After two weeks of negotiations, the delegates at the UN conference on biological diversity agreed on targets for slowing species extinction and ecosystem destruction, although methods to enforce these laws and ensuring funding for poor nations are still in question.
Meanwhile, the representatives signed off on a landmark agreement known as the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits (ABS). As one journalist put it, "under the new protocol, 193 parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity will be legally obliged to follow rules designed to prevent biopiracy and provide benefits, including financial ones, to other parties when their genetic resources are accessed." In other words, when knowledge of the healing properties of certain plants would end up in the hands of pharmaceutical companies, it used to be the case that these corporations would turn the plant extracts into medicine, enjoy large profits, and share nothing with the people who initially provided the access to the plants. Often, it is developing countries and aboriginal peoples who lose out in this equation. The new protocol outlines a system for sharing the profits and benefits more equitably.
Hopefully during the next meeting in 2012, more ambitious biodiversity protection targets can be set, and we can convince the United States to participate in (rather than just observe) the proceedings.
More details can be found here and here.