Get Involved
About Us
Our Members
Plants, People & Nature: Benefit Sharing in Practice

Plants, People & Nature emerged from a workshop on benefit sharing that took place in Cape Town, South Africa during the 4th World Congress on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (WOCMAP) in November of 2009. The book is comprised of 22 case studies on benefit sharing practices—the process of providing a portion of revenues from drug discovery and/or other commercialization ventures based on traditional knowledge, particularly that related to medicinal plants. Given the location of the meeting, it is understandable that 15 of the case studies pertain to African countries, 8 of which are specific to South Africa. In addition, 4 of the South African case studies explore different aspects of the development and commercialization of one species, umckaloabo (Pelargonium sidoides, Geraniaceae).

Many of the other case studies focus on familiar and well-known plants that have been developed and sold as phytomedicines, dietary supplements, or personal care product ingredients over the past 20 years. Such plants include: hoodia (Hoodia gordonii, Apocynaceae), devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens, Pedaliaceae), pygeum (Prunus Africana, Rosaceae), maca (Lepidium meyenii, Brassicaceae), shea butter (Vitellaria paradoxa, Sapotaceae) and Arogya Pacha (Trichopus zelanicus, Trichopodaceae) from southern India.

In other case studies, the authors discuss plant-based product development in Madagascar, Nigeria, Congo, Kenya, and India. In addition, there are several chapters that focus on creating community protocols for access and benefit sharing, and a brief overview of the South Africa Traditional Health Practitioners Act, passed into law in 2008. There is, fortunately, one brief chapter by a patent attorney from a South African law firm in which he discusses the importance of protecting traditional knowledge.

The preface, introduction, and sections that precede the first chapter set the up the book very well with section headings that include “What do we mean by benefit sharing?” and “Some fundamental problems of benefit sharing.” These focused introductions to the topic of benefit sharing pose excellent questions, such as “3% of something is better than 30% of nothing?”

I have to admit that, as an ethnobotanist, I loved this book, and it is in my opinion one of the best produced on this important topic. The case studies are concise and well described with a minimal amount of jargon. In most instances, the length of each case study is 10 pages or less. Most of the case studies provide detailed information on the volume of plants utilized and harvested over time, the prices paid to harvesters and brokers, and the price obtained for the final product. I was amazed to learn that the best selling product of Traditional Medicinals of Sebastapol, California, required over 50 tons of senna (Cassia senna, Fabaceae) leaf in 2009. Analysis of the overall benefit sharing process in each case study is provided, including sections on stakeholders; background; project objectives; a timeline of important events; lessons learned; and the impacts of projects on a local, national, and international level.

I also appreciated the book’s 1-page overviews on 17 important topics, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Bonn Guidelines, a bio-prospecting checklist, and numerous other highly relevant overviews that relate to the evolution and implementation of benefit sharing practices. There are about 50 photographs related to the case studies presented in a 15-page section of photographs. There is also an excellent list of useful books and websites included at the end of the book.

I have followed many of the specific cases presented in the book over the past 20 years, and I was impressed with the ability of the authors to condense the most relevant information on the history of benefit sharing practices, problems, and challenges into so few pages. There has been a small cottage industry of lawyers, academics, nonprofit organizations, and others who have written long papers and books on many of these cases. The authors and the editors of this book are to be applauded for providing core information, data, and facts, along with an honest assessment of a decade or more of research on these culturally important plants. It is also very helpful that they describe the impact of the rapidly evolving national and international benefit sharing laws meant to conserve biological diversity.

The book cover states that, “The book is designed to help private and public sector organizations better understand the challenges and opportunities of working with bio-resources, especially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.” I have to say that this book does an excellent job of fulfilling its stated purpose. I wish someone would purchase enough copies of this book to send to all the phytomedicine, herbal medicine, cosmetic, and dietary supplement companies of the world so that they can learn, from the experience of others, how to share plant-derived benefits used and discovered by local and traditional communities. It would be great to make this book widely available at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio +20, which will take place in Brazil in 2012 to assess the progress we have made on sustainably using, developing, and conserving the biological diversity of our planet.

Bravo, then, to the authors of these case studies and to the organizers of the WOCMAP meeting. I look forward to seeing more examples of benefit sharing in practice in future volumes.

—Steven R. King, PhD Sr. Vice President of Sustainable Harvesting and Ethnobotanical Research Napo Pharmaceuticals, Inc. San Francisco, CA