Nairobi Summit Flags North-South Debate

In the runup to the June Earth Summit in Brazil, delegates to the global conference on bio-diversity grapple with key differences

AS delegates from nearly 90 nations finish drafting a treaty on preservation of plant and animal life here, in final preparation for the June "Earth Summit" in Brazil, it is clear that rich and poor nations have different priorities.

At the bio-diversity conference here, rich and poor nations differed on designation of "protected areas" for plant and animal conservation and environmental regulations on commercial activities.

"History will judge us by how we seized the opportunity of UNCED in 1992 - the first year after the demise of the cold war," said Mostafa Tolba, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in a speech to the program governing council earlier this year. "We have the chance to pull together, to build a new community of nations."

Some industrial nations have pushed global warming to the top of the agenda at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). But developing nations in need of jobs and clean water want the summit to focus on development and cooperation between North and South.

Vicente Sanchez, a Chilean who is chairing the Nairobi conference, said yesterday that the nations were likely to agree on a treaty, and that it would include the principle of developed nations providing additional funding to their normal aid programs to help protect and preserve plant and animal life in developing countries.

But he remained cautious in his assessment. The final draft of the biodiversity treaty is almost certain to call for voluntary contributions from the richer nations to the already-existing Global Environmental Facility, a fund administered by the World Bank and the United Nations. Developing nations would prefer the treaty called for "mandatory" contributions.

"I believe we have to be realistic," Mr. Sanchez said. "The power is with the developed countries. We better accept ... what they offer rather than have nothing."

Developing nations would bear much of the burden of protecting threatened land, such as tropical forests. These countries argue that compensation must be given to people forced to sacrifice their way of life to cut fewer trees and hunt fewer animals.

"If you have to deprive the human being in my forest who depends on the Iroko tree, or any kind of species, for livelihood or fuel, you have to provide an alternative," says Clarkson Umelo, Nigerian ambassador to Kenya and UNEP. "That costs money."

The United States, in particular, has objected to provisions calling for countries to preserve tracts for wildlife. Washington also has disagreed with a regulation that would require countries to be responsible for the environmental damage its private companies inflict on other countries.

"The truth of the matter is that human survival comes first," says Philip Ndegwa, a Kenyan businessman, former senior government official, and one of many experts the Nairobi-based UNEP has been consulting. "My advice to those going to Rio is to recognize that in the South ... poverty is the most pressing development and environmental issue," Mr. Ndegwa says.

In the runup to the Rio conference, several studies and experts have pointed to the critical need for international cooperation in reducing environmental challenges that are shared by both poorer and richer nations, including global warming and soil erosion.

"Although atmospheric problems have been caused mainly by rich countries, the world as a whole will bear the costs," Worldwatch Institute wrote last fall in its study, "Saving the Planet: How to Shape an Environmentally Sustainable Global Economy."

In a March report based on a three-year survey by UNEP and the International Soil Reference and Information Center in the Netherlands, World Resources Institute (WRI) said an area the size of China and India combined had been seriously degraded since World War II "through overgrazing, agricultural practices, and deforestation."

WRI says that both rich and poor nations have a bad record in terms of sustainable development - economic growth without irreparable harm to the environment.

But as UNCED approaches, some third-world experts express doubt that North and South will come together. The agenda for Rio has been made up "largely in favor of industrialized countries," says Frank Njenenga, a Kenyan delegate to the biodiversity summit.

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