Having recently completed her thesis, Claudette Muller gives an update on her study of the buchu industry.

Buchu is an aromatic shrub that grows only in selected mountainous areas of the Western Cape. First used by the indigenous Khoi and San for medicinal and cultural purposes, the plant later became an Afrikaner folk remedy in the form of a brandy (boegoe-brandewyn) and a vinegar (boegoe-asyn). Identified by its characteristic ‘minty’ smell, buchu has been exported to Europe and America since the 1800s where it was extensively used as a panacea health remedy in the form of tinctures and teas. Today, the plant is processed into teas, capsules, health drinks and lotions for the treatment of rheumatism, arthritis, gout, kidney and bladder afflictions, hypertension and wounds. The plant is, however, mainly valued for its essential oil which is exported for use in international flavour and fragrance industries. Historically collected from the wild, buchu is now cultivated on a large scale in the Cederberg, Piketberg and the Paarl/Wellington region. Wild harvesting of the plant is limited to two rural communities located in the Cederberg, Elandskloof and Algeria, both of which have a long-standing history of use and trade of the plant.

My master’s research took me to the broader Cederberg region to investigate the local buchu industry, specifically looking at the role of the cultivation of the plant in local livelihoods and the conservation of the two commercial species, Agathosma betulina and Agathosma crenulata. Interviews with buchu harvesters, rural buchu farmers, commercial farmers, industry representatives and other key informants revealed that the buchu trade epitomises internationally traded commodities which are characterised by erratic market conditions and accompanying price fluctuations. The most recent example was in the 2000s when soaring prices, accompanied by the over-exploitation of the plant in the wild, were followed by a devastating crash in the buchu market around the time of the global financial crisis of 2007/2008. Since then the industry has become far less lucrative.

Although the price of buchu is low at present, the biennial harvesting of communal buchu remains an important economic activity for harvester communities, especially for the poorest members, many of whom are not permanently employed. The cultivation of buchu, however, has played a limited role in local livelihoods primarily due to the limited capacity of the rural poor to engage in cultivation. In addition, failed attempts by government, industry and research institutions to assist communities to farm with buchu has resulted in cultivation mainly being confined to large-scale, commercial operations in the hands of wealthy farmers and private processing companies.

The findings of my research also shed light on the shortcomings of national access and benefit-sharing legislation which has failed to secure commercial benefits for the rural poor involved in the trade. While legal provisions have managed to protect the rights of traditional knowledge holders through the conclusion of agreements with representative San and Khoi councils, those directly involved in the trade who also hold traditional knowledge of buchu and who can be considered the current ‘custodians’ of buchu, have not been included in negotiations and have yet to benefit from formal agreements. From an environmental perspective, the cultivation of buchu has contributed to the conservation of the plant in the wild through offsetting harvesting pressures experienced by wild populations, but has also contributed to the destruction of naturally occurring vegetation. Findings call for improved transparency and communication within the industry, which is notoriously competitive and secretive, as well as stricter enforcement of conservation regulations and more appropriate implementation of benefit-sharing regulations to ensure the overall sustainability of the trade.