WHEN heads of state and official delegates from around the world meet in Brazil this June for the "Earth Summit," they will be just a fraction of those gathered to debate and act on issues related to global environment and development.
Also participating in and observing the two-week discussions and negotiations in Rio de Janeiro will be thousands of representatives from non-government organizations (NGOs). In fact, there will be two summits going on simultaneously: the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) for government representatives, and across town, the '92 Global Forum where an estimated 10,000 participants from more than 1,000 groups will hold hundreds of meetings.
This combination of government-private activity has been going on for months now, with NGOs playing an important role in shaping both questions and answers in preparation for the official UN conference in Rio. Maurice Strong, secretary-general of UNCED, describes the role of NGOs as "indispensable," and the UN has provided some financial and logistical support. Voice of negotiations
Non-governmental groups, says Sarah Burns of the World Resources Institute, are "the conscience, the independent voice of the negotiations.... We act as a kind of pressure group alongside the official negotiations."
Included here are mainline United States environmental groups like the Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation, groups with broader (and sometimes more radical) social and economic agendas like the Maylasia-based "Third World Network," labor unions and industry groups, women's rights and church organizations, and those working to limit world population growth.
There are tiny grass-roots efforts as well, like the 12 students taking a course in "Sustainable Economics" at Berkeley High School who recently traveled by train across country from California to sit in on the current UNCED preparatory session in New York.
The umbrella organization for the 160 US grass-roots groups involved with the Earth Summit, the San Francisco-based "US Citizens Network," has been actively lobbying official delegates at the UN. "That's our strength," says Catherine Porter, the network's executive director, who describes NGOs as "a critical and valuable part of the process." More international efforts
For many non-government groups, that process has included steady pressure on governments to accelerate both environmental protection as well as citizen participation in international efforts dealing with a wide range of political, social, and economic issues. Some NGO observers recently went so far as to interrupt a recent speech at the UN by US Enviromental Protection Agency administrator William Reilly.
A Bush administration official involved with US environmental policy-making calls some of this public pressure "games-playing," but adds that, "for the most part, [NGOs] have been constructive."
In all of this there are two fundamental trends emerging, both of which may present problems for US officials and perhaps other developed countries. First is the push by developing countries (the "Group of 77," which is now up to 128 countries) and their NGO supporters in the United States and other wealthier nations to gain greater political control, more economic aid, and debt relief.
The second trend is greater citizen involvement in pushing for solutions to problems like global warming and the loss of species. In the US and some other developed countries, this increasing public involvement is a direct result of environmental laws and regulations passed since the last major international environmental conference in Stockholm in 1972. Such laws often require "environmental impact statements" with a period for public comment.
To some observers, these trends have the potential for becoming unproductive. When NGO representatives from around the world met in Paris in December, the result was "a field day for North-bashers, particularly US -bashers," according to Philip Shabecoff, publisher of the environmental news computer service "Greenwire."
The meeting, reported Mr. Shabecoff, "turned out to be a colorful, spirited, eclectic, deeply-felt exercise in politically-correct futility."
Some, like Nicholas Hilyard, editor of the magazine "The Ecologist," have gone so far as to suggest that NGOs boycott the Rio meeting.
"If the UNCED avoids dealing with the issues of popular rights to and control of resources, and instead only finds means to secure the authority of governmental institutions, then it will only further entrench the power of those who have so far led us to the brink of ruin," Mr. Hilyard wrote in an open letter at the Paris meeting.
But many more moderate (and more influential) non-government groups prefer to stick to global environmental issues and the international conventions they hope will be signed by the heads of state on issues like biodiversity and climate change.
And beyond the Rio meeting, they predict a growing strength for non-government organizations resulting from the recent demise of authoritarian governments as well as from the Earth Summit itself. Breaking new ground
"I can say for sure that NGOs will never be the same after the summit," predicts Sarah Burns of the World Resources Institute. "I'm optimistic that we're breaking new ground with our influence on the negotiations and deliberations."
"The Earth Summit will be the culmination of work for a lot of NGOs," says Catherine Porter of the US Citizens Network. "But it will also be the beginning for many people."