Agenda: To save the Earth

The global Earth Summit in Rio struggles to reach agreement

MARK NICHOLS June 15 1992

Agenda: To save the Earth

The global Earth Summit in Rio struggles to reach agreement

MARK NICHOLS June 15 1992

Agenda: To save the Earth


The global Earth Summit in Rio struggles to reach agreement

Tshering Tashi says that his country does not have serious environmental problems—yet. Tashi, who heads the environmental secretariat of the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, was in Rio de Janeiro last week to attend the opening of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). He said that his heavily forested country may be able to avoid serious environmental problems in the future because of traditional Bhutanese attitudes towards nature. “As Buddhists,” said Tashi, “we do not like to kill living things, not even trees.” But Tashi acknowledged that few nations share that reverential attitude. Indeed, the huge Rio meeting, billed as the largest conference ever held, was summoned for the purpose of drawing up a set of international agreements and principles aimed at slowing the ecological degradation that many environmentalists and scientists say is threatening the future of the planet. In the past, declared Canadian millionaire industrialist Maurice Strong, who is secretary general of the conference, the human race “has been the most successful species ever.” But, he warned,

“we are now a species out of control.”

The 12-day conference, which opened on June 3 and brought together an estimated 30,000 delegates, nongovernmental participants and journalists from more than 170 nations, faced problems of its own. Elements of virtually all of the conference’s planned policy formulations— including the Rio Declaration, a charter of environmental principles, and Agenda 21, a formidably detailed blueprint for the next century—were under fire from nations or blocs of nations, environmental critics or interest groups.

The argumentative mood of the Earth Summit, as the conference is popularly known, resulted in emergency efforts to keep the deliberations on course. Even before the conference got under way, the 93-member Canadian delegation spearheaded a drive to keep alive the conference’s proposed convention to preserve the planet’s dwindling storehouse of plant and animal life. That effort arose after U.S. officials announced that they would not sign the document in its existing form. While the American position on the so-called biodiversity issue left the United States increasingly

isolated at the conference, members of other delegations credited Canada with playing a major role in saving the convention. Declared Ole Simonsen, a parliamentarian with the Danish delegation: “Canada’s role in this has been very important.”

Other key conference proposals were also under attack, including a watered-down con-

vention to combat the threat of global warming. Washington agreed to sign the document, which is intended to serve as the basis for a future international protocol, only after negotiators at pre-conference talks removed specific targets and deadlines to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Although there is no irrefutable scientific evidence of global warming, many scientists say that manmade CO2, pumped into the Earth’s atmosphere as a result of the combustion of fossil fuels, will eventually cause the planet to heat up, bringing on widespread flooding in low-lying countries, inland droughts and wholesale extinction of species. Annoyed by Washington’s refusal to agree to

targets for reducing CO2, Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands have drawn up their own agreement with specific targets as a way of putting pressure on Washington.

At the same time, sections of the forwardlooking Agenda 21, which was jointly created by bureaucrats from more than 100 nations, were also being contested. The most contentious proposals attempt to lay down guidelines to curb pollution, ease global poverty and curtail the over-consumption of resources by the industrialized world. One section on the protection and management of the world’s forests that was strongly supported by Canada came under heavy attack from Malaysia and other developing nations whose officials say that they resent being told by the developed nations how they should manage their forests.

Underlying all the other disputes at the convention was the difficult issue of just who would pay for the lofty goals of environmental reform that the conference planners envisage. But no real breakthrough was expected before the summit-level phase of the conference late this week, when more than 120 heads of state and government, including Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, arrive in Rio. Members of several delegations predicted that Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa would commit between $10 billion and $20 billion to environmental projects and the alleviation of poverty in the Third World.

Some experts said that Japan’s action could lead the United States, Canada and other industrialized nations to make similarly expansive contributions. Said Johannah Bernstein, national co-ordinator of the Canadian Participatory Committee for UNCED, an umbrella organization representing hundreds of Canadian nongovernment organizations at the meeting: “This conference could end with a show of enormous goodwill.”

While delegates streamed in and out of the handsome 645,600-square-foot Riocentro conference complex about 30 km west of Rio, another, less inhibited gathering took place in and around Rio’s downtown oceanside Flamengo Park. Called the Global Forum, a nongovernmental companion piece to the Earth Summit, its founders designed it to give environmental and religious organizations, aborigi-

nal peoples and other interested groups a way of participating in the summit. Drawing an estimated 20,000 visitors daily, one session last week featured discussions on religion, ecology and other global issues, including one called “Transforming Consciousness and Economy,” and a workshop on computer networking.

At night, Brazilian and international musicians performed at free concerts at the Forum Amphitheatre. The scent of marijuana in the air contributed to the forum’s image as an environmental Woodstock. But the forum, too, had problems: late last week, organizers were scrambling to raise $2 million to avert a shutdown by unpaid firms providing sound, lighting and security services.

At Riocentro, efforts were under way even before the conference began to save the draft convention on biodiversity from collapsing. Canadian delegates said that Washington’s unexpected attack on the draft document five days before the conference began posed a risk that other nations might also withdraw their support. For one thing, Washington objected to a proposal for the developed nations to contrib-

ute money to poorer countries so that they would be better able to protect endangered species. U.S. officials were adamant that contributions should be managed by a two-year-old fund known as the Global Environmental Facility, which is partly controlled by the Washington-based World Bank.

The developing nations, which have most of the world’s biodiversity on their territory and are deeply suspicious of the World Bank, were pressing for a separate new fund. Washington objected because donor nations such as the United States would not have any control over the money, as they would over funds channelled through the Global Environmental Facility.

American officials also said that they were troubled by the draft biodiversity convention’s declaration that there should be an “equitable sharing” of the benefits of commercially exploited genetic resources. That would require pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms, many of them American, to share profits from products that they develop from plant or animal materials with the countries where those materials originated. Washington also objected to a

clause encouraging developed nations to share environmentally safe technology with Third World nations.

U.S. officials maintained that it infringed the principles of intellectual property rights. And despite an appeal last week from the chief U.S. negotiator at Rio, William Reilly, to reverse its stand on biodiversity because of the hostile reaction he was getting at the conference, the White House declined to change its position. Reilly’s confidential memorandum, provided to The New York Times by an administration source, noted that Washington’s refusal to sign a treaty protecting plants and animals “is the major source of press and delegate concern here.” After turning down Reilly’s request to change position, President George Bush expressed full confidence in the negotiator and said that he “deplored” the fact that the correspondence had become public. Earlier, Bush said that he will not alter his policies just because of “criticism from what I consider some of the extremes in the environmental movement, internationally or domestically.”

The issue galvanized the Canadian delegation at Rio. Canada’s chief negotiator on the biodiversity convention was Montreal lawyer Arthur Campeau, who also served as Mulroney’s personal representative during the preparatory meetings for the sumI mit. Said Campeau: “This convention is! says that all forms of human activity § must be consistent with the objective & of preserving biological diversity. But < the Americans sort of start with a £ different perspective—that trade and “ property rights are supreme.” He said that the convention was vitally impor-

--tant “because it concerns the web of

life on this planet.” Declared Campeau: “We want to help overcome U.S. objections, but if it means an attempt to water down the convention, we won’t do it.”

Environment Minister Jean Charest, who is leading Canada’s delegation in Rio, said that his department had deliberately differed with the U.S. position on biodiversity. The Canadians also pressed other delegations, including Britain’s, not to drop their support for the convention. “We are not trying to gang up on the United States,” said Charest. “But we are not going to back off either.”

The struggle over the biodiversity convention was likely to be only the first of many at Rio, as the pressing needs of an environmentally threatened planet are weighed against the needs and ambitions of nations. According to Bhutan’s Tshering Tashi, the Rio conference will be a success if the nations of the world can “commit themselves to fighting to save the environment as a whole.” With so much riding on the summit’s outcome, Tashi’s prescription seemed difficult, but not impossible, to achieve.

MARK NICHOLS in Rio de Janeiro