Laura Foster

University of Washington Press, 2017, 233 pp.

 Reviewed by Zahra Hayat


In Laura Foster’s Reinventing Hoodia – Peoples, Plants and Patents in South Africa, Hoodia gordonii, a succulent plant native to the Kalahari desert, serves as the nodal point for tracing the entanglements of social relations, property regimes, and nature in South Africa. Foster challenges science, law and nature’s naturalness, showing us in vivid ethnographic detail how these are constructed. The rigor of her engagement is evident from the start, when she unsettles Hoodia’s identity and stability as a monolith, and lays out “three different meanings and materialities of the same plant” (4): as a molecule patented by the CSIR (South Africa’s Council for Science and Industrial Research); as a plant found in nature; and as cultivated and dried for use as a herbal supplement. Foster shows how different actors—the indigenous South African San people, hoodia growers, and CSIR scientists—attach different meaning and value to these three materialities of hoodia, and thereby, make unequal claims for belonging in post-colonial, post-apartheid South Africa.

The power of Foster’s analysis lies, in part, in her thorough interweaving of various registers of marginality: gender, race, indigeneity and postcoloniality. She shows us the enmeshments of these exclusionary histories and their contemporary (re)enactments, routed through hoodia as material plant, and as repository of aspiration, disappointment, and exclusion. To do so, Foster adopts a feminist decolonial technoscience approach. She acknowledges the scope and depth of the scholarly literature, especially by South African authors, that interrogates intellectual property and concomitant benefit sharing agreements, but notes that it does not address the gendered assumptions undergirding patent law, and more broadly, knowledge claims. Similarly, she critiques U.S. feminist studies scholarship for addressing the gendered exclusions of patent law but leaving out its devaluation of indigenous knowledge. For this, she turns to the work of indigenous and Native feminist scholars as one of her core theoretical resources, thus stepping beyond the Western academy’s narrow citational universe, and performing her argument for decoloniality via her own citational ethics.

In an unusually explicit—and in that, very welcome—acknowledgement of her anxieties about perpetuating hierarchies given her own positionality as a white researcher and her Native informants, she details the efforts she made to avoid functioning as an agent of “ethnographic entrapment”, where Native peoples are perceived as knowable subjects possessing an essential, discoverable truth. These include her deep academic engagement with indigenous studies, and practices of reciprocity with her interlocutors, including sharing with them the benefits of her access to research literature via the Western academy, as well as her own expertise in the form of, for example, reviewing their grant proposals.

As a former corporate lawyer versed in patent law, black letter patent law—especially as taught in U.S. classrooms—is Foster’s recurring foil; this risks slipping into obviousness, since for many of her readers in the social sciences and humanities, challenging the law’s claims to objectivity would be the starting point of any analysis about the law. But she is able to deploy this foil effectively, showing its particular elisions in her specific research context, and presenting an alternative pedagogy by outlining how she would teach a law class on hoodia patents.

Foster focuses explicitly on both human and non human actors and their interrelationships; the book’s protagonists include the indigenous San of South Africa; CSIR scientists (and CSIR’s global partners in Big Pharma, Pfizer and Phytopharm); hoodia growers; CSIR’s hoodia patent; the San-CSIR benefit-sharing agreement, and of course hoodia itself, in its various avatars. Foster’s argument unfolds by tracking Hoodia’s different materialities and scales, with a chapter dedicated to each. Chapter 1 (‘Colonial Science and Hoodia as a Scientific Object’) traverses San history in South Africa from the precolonial period onwards, situating San struggles against patent ownership of hoodia within the growth of Empire in South Africa and the central role patents played in this—Foster shows how science and empire were inextricably connected. She contests colonial tropes of San passivity, savagery and non-humanness, and of nature as a stable entity awaiting discovery, by showing how both hoodia and San have acted as dynamic subjects, responding variously to political and economic changes. Chapter 2 (‘San demands for Benefits by Knowing !Khoba as a Plant from Nature’) focuses on hoodia on the scale of a plant from nature—!Khoba is the San term for hoodia in its ‘wild’ manifestation, versus as patented molecule or cultivated plant. Foster shows how San relationships with !Khoba and the plant’s deep connections to San heritage and identity shaped San reactions to CSIR’s patent and their own demands for benefit sharing. Especially powerful here is Foster’s analysis of how San peoples had to represent themselves as both modern and nonmodern as they entered the historic benefit sharing agreement with CSIR. Chapter 3 (‘South African Scientists and the Patenting of Hoodia as a Molecule’) gets into the weeds of hoodia chemistry, and patent law regimes in South Africa and the U.S. Foster shows how the knowledge claims made by CSIR scientists were in some aspects aligned with those made by San. Indigenous and scientific knowledge thus emerge as less distinct as is usually assumed, unsettling the hierarchy between them. Foster also compellingly shows the fraught relationship between patent rights on hoodia and the material properties of hoodia—the relationship, in other words, between property form and property object, showing that neither is clearly demarcated and monolithic. Hoodia is the recalcitrant, rebellious protagonist of Chapter 4 (‘Botanical Drug Discovery of Hoodia, from Solid Drug to Liquid Food’), refusing, in the evocative San metaphor, “to stand still and be caught” (88).  Non human agency takes center stage in this chapter, which focuses on hoodia as plant, drug and food. The final chapter, Chapter 5 (‘Hoodia Growers and the Making of Hoodia as a Cultivated Plant’), turns to hoodia not as a ‘wild’ plant found in nature, or a molecule in the laboratory, but as cultivated. By training attention on a benefit sharing agreement between San and hoodia growers, Foster further complicates the reductive ‘South African vs. Westerner’ binary, situating historically the cleavages and alignments among South African claimants to hoodia.

Foster’s ethnographically rich account makes a welcome contribution to social studies of science, law, and indigeneity, but also to feminist scholarship more broadly, contributions evident (also) in her own methodological and citational practices.

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