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Storm in a Teacup

For generations, the indigenous Khoisan people of South Africa's rugged Cederberg Mountains harvested the leaves of wild rooibos plants to brew tea and make herbal medicines. Once considered a 'poor man's drink', the antioxidant-rich, caffeine-free infusion is now a mainstay of trendy cafe menus from New York to Tokyo, its growing popularity driven by its purported health benefits. Exports from South Africa have shot up from just 500 tons in 1996 to nearly 9,000 tons today - the equivalent of some 3.6 billion teabags.

One Khoisan rooibos farmer described the plant as: 'A part of our culture... a part of us'.

Yet until now, the Khoisan have been sidelined from this global industry built on the back of their knowledge. Ever since the crop was first commercialised at the start of the 20th century, the industry has been dominated by the descendants of white settlers. Long ago dispossessed of their land, the role of the Khoisan was largely restricted to providing cheap labour for commercial farmers. During apartheid, their status was further diminished.

Now, after the signing of an unprecedented benefit-sharing agreement between the Khoisan and the country's farmers, indigenous farming communities are finally poised to cash in. The deal, which will see a percentage of the value of all unprocessed rooibos given to the Khoisan, marks the first time an entire industry has ever agreed to share profits with an indigenous group for the contribution of their traditional knowledge.

'It was like a part of our dignity was being restored,' said Khoisan activist and rooibos farmer, Barend Salomo, who took part in the negotiations. 'I can't describe the emotions that went through me.

'Amid growing recognition of the need to compensate indigenous peoples for the commercialisation of their 'genetic resources', activists hope the deal will help to spur similar arrangements elsewhere, driving change for a fairer and more equitable world.

In the Khoisan villages of the Cederberg region, rooibos money is now starting to make an impact. With farmers already getting higher prices for their crops and with the benefit-sharing revenue set to be channelled into community initiatives, there is a sense of optimism that the global rooibos boom will, at last, provide some material benefits.
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