black&white #35: Rooibos and indigenous knowledge
3 min steep
Around this time last year, we wrote about a landmark occasion in tea: rooibos was being added to the EU’s list of products with a protected designation of origin (PDO)– joining gastronomic giants like champagne, parmesan and prosciutto di parma, as well as other world-renowned teas like Darjeeling and Puerh. Like the other products in the PDO category, true rooibos is grown following a traditional process specific to that region of South Africa.
The certification was long overdue. Grown in the rocky, sun-baked earth of the Cederberg Mountains in South Africa, rooibos leaves have been harvested and drunk by the Khoi and San indigenous people for centuries. But in recent years, rooibos had been appropriated by large corporations in an attempt to stay on-trend – without credit being given to the local producers and communities who nurtured and protected the indigenous plant. In 2013, for example, a french company attempted to trademark ‘rooibos’ for their skincare products (they implied the tea’s high levels of antioxidants would improve skin health).
Harvesting wild rooibos in the Cederberg mountains of South Africa.
At Canton, we source our wild rooibos from the Wupperthal Original Rooibos Cooperative – a small-scale co-operative of Khoi and San farmers, many of whom are from families who have been farming rooibos for generations. The managing director Barend Salomo recently spoke to the FT about rooibos’ recent surge in popularity:
‘Rooibos was long looked down on as “a poor man’s drink”, Salomo recalls — but, when it became sought after worldwide, “they built an industry on this knowledge of ours”.’
In response to these problems, an agreement was drawn up between the wider rooibos industry and the Khoi and San communities, recognising the contribution of indigenous knowledge to rooibos production for the first time – and agreeing to a revenue sharing deal to hand back some of the economic benefits. Under the arrangement, the industry would pay 1.5% of the price of rooibos it acquires into a fund designed to help local communities: this could include financial assistance with university or land purchases. But two years laters, due to administrative issues, the communities of the Cederberg mountains are yet to see any of the promised benefits.
It’s a real blow. Many had hoped that this landmark deal would pave the way for others, creating a legal precedent that protected agricultural resource rights and traditional knowledge bases of indigenous peoples.
Indigenous knowledge is at least beginning to be recognised in other ways. As the world’s temperature continues to rise, policy-makers are starting to look towards the knowledge of indigenous communities around the world for solutions. Why? Because although they make up only 4% of the world’s population, they use 22% of the world’s land surface – and in doing so, maintain huge swathes of the planet’s biodiversity. Their in-depth knowledge and understanding of the territories and landscapes they have lived in for generations is therefore invaluable – and they have a unique ability to cope with and adapt to environmental change in their geographies. They are also some of the most at-risk communities for severe and dangerous early climate change impacts.
A Wupperthal Co-operative worker processing wild rooibos.
So many of the plants we consume – whether they’re used as teas, in food or even life-saving medicines – are the result of centuries of careful nurturing and skill-sharing by indigenous communities such as the Khoi and San peoples of South Africa. And it’s time they were compensated for it. The Wupperthal Original Rooibos Cooperative is one group leading the way – but there are countless other groups who are also fighting for fairness. How can tea drinkers make a difference? Buy from suppliers who source directly from small-scale farmers and cooperatives, and pay them properly.