Do indigenous groups need rules for researchers?

The San people are one of the most studied indigenous groups on earth. Their click languages and hunter-gatherer lifestyles have fascinated researchers for decades. Now, the !Xun, Khwe, and !Khomani group leaders, who represent around 8,000 people in South Africa, have come up with a set of ethical guidelines for researchers to follow.

What does this mean for researchers, and why is this so important?

“It’s not a question of not doing the research. It’s a question of doing it right,” says Hennie Swart, director of the South African San Institute.

Ethical guidelines like these are not new. Indigenous groups in Australia have previously drawn up their own guidelines for researchers, but this is thought to be the first time such a code has been made in Africa.

While the code is not legally binding, it gives San groups more of a say in how research into their culture is conducted. According to the code, researchers would have to first submit their proposals to San councils for initial approval and then discuss, with the councils, the benefits the communities would receive from the studies. These potential benefits include monetary and non-monetary gains, such as co-research opportunities. Institutions whose researchers do not comply could be blacklisted from conducting future studies.

It may sound extreme, but exploitation of indigenous communities by scientists has been occurring for years. A common practice is biopiracy. Biopiracy occurs when local knowledge is used to appropriate and commercialise a natural material, such as biochemical and genetic material, without fair compensation to the locals. For example, the patent-holder for a variety of Mexican yellow bean (called the Enola bean) sued several importers of the beans, resulting in a 90 per cent decrease in exports and financial damage to over 20,000 farmers in Mexico.

Another example is the weight loss supplements derived from hoodia, a plant traditionally used as an appetite suppressor by the San people, from which the communities were not originally supposed to receive benefit.

While organisations are now more careful to not cross the line between biopiracy and bioprospecting (the legal and ethical version of commercialising a natural material), there are many other issues that need to be considered. Respecting privacy and obtaining informed consent are necessary when conducting studies involving people. A major catalyst for the San’s new code was a study in 2010 which published the genome sequences of several people in southern Africa, including four San men. The study had been approved by the ethics committees of the researchers’ home universities and the Namibian government, but San leaders had not been consulted. While the individuals had given verbal consent, the leaders raised concerns about the acquisition of informed consent through a translator. The same study had also referred to the San as “bushmen”, a term which is considered derogatory and derives from European colonialism. The proposed guidelines explicitly states communities have input in the research to avoid cultural sensitivities.

The research community appears supportive of the code. However, Stephen Schuster of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore asks how one San council in South Africa can represent the views of other San groups.

It remains to be seen whether these new guidelines will make a difference in research practices. But it’s a step forward in respecting the rights of indigenous people in Africa and making sure they have a say.

Image: Mario Micklisch via Flicker

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