contravention is something the government does not take lightly and stringent measures have been put in place to ensure compliance. A person convicted of any offence in terms of commercialisation of bioprospecting or the export of indigenous biological resources without a permit is liable to imprisonment of up to five years, and 10 years for second offences. There is also a fine of up to R5 million and R10 million for second offences.
It is incumbent upon us to debunk the myth that biodiversity management hinders development, by positioning the sector as a major contributor to job creation and the fight against poverty. We have shown that biodiversity management contributes to our green economy objectives in a manner that benefits ordinary South Africans.