IN several small, windowless rooms here in the United Nations basement, diplomats from around the world are trying to negotiate a set of common goals and practices to ensure the survival of the planet they share.
Their differences range from the seemingly insignificant comma to the broad North-South economic divide between developing countries that want extra help for the job ahead and developed countries that feel poorer than ever before.
Welcome to the last stop on what is sometimes called "the road to Rio." This is the fourth and final session of the UN preparatory committee which has been trying to craft a plan of action for all nations to sign in June at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro.
If the past is a fair model, the biggest breakthroughs may well come at the end of this five-week session in early April. Yet some of the key topics, such as the transfer of money and technology, are up for discussion early on.
Some progress already has been made. The so-called G-77 group of developing countries (now grown to 128 nations) that works together on global issues drew up a list of the kind of environmentally safe technology it needs. Most of the technology is readily available and would not conflict with existing patent law and the industrialized nations agreed to the transfer.
Thus one chapter of the 900-page-long Agenda 21, a plan of action for the 21st century that covers everything from forests and oceans to poverty and population and one of the two major documents to be signed in Rio, has already been agreed upon.
Some small signs of compromise have developed on the question of financing Agenda 21. Though the United States took an early stance of no new funds, no targets and timetables, and no new institutions, the Bush administration agreed at the last session of global-warming talks in February to provide $75 million to help developing nations combat greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
While making no more dollar commitments to the current round of talks, the US now appears ready to agree to a general increase in development aid by donor countries.
Yet differences remain over how much is needed and how to channel it. The developing nations want a special "green fund" and a democratic funding mechanism in which they have an equal voice. Donors prefer mixing environment and development aid through existing institutions such as the pilot Global Environmental Facility.
The Earth Charter, or Rio Declaration, a set of principles to govern the future economic and environmental behavior of nations and individuals, is the second major document under negotiation here. Delegates are far from agreed on even what text to work with (the G-77 presented a new version of its own last week). They also disagree on whether the charter should serve as a preamble to Agenda 21, which the US would prefer, or as an independent document such as the Declaration of Human Rights, which gives i t the effect of what many describe as "soft law."
Mixed in with all this uncertainty is the question of which nations will send their top leaders. So far only 48 of the UN's 175 members are so committed. Of the Security Council's permanent five members, only British Prime Minister John Major has said he will attend. More are considered likely to sign up as the hour grows closer.
UNCED Secretary-General Maurice Strong, the enthusiastic cheerleader of the Rio conference, insists that while "the saving of the earth does not come cheap," it is a bargain compared to annual defense spending.
"The goal is certainly achievable," he says. "The real question is political will."
A key source of such political pressure at these working talks are representatives of the 295 UNCED-accredited nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Though barred from attending the many closed sessions and from making formal statements in open sessions, NGO representatives make their presence felt.
"We can tell the diplomats where they're wrong: m sorry you guys, but you've never been in a forest says Langston James Goree, who represents an NGO in the western Amazon in Brazil. He says he and others also try to convince delegates that environmental rights take precedence over sovereign rights.
"They think if they abuse their resources, it's their right to do so," he says. "That's where we have a lot of differences."
"Instead of having a North-South war, we're really trying to restructure society in a peaceful way," says Fran Spivy-Weber, chairwoman of the US Citizens' Network on UNCED, a San Francisco-based coalition monitoring the conference. "We're trying to figure out how to do it right."