People all over the world last year paid more than $400 billion for pharmaceuticals, nearly half of which were discovered in the wild. The reefs and rain forests that yielded those discoveries are found primarily in countries with no pharmaceutical industry, so the compounds were patented and sold by foreign companies. Without a share of the proceeds, the stewards of the world's biodiversity have no incentive to preserve it. So 11 years ago ecologists, indigenous peoples and governments united to bring the profits home. Since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 168 nations have signed the Convention on Biological Diversity and committed themselves to sharing the benefits that come from bioprospecting.
So far the convention hasn't worked. The laws it inspired rely on the sales of blockbuster drugs--which take decades to develop--while destructive industries such as logging pay off immediately. Now some countries are looking for profits in the beginning of the drug development process instead of waiting for a final product--and realizing the dreams of the convention.
This article was originally published with the title Refining Green Gold.