Nelly Bassily | May 17, 2010
Nguni Diyasen gently loosens the earth with a hoe and then widens the hole with her bare hands. Fifty centimetres down, she uncovers the light brown root of devil’s claw.
She cuts off a tuber the size of her forearm. Ms. Diyasen explains that the vital tap root of the plant is left intact. This ensures proper re-growth. She carefully closes the hole when she is finished. This allows the plant to be harvested again in the future.
Ms. Diyasen is a member of the Khwe, a community of the San people, the original inhabitants of northeast Namibia. It is mostly the women and the elderly who harvest devil’s claw. This traditional medicinal plant is found in countries such as Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. It has been used for centuries to treat a number of conditions, including fever, skin conditions, arthritis and rheumatism. “If your leg is bent and you can’t get it straight, you use this plant,” explains harvester Dickson Spreuke.
On average, devil’s claw earns the harvesters 50 American dollars (about 40 Euros) per season. This lasts from June to October. “Any harvester spends as much as six weeks collecting his quota,” says Johannes Litcholo of Omega village in northeast Namibia.
Devil’s claw was recognized by the pharmaceutical industry in the 1960s. Increased interest in natural remedies has increased demand sharply in recent years. Namibia is the biggest exporter of devil’s claw. Most of it goes to Germany for processing.
Trade in devil’s claw used to be unregulated and unsustainable. Harvesters would get a very low price. But the harvesters know where to find the plants. Crucially, they also know how soon they can return to collect from a previously harvested plant.
Continued demand for the product is a good sign. But despite this, and their sustainable management practices, the Khwe still struggle to earn a good living.
Various organizations have been working in the area to ensure that harvesters are involved in managing and developing a sustainable harvesting industry. This includes getting a fair price. They were recently successful in getting devil’s claw certified as organic.
The harvesters hoped this would bring higher prices. But last year the price dropped by half. This was caused by the recession and stockpiling by producers. “We hope to get three American dollars per kilogram this year,” says Mr. Litcholo. But the exporter offered a disappointing one dollar thirty per kilogram for the 2010 harvest.
Increasing development, tourism, climate change and pollution all threaten the area’s biodiversity. Despite these difficulties and external pressures such as the world markets, the Khwe will continue their harvest. “Because this is a national park where animals live we can’t start businesses, or hunt, like in the old days,” clarifies Litcholo.
With their centuries-old skills and knowledge of the area, the Khwe could be instrumental in protecting its precious natural resources. They will continue to safeguard devil’s claw as their only source of income.