AS the Japanese government hosted an international conference on the environment this week, activists outside the gathering's luxury-hotel site dressed as trees and animals and were symbolically mowed down by bulldozers and a giant chainsaw representing Japanese logging companies. The protest was not confined to the street performance. Last weekend, nongovernmental organizations and environmental experts from around the world held several ``counterconferences'' in major cities across Japan.
The Japanese government had barred them from participating in the formal meeting, jointly sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and Japan.
``Unfortunately, the government of Japan excluded citizens this time,'' says one activist, Yoichi Kuroda of the Japan Tropical Forest Action Network. ``I think this kind of behavior that gathers criticism will turn out to be a disadvantage for the Japanese government.''
The government's three-day conference started Sept. 11 with 60 scholars and government officials from 24 nations. It carried the heavy-weight title of the Tokyo Conference on the Global Environment and Human Response Toward Sustainable Development.
Concurrently, the International People's Forum on Japan and the Global Environment - the main counterconference - gathered more than 1,000 participants from around the world.
The Japanese government saw the UN meeting, the first of its kind in Asia, as an opportunity to stress Japan's contribution to global environmental protection and sustainable development.
The conference was first proposed last year by then Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita. He was responding to rising international criticism of Japan for contributing to such environmental problems as intensive logging of tropical forests and continued whaling and use of drift-net fishing techniques (which unnecessarily destroys many kinds of marine life).
Japan undertook a number of initiatives - including increased foreign aid to help solve environmental problems in developing countries - in an effort to improve its image.
Many environmentalists tend to see this week's international conference as a further exercise in image boosting, with little chance of producing changes in environmental policies.
Journalists were barred from discussion sessions at the official meeting. But according to Japanese officials involved in the meeting, topics included major issues of global environmental policy - destruction of the ozone layer, global warming trends, tropical deforestation, acid rain.
But specifically Japanese environmental controversies - commercial cutting of tropical forests, criticism of Japanese development assistance, or plans to construct an airport on a rare coral lagoon off Ishigaki Island - were not on the agenda.
These issues, however, were the center of discussion at the activists' conference held on a college campus in Tokyo. Repeatedly, speakers emphasized the exploitation by Japanese companies of tropical lumber and other natural resources in developing countries, especially in Southeast Asia and Brazil.
Paulinho Payakan, a leader of the Amazon's Kayapo Indians, told listeners their life was threatened by deforestation and a planned hydroelectric power plant construction which Japan may finance. ``I ask you to urge the Japanese government not to invest in this project and to stop importing tropical timber from Brazil,'' he said. ``If the forest is destroyed, we cannot live.''
The government-sponsored conference meanwhile, emphasized international cooperation in funding and research and establishment of ethics for global environmental protection. It also referred positively to Japan's pledge at the July Paris economic summit to provide some $2.25 billion in official development assistance for environmental purposes in the next three years.
The same commitment drew fire at the activists' meeting. Martin Khor of the Consumers' Association of Penang, Malaysia, claimed his country's tropical trees in Sabah and Sarawak were being destroyed by Japanese companies in the name of aid.
Japan should, Mr. Khor suggested, ``Not only become aware but begin to take very serious actions to stop environment damage in Japan, and more importantly, to stop environment damage Japan is causing to the rest of the world.''