ALTHOUGH there are differences on details in the world's first biodiversity agreement, adopted here on Friday, there is a feeling among many nations that an important threshold has been crossed. For the first time, the world community has agreed to try to slow the extinction of plants and animals.
The treaty now goes to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro next week for signature by heads of state. In view of reservations about the treaty voiced by the United States, France, Japan, and other nations, it is not yet clear how many nations will sign it.
Eleanor Savage, leader of the US delegation, called the agreement "a very mixed treaty [with] some serious flaws." She would not comment on whether the delegation would recommend that President Bush sign the document when he goes to Rio.
The French objected to a lack of specific lists of areas and species to protect. Japan wanted clearer terms on how money would be spent under the treaty.
But many delegates to the final round of negotiations here, from both rich and poor nations, welcomed the treaty.
"It's a small step in the right direction, but it's nothing like the giant leap forward we were hoping for," says Alistair Graham, an environmental lobbyist representing the World Wildlife Fund.
Mr. Graham says an estimated 100 species of plants and animals, including many micro- organisms, are disappearing from the earth every day. Many of them, he says, have never been studied, so their potential uses have not been discovered.
Graham says the treaty, if signed and ratified by the 30 countries required to make it go into effect, would give environmentalists stronger legal - and moral - arguments for preserving life of all forms on earth.
"You have a moral obligation not to operate in a way that will cause other species to become extinct. Other species have as much right to happiness and enjoyment on this planet as we do."
Kenyan ecologist Paul Chabeda, a delegate to the negotiations, says some plant species from the developing world have helped the developed nations. A Kenyan plant related to wheat was crossed with imported wheat in Kenya to develop a disease-resistant variety which is now widely used in Canada, he says.
The treaty adopted here is a two-way street. Developed nations have agreed to pay developing countries for conserving and controlling the use of their plants and animals. And developing nations are agreeing to let other countries purchase samples of those species to make products such as improved food crops, medicines, and cosmetics.
Species taken from such countries are continually being developed in Western laboratories for a variety of uses, but until now developed countries have been paying little, if anything, for these life forms.
Indian delegate Avani Vaish says of the treaty: "The most important thing is that the value of genetic resources will be really appreciated. Resources were a free commodity, like air and water, but [under the treaty] they're under international jurisdiction."
"The biodiversity treaty is good for the industrialized North and good for the less developed South," says Mostafa Tolba, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). UNEP sponsored the four years of negotiations on the treaty, including the final 11 days of intense bargaining here.
Poor or developing nations were concerned that an international treaty might put unwanted limitations on the use of their natural resources, including forests. And they wanted to be sure that if they agreed to conservation steps, the richer, developed nations would pay the extra costs involved.
The developed nations, on the other hand, wanted continued access to the plant and animal life in developing nations.
When it was over, ecologist Chabeda was optimistic. "I think the developing countries made quite a few points obvious. We feel there was a sympathetic ear from the industrialized countries."
Mr. Chabeda says he believes the developed nations will put money into implementing the treaty. But money was - and remains - a sticking point in the treaty's adoption.
Under the language approved here, developed nations have agreed to "provide new and additional financial resources" to developing nations for conservation measures. But environmental lobbyist Graham notes that the treaty lacks real "teeth." He says "almost every article has got `where appropriate,' or `subject to national legislation,' or `as far as possible.' There are qualifying phrases throughout the text."
The question of mandatory versus voluntary contributions by the developed nations will be decided in negotiations several years from now at meetings of the nations which ratify the treaty, says a UNEP official.
Another unsettled issue is the management of the money. The West, including the US, wants the World Bank to handle it. Most developing nations prefer an independent organization, arguing that the World Bank is too influenced by its Western donors.