Portrait of Miss Huce Kgao, a woman From the San Tribe in Namibia taken in 2010

The San communities of southern Africa have drawn up a code of ethics for researchers.Credit: Eric Lafforgue/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

Nine years. That’s how long it took representatives of South Africa’s rooibos tea industry to agree to compensate the Indigenous San and Khoi communities for their peoples’ contribution to the development of the 500-million-rand (US$33.6-million) industry.

It is a landmark agreement — the first such deal that applies to an entire industry — but it should not have taken so long to complete, and it could have been negotiated without some of the recriminations now being heard. Whereas the Indigenous communities and the government — which brokered the deal — are celebrating, industry isn’t, and says that the agreement could threaten jobs.

Researchers whose work involves collaborating with Indigenous communities will be wondering what they can learn from this case. One important lesson is that there are more harmonious ways to work collaboratively with Indigenous communities.

One reason why the rooibos agreement was nine years in the making is that tea-industry representatives, concerned about risks to their intellectual property, contested the communities’ claim that rooibos tea is based on centuries-old Indigenous knowledge of the plant. That led to a prolonged stalemate between the two sides.

San community representatives first wrote to South Africa’s government in 2010 arguing that, under the law, they are entitled to a share in the tea industry’s profits because it had used their traditional knowledge.

The communities felt they had a good case: the rooibos plant (Aspalathus linearis) is endemic to South Africa’s Cederberg region, which was inhabited by San and Khoi communities long before settlers from Europe forcibly took their lands. The government commissioned a review of the historical and ethnobotanical literature, which concluded in 2014 that there is a strong probability that rooibos tea had Indigenous origins, and said that there was nothing in the literature to contradict the community’s claims.

The industry had reservations about these findings, arguing that there is little published scientific evidence that explicitly states that the ancestors of today’s San and Khoi communities were the first to brew rooibos teas. It went on to commission its own study, which supported its side of the argument — and added another three years to the timeline.

Two studies reviewing essentially the same historical literature and coming to different conclusions is not unusual. Records of historical events — and even records of recent ones — are often open to interpretation. But however the research is interpreted, there’s a moral case to compensate long-mistreated groups. The government advised the tea industry that it needs to pay the communities, which will receive 1.5% of the ‘farm gate price’ — that paid by agribusinesses for unprocessed rooibos.

Research and commerce have different reasons for wanting access to traditional knowledge, but both have the ability to do so without sharing the credit or the potential benefits with those who generated it. This is what concerns the Indigenous communities the most and was the motivation, two years ago, for the San communities’ production of a code of ethics for researchers. The code urges scientists to be up front about their intentions, to follow through on promises to share publication credit and, where possible, to build community capacity for Indigenous groups to do their own studies.

The ethics code and the rooibos agreement are small steps towards a bigger demand: that Indigenous people, especially those whose ancestors lost lives, land and livelihoods during more than a century of exploitation, are treated fairly and as equals.

When researchers work with communities as partners, all sides can expect to enjoy more constructive relationships and to benefit from knowledge. Industry must do the same.