As scientific and business interests from the developed world scour the earth in pursuit of natural materials that might be put to economic use, the question that goes with them is: what benefit will there be to the people of the land where something useful is found and extracted?
In November 2010, there was one thorny issue that kept international negotiations about the UN Convention on Biological Diversity going on into the early hours of the morning. That issue was access and benefit sharing (ABS) and the resulting Nagoya Protocol, in which signatory countries to the UN Convention agreed to set a target for 17% of the earth to be covered by protected zones, would not have been possible without some sort of agreement on ABS.
Developing countries said they would not agree to a target unless there was an agreement to share the benefits of natural resources with indigenous peoples. They also insisted that these rules should retroactively cover all years from the convention's establishment in 1993, but this demand was rejected by the developed countries. Companies in developed countries, especially in the pharmaceutical sector, felt such rules would be too cumbersome.
A compromise eventually emerged: the developing countries dropped their insistence on retroactive credit, and the developed countries agreed to set rules on how access to natural resources could be gained and how the profits derived from them should be shared. Countries will have to transpose the ABS requirements into national law, and companies will have to reimburse indigenous people for natural resources extracted in their territory.
But, significantly, the United States, home to the world's largest pharmaceutical sector and the centre of pharmaceutical research, is not a signatory to either the convention or the protocol. So American companies will not have to share the benefits of extraction, but companies from the 193 countries that are signatories to the convention will have to do so.