Outside the meeting hall, environmentalists had tacked up a sign: ''The third world - playground of multinationals.'' Inside, working beneath a United Nations flag, government representatives from some 30 countries were hammering out a plan intended to make the ''playground'' safer.
''It's a first step,'' said Barbara Bramble, of Pesticides Action Network, an environmental organization.
What the government delegates decided after a recent weeklong meeting was to introduce a trial program for exchanging information on banned or severely restricted chemical products, especially pesticides.
It is the first time governments have promised to trade such information. Environmentalists hope the plan will make it easier for countries considering importing potentially dangerous pesticides to decide whether, in fact, to let them in.
''We're not trying to dictate what importing countries - mainly in the third world - should do,'' said Ineke Lambers-Hacquemard of the Netherlands, who chaired the meeting of delegates from countries belonging to the UN Environment Program (UNEP). ''But we want to give developing countries a fair chance to take informed decisions.''
Under the program - to be revised and put into final binding form over the next few years - countries will provide to other countries detailed information on chemical products whose use they have banned or severely restricted, lessening the chances, according to UNEP officials, that third-world countries will import products they perhaps should not.
Of the major chemical exporting countries, only the United States so far has introduced national legislation requiring notification of other countries. Yet seven of the nine top chemical exporting countries in the world are in Western Europe.
According to the World Health Organization, someone in the third world is poisoned by pesticides every 60 seconds.
This is because most developing countries, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, where the problem is the most acute, either have no import regulations regarding pesticides or only rudimentary restrictions on them. The increasing complexity of assessing the hazards of a growing number of chemicals (some 500 to 1,000 new chemicals are put on the international market every year) has also made life difficult for third-world importers, many of whom need pesticides to combat crop-destroying insects.
Industry representatives attending the UNEP meeting as observers said they would cooperate under the new program. ''It's a fair plan,'' said Dr. G. Ronald Gardiner of the International Group of National Associations of Agrochemical Manufacturers, which represents 950 companies manufacturing 90 percent of the world's crop protection chemicals.
But environmentalists have vowed to fight for what Pesticides Action Network's Barbara Bramble called the ''informed consent'' of the importing nation.
''We believe it should be up to the importing country to make the final decision,'' she said. ''Some concrete action was taken at the UNEP meeting here. But it is not likely to be adequate to the scope of the problem.''