The commodification of traditional knowledge is a lively topic for academic debate, with opinions ranging from categorical rejection of this process, to views that it could be a liberating act. This debate is often characterised by generalisations and a lack of empirical engagement. This paper presents a case study of the commercialisation of traditional medicinal knowledge of the San in Southern Africa. A scenario survey in 3 communities reveals a range of different views amongst individuals and communities, much of which could be linked to differing local and historic socio-economic factors. Although the survey indicates that commodification is widely accepted, the subsequent use of a ‘life story’ approach to examine the actual commercialisation of the Hoodia (Hoodia Gordonii—a plant with appetite suppressant properties), shows that this acceptance is problematic. San informants reflect on it as a pragmatic choice informed by experiences of deprivation and economic hardship, resulting in a process which changes the cultural meaning of the plant and undermine its traditional healing power for the San themselves.
The final, definitive version of this article has been published in the Journal, Applied Geography 28 (3), 2008, © ELSEVIER.