Fueling the southern world; Most of Earth's nations seek to save forests, use renewable fuels

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Led by a brass band and boy scouts, a procession of 700 Kenyan women, mostly poor villagers, marched to the UN Conference on new and renewable energy sources here carrying tree seedlings and such signs as "our energy crisis is firewood" and "fuel--will we be too late?"

African dancers, massed along the route to greet heads of state and themselves mostly women, spontaneously cheered the marchers with piercing ululations, their tongues rippling on their palates to produce an ear-splitting sound.

It was a particularly rousing African spectacle. Canada's Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, among the officials who spoke to the women, told them he had been listening to a great many speeches. "I coundn't help thinking we were a lot of politicians and bureaucrats," he said, "and wondering whether our debate is related to reality."

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When it gets down to reality, the Nairobi conference may essentially be setting the stage for President Reagan's role at the so-called North-South talks in Cancun, Mexico, in October.

For the United States seems increasingly isolated here. A consensus among the other 140 nations represented in Nairobi, both third world and industrialized, is to fund something like the World Bank's proposed new energy affiliate to finance development of a variety of energy sources in the third world.

This is seen as the best way to help the poor countries meet their oil needs and get the capital they will need to develop such alternative sources of energy as solar and hydropower and massive reforestation.

In a recent Treasury analysis, the Reagan administration opposed creating the new World Bank energy affiliate. The American delegation here has emphasized the need for more efficient use of existing institutions and primary reliance on private enterprise. President Reagan will propose a doubling of AID's present $ 45 million budget for development of alternative energy sources.

There is some recognition here that Reagan, having just cut back so many US programs, including many affecting the American poor, can hardly turn around right now and support funding a new global energy center for the world's poor.

But Prime Minister Trudeau, especially, has put Reagan on the spot. His pledge of $1 billion over the next five years to energy development is very generous from a country with only 24 million people. This includes new spending in both Canada's public and private sectors to develop alternative energy systems for the third world, with a special program for the African Sahel.

There will also be new assistance in third world exploration of oil and other energy sources. Above all, Canada supports a World Bank affiliate in energy.

Experts here have estimated at least $4 billion must be spent in the next five years on reforestation alone to avert a third world fuel crisis. They have called for massive spending to double or triple global hydropower capacity, of which just a tenth is now exploited. Solar power is seen as still largely in the experimental stage.

The sheer scale of the problem was suggested by Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga. He set down a concrete plan to reduce the island's oil dependency from 97 percent to 60 percent by creating 260 megawatts of new energy from coal, peat, hydropower, solar and biomass projects. It would cost $600 million.

But India, as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi said, already produces 29,000 megawatts of power. To sustain what has become the world's tenth largest industry and continue to modernize its agriculture, India has to exploit every energy resource it can, including oil, coal, natural gas, and nuclear, as well as alternative sources. India's bullock carts alone, Mrs. Gandhi said, provide the equivalent of a $40 billion investment in electric power.

A number of third world speakers, including Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi , the host of the conference, revived the call for a two-tier price system to favor third world nations. The oil-producers have never made good on their counter-argument that they would make up the difference in aid.

Mrs. Gandhi perhaps put her finger on the realistic short-term solution when she urged the industrialized nations to stop "recklessly exploiting conventional energy." The current oil glut is largely the result of conservation and shifts to new forms of energy in the West. A further drop of 5-10 percent in consumption could make all the difference to the third world. To this end, Swedish Prime Minister Thorbjorn Falldin pledged to replace 10 percent of his country's oil imports with renewable energy by 1990.

A sideshow to the conference is a separate forum of non-governmental organizations, mostly the Western world's environmental lobby. It sees the third world's salvation in solar stoves and biogas plants. The forum's speakers have ranged from authentic energy experts to youngsters imbued with the ideas of "small is beautiful" and "the limits to growth." There are even a few neo-Marxists who urge violent revolution as the energy problem's solution. No one takes them seriously but they are a useful off-stage reminder of what to expect if things go really wrong.

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