South African lawyer Roger Chennells spoke to about 50 people yesterday about his efforts to protect the intellectual property of indigenous South African peoples whose traditional knowledge may yield miracle drugs.

Chennells discussed the delicate balance between protecting the rights of aboriginal peoples such as the South African San and not allowing the profits that these rights entail to poison their traditional ways of life during his lecture at the Graduate Hall of Studies. Chennells’ presentation was the first in the fall 2004 Race, Health and Medicine lecture series, a joint effort of the Department of African-American Studies, the Council on African Studies and the Yale Law School.

On behalf of the San, Chennells recently negotiated a settlement with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer over patent rights to potential appetite suppressants extracted from Hoodia, which Chennells said is the most promising of a “pharmacy” of traditional remedies. Eating the fruit of the Hoodia, a type of cactus native to the Kalahari Desert, makes a person feel very full, he said, and for millennia, San hunter-gatherers have used it to stave off hunger.

Chennells said the San asked him to file suit against Pfizer only after resolving a few dilemmas of intellectual property. The income that patent rights can bring has fractured other indigenous societies, he said, leading to alcoholism and the breakup of families. On the other hand, he said, revenue from patents can enhance cultural preservation efforts. Chennells said he thought San leaders ultimately saw eschewing ownership of nature as a “very expensive principle.”

Instead, he said, they adopted the attitude that “this is [their] moment. Go with it: it won’t come again.”

In an attempt to describe the difficulty of being a Western-educated negotiator among a people largely unfamiliar with the “materialistic” outside world, Chennells said, “Everything I’ve done has question marks about it.”

Hoodia has not produced the miracle drugs that researchers hoped for, Chennells said, but he said one corporation will soon release a snack food containing Hoodia that could keep people full from mid-morning until night. While Chennells declined to identify the company, he said the San-endorsed product would be available in “about a year’s time.”

Sociology and African American studies professor Alondra Nelson, one of the organizers of the lecture, said the issue is a pressing one.

“Indigeneity is its own minority category,” she said.

Neil Chatani ’08, a student in Nelson’s “Health, Culture, and Society” course, said the lecture helped him see intellectual property issues from a new perspective. Indigenous peoples “subject to the ramifications of these issues — still have intellectual property that needs to be respected,” Chatani said.