RIO DE JANEIRO — IN advance of the opening of the Earth Summit, a group of Brazilian environmentalists visited Leonel Brizola, governor of Rio de Janeiro, whose state is hosting the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development. They showed him satellite images mapping the destruction of Rio's remaining Atlantic rain forest.
"You come here with a presentation that belongs to the first world, and my government belongs to the fifth world," the governor growled, according to the environmentalists. "With the little money I have in this state, do you want me to solve the problem of the street children, or invest in the environment?" he asked, walking away in annoyance. Then he came back smiling. "Don't worry," he reassured the activists. "I'm just practicing for [the UN conference]. A lot of people are going to ask me the same qu estions."
The tension the governor joked about - between environment-conscious activists, often from the North, and development-conscious officials of the South - has long been part of the interplay on environmental issues here. Brazil is Latin America's largest country and one of the most developed, but it also suffers from some of the region's worst environmental abuses.
Many Brazilians are hoping that after a decade of failed economic plans, the summit will be a chance to display an improved environmental record and attract foreign funding. "Brazil will never have another opportunity like this one to be the center of attention," says Fabio Feldmann, an environmentalist and congressman.
But there are several indications that the global environmental awareness the summit symbolizes already has had an effect on this country. A government official confirmed reports this week that during the conference, Brazil will announce a $1 billion program to conserve the Amazon region and ask other countries to help pay this bill.
Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello can also display the demarcation of a 36,000-square-mile Amazon homeland for the Yanomami Indian tribe, completed last month.
Environmentalists say the homeland will help conserve the Amazon rain forest, because the 9,000-odd nomadic Yanomami depend on wildlife for their survival. When Mr. Collor said he would create the homeland last November, activists credited international pressure and the summit as major factors in his decision.
And in the weeks leading up to the conference, Brazil created a series of national parks and announced the country's first debt-for-nature swap.
Brazil over the last decade has been moving away from a growth-at-any-cost mind-set. The country's return to democracy in 1985 opened space for individuals to speak out and demand government accountability.
The Sao Paulo state attorney general's office for the environment recently decided to sue the local subsidiary of the French group Rhone-Poulenc and the local environmental agency for their neglect of chemical waste dumps that have allegedly affected thousands of people. Other cleanups have targeted Rio's Guanabara Bay, Sao Paulo's Tiete River, and air pollution, land erosion, and toxic waste in and around the giant Cubatao industrial park.
Even if Brazil convinces multilateral organizations and developed countries to look beyond the troubled moment at hand and be generous, some funders say they worry about the country's scarce supply of people who can apply funds effectively to environmental causes.
The organization of the summit itself was troubled by this; Earth Summit general coordinator Luis Octavio Themudo left his post after being accused of corruption.
And Environment Secretary Jose Lutzemberger was fired in March amid a cross-fire of corruption accusations regarding federal environmental agencies.
To address the problem, the University of Sao Paulo recently set up a multidisciplinary environmental science degree program.
"Training is one of the critical issues in Brazil.... This is a good solution," says Bill Possiel, Brazil program director at the Washington-based Nature Conservancy group. Mr. Possiel believes that Brazilians need to know more about project planning and evaluation.
The Brazilian government is also working to make its policy more effective over the long term. "We have legislation on [the environment] which is very good, based on the legislation of EC countries and the United States," says Jose Goldemberg, acting environment secretary.
"There's a problem of enforcement, which is very serious. We are restructuring ... and I hope that by the time I leave my present job ... [the agency] will be stronger than it is today and will be able to check up and enforce the rules that do exist," he says.