South African Yams Are a Miracle Drug. Can They Be Saved?


It was a drug pro­duced in Nottingham in the United Kingdom that led us on a jour­ney to South Africa to visit muthi markets, archives, herbar­i­ums and nature reserves.

We spoke with traders, heal­ers, schol­ars and con­ser­va­tion­ists to learn more about Dioscorea sylvatica.

Dioscorea is a wild yam. Its name in dif­fer­ent lan­guages con­nects to its appear­ance – its rough skin resem­bles a tor­toise shell. It’s known as ‘Elephant’s Foot’ in English, in isiZulu ‘ing­w­e­vu’, mean­ing grey/old or ‘ifudu’, mean­ing tor­toise; in Sepedi the name is ‘Kgato’ – ‘to stamp’.

In the 1950s, the yam was heav­i­ly exploit­ed by the British phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal firm Boots for the pro­duc­tion of cor­ti­sone. But provin­cial con­ser­va­tion offi­cials in South Africa fought back against the plun­der­ing of a wild plant that they recog­nised was in danger of being exploit­ed to extinc­tion.

A fac­to­ry in Johannesburg

In 1949 sci­en­tists in the US announced the dra­mat­ic effects of a new drug, cortisone. It could be used to treat a vari­ety of ail­ments, from arthri­tis to aller­gies to lupus and skin con­di­tions. They found that cor­ti­sone could be made cheap­ly from diosgenin, extract­ed from Mexican wild yam species, and began a global search for sup­ple­men­tary plants.

By the early 1950s, South African botanists had iden­ti­fied Dioscorea syl­vat­i­ca as promis­ing. Boots, a major British phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny, was keen to devel­op a source of dios­genin to man­u­fac­ture cor­ti­cos­teroid med­i­cines and start­ed a fac­to­ry in Johannesburg in 1955 for the ini­tial stages of pro­cess­ing the plant.

Systematic extrac­tion began in the east­ern and north east­ern part of the coun­try, plun­der­ing a plant used by tra­di­tion­al heal­ers for muthi (tra­di­tion­al med­i­cine).

These actions weren’t a direct case of ‘biopira­cy’ – in the sense of an obvi­ous and delib­er­ate theft of indige­nous knowl­edge for profit. Nevertheless the exploita­tion of this plant took place against the back­drop of the his­to­ry of plant col­lec­tion and export from South Africa. Bioprospecting was facil­i­tat­ed by a longer process that involved draw­ing on a range of local knowl­edge in col­lec­tion and sci­en­tif­ic clas­si­fi­ca­tion.

Indigenous knowl­edge

The con­ver­sa­tions we had with South African tra­di­tion­al heal­ers in muthi mar­kets in Johannesburg and in Acornhoek, a rural area of Mpumalanga, brought up impor­tant ques­tions on knowl­edge, own­er­ship, plant exploita­tion, sys­tems of think­ing about dis­ease and heal­ing, and con­ser­va­tion.

The con­cept of med­i­cine (muthi) is very dif­fer­ent to the dom­i­nant phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal par­a­digm. Rather than a single drug to ‘cure’ a single dis­ease, ill-health and treat­ment are under­stood in a more holis­tic way.

When we went to meet heal­ers, we took along a piece of the yam bought from a muthi market in Johannesburg, as well as the 1950s Boots advert that had start­ed us off on this research.

Most of the heal­ers we met were famil­iar with the plant. Those who knew it described it as pow­er­ful with both top­i­cal and rit­u­al­is­tic uses for cleans­ing and pro­tec­tion.

The local knowl­edge that led to an inter­est in the plant from botanists and sci­en­tists is rarely record­ed in any detail in archives. We were inter­est­ed in how Boots in Nottingham came across a wild South African yam as a start­ing point for the man­u­fac­ture of cor­ti­sone.

The UK con­nec­tion

From our lim­it­ed con­ver­sa­tions with tra­di­tion­al heal­ers and look­ing at botan­i­cal records, it is clear that med­i­c­i­nal yams were known and used across many dif­fer­ent South African com­mu­ni­ties well before the steroid indus­try took an inter­est. However, inter­est in Dioscorea in the 1950s was trig­gered by US research on Mexican wild yams and a global search for sim­i­lar plants.

A South African botanist record­ed in the 1910s that the plant was used by African people for its saponins with med­ical prop­er­ties. A wider range of uses were men­tioned in The Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern Africa, first pub­lished in 1932.

In a 1950s report on their col­lec­tion for Boots’ South African col­lab­o­ra­tors Biochemico, there is a brief ref­er­ence to local knowl­edge:

The actual dig­ging was done by locals who need no more train­ing than to be shown an “ing­w­e­vu” plant (which the vast major­i­ty in that area know in any case) and the size of the tuber required.

The dig­ging referred to here is the extrac­tion of about 6,000 tonnes of wild yams. This was only cur­tailed when the plant pop­u­la­tion became endan­gered and South African gov­ern­ment con­ser­va­tion­ists stopped exploita­tion.

Natal Parks Boards offi­cers were uneasy about mass exploita­tion of a wild plant and attempt­ed to enforce strict con­di­tions.

By 1960, they suc­ceed­ed in ter­mi­nat­ing per­mits and Boots ceased pro­duc­tion of South African dios­genin. This was a sig­nif­i­cant case for a fledg­ling provin­cial con­ser­va­tion author­i­ty. The pro­tec­tion of plants such as D. syl­vat­i­ca attract­ed little public atten­tion and it is not a well-known story, but this episode was impor­tant in devel­op­ing insti­tu­tions and strate­gies for plant pro­tec­tion and state con­ser­va­tion more gen­er­al­ly.

Future pro­tec­tion

Healers in South Africa seem to be well aware of their posi­tion – car­ri­ers of tra­di­tion­al knowl­edge that could be lost, but also pro­tec­tors of knowl­edge they fear will be exploit­ed for profit with no ben­e­fit for them or their com­mu­ni­ties. Some have worked with cam­paign­ers and legal teams to test and record the effi­ca­cy of tra­di­tion­al plant med­i­cines, and to prove exist­ing knowl­edge, to gain recog­ni­tion that could lead to greater gov­ern­ment pro­tec­tion.

A land­mark case in 2003 saw the South African San Council sign a ben­e­fit shar­ing agreement with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research for the use of Hoodia as an appetite sup­pres­sant and diet drug. The legal strug­gle led by the San Council was even­tu­al­ly suc­cess­ful and influ­enced sub­se­quent leg­is­la­tion on indige­nous knowl­edge and ben­e­fit shar­ing.

For the Elephant’s Foot yam it’s 70 years too late. But it has a lot of sto­ries to tell.

This arti­cle by William Beinart, pro­fes­sor at Oxford University, first appeared in The Conversation.

Rebecca Beinart, an artist and researcher, accom­pa­nied the author – her father – and con­tributed to the research for this arti­cle.

This is the fifth arti­cle in a series on drug regimes in south­ern Africa. They are based on research done for a spe­cial edi­tion for the South African Historical Journal. Read the full paper over here.

Image: SalilMoolyath via WIkimedia Commons.

Source: National Interest

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