South African indigenous peoples win share of rooibos tea profits in new landmark agreement

South African indigenous communities – the San and Khoi peoples – whose lands have been used for the commercial farming of rooibos tea for more than a century, will now share in the profits of the lucrative herbal tea industry under a new landmark agreement.

Nine years in the making, the Access and Benefit Sharing Agreement was signed on 1 November by the indigenous Khoi and San communities and the Rooibos Industry.

South Africa’s Khoi and San peoples will now receive 1.5% of the value farmers get when they sell to the tea processor – which is estimated to be around $650,000 (£500,000) a year.

South Africa’s Environmental Affairs Minister Barbara Creecy, whose Department played a role in the negotiations, said: “This is the first time in world history that two indigenous communities are being compensated for their indigenous knowledge that has led to the exploitation of a commercial product.”

The San communities are among the world’s oldest, and are understood to have been in Southern Africa for some 100,000 years. The Khoi arrived around 2,000 years ago. European settlers attacked both communities and occupied their lands from the mid-1600s onwards. Both San and Khoi peoples are now scattered throughout southern Africa.

Rooibos, which only grows in the Cederberg mountainous region of the Western Cape province of South Africa, was harvested by the San and Khoi peoples for centuries. The indigenous tribes harvested the leaves for use as herbal remedies to treat a variety of different ailments. The medicines were loved for their delicious taste, but as the indigenous tribes dwindled so too did the knowledge of rooibos.

Commercial rooibos farming, which is currently worth an estimated 500 million rand a year, began on these lands in the early 1900s. In 2010, the San Council of South Africa approached the government with a claim under South Africa’s biodiversity law, asking for compensation for its peoples’ traditional knowledge of the plant and for the use of San imagery in rooibos packaging and marketing.

Natural Justice, a South African NGO working to defend the rights of indigenous communities, worked for many years with the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries to convince the rooibos industry to sign a benefit sharing agreement with the San and Khoi people.

The agreement, which was finalised last week, recognises the San and Khoi people’s claim to the rooibos plant as traditional knowledge, and features a provision for adequate compensation for its exploitation and commercialisation.

The government of South Africa also led a special investigation, which determined that: “There is no evidence that disputes that the Khoi and San are holders of Traditional Knowledge […] The Traditional Knowledge for Rooibos and Honeybush rests with the communities who originate in these areas.”

Lesle Jansen, an indigenous lawyer for Natural Justice who represented the National Khoi & San Council during the lengthy negotiations, said: “As environmental lawyers standing in solidarity with indigenous and local communities stewarding the environment, it is a proud moment to say that after a seven-year journey, a forgotten people now have their rights to free, prior and informed consent as traditional knowledge holders to the uses of Rooibos.

“Where previously it was said to be biotrade, merely being an “agricultural commodity”, Rooibos now gets its rightful place in South African law as a case for bioprospecting, with its traditional knowledge and its holders, the Khoikhoi and San, getting true recognition. Plants bring healing.”

Main Image Credit: Natural Justice

Natural Justice

Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She writes about lifestyles including sustainable and green living. She also offers content services to businesses and individuals at

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