In 1992 parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) agreed to develop and implement policies to regulate and facilitate access to genetic resources (AGR). We examine regulations and agreements in Brazil, Colombia, and the Philippines in detail and discuss how these countries are implementing the AGR mandate. In particular, we evaluate progress toward achieving the CBD objectives of conserving biological diversity, using its components in a sustainable manner, and equitably sharing the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources. We highlight the difficulties in developing and implementing these policies, arising from the conflicting goals of regulating and facilitating AGR, as well as the special character of genetic resources, existing ex situ collections, issues of ownership and tenure, and the dearth of legal, institutional, and scientific capacity in many countries. We recommend (1) independent, multidisciplinary evaluation of the success of the access policy in achieving CBD objectives, (2) resolution of the conflict between traditional land tenure and legal property rights of genetic resources so as to match conservation obligations with benefit-sharing rights, (3) recognition that benefits obtained from AGR may be entirely non-monetary, and (4) that countries provide a ‘two-track’ AGR application process separately for commercial and non-commercial users.