THE curtain has gone up on the largest gathering of nations in history, and now follow 10 days of high-powered diplomatic maneuvering.
A considerable amount of work remains to be done for the Earth Summit to live up to expectations.
"We are at the point where success is achievable and, I believe, likely," says Maurice Strong, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), as the summit is officially called. "But it's not inevitable and it won't come easily."
Just to cite one important example: Agenda 21, the 490-page outline for action in implementing the changes around the world that are supposed to improve environmental quality and lessen poverty, has virtually every single reference to funding set in brackets. This means government representatives in three summit sessions were unable to agree on these points and left them for Rio.
There are 350 bracketed items in Agenda 21 and 150 of them deal with money. Lots of money: $125 billion a year over the next eight years from developed countries (or $70 billion above what they already give in official development aid), plus a whopping $625 billion a year from the developing countries themselves in the form of reordered priorities and policy reshaping.
Critics have called Agenda 21 a useless document without financing provisions. "I think that maybe overstates the situation," says Joseph Wheeler, a senior UNCED program official. "Yet it contains considerable truth."
"It's a difficult time to be talking about new money when even rich countries are not feeling very rich today," Mr. Strong admits.
The other main issue open to delegate wrangling is the Rio Declaration, a lofty set of 27 principles dealing with such things as the right and responsibility of nations regarding the use of natural resources, protection of the environment, eradication of poverty, transfer of technology, trade, and the role of women and indigenous peoples in sustainable development. Although it is not legally binding and negotiators at all three summits have agreed on its text, many here wonder if the concord will last.
"That's the big question," says Ole Holthe, deputy director of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the diplomat who oversaw the negotiations in New York.
"There are rumors that some delegations may consider reopening this package, but if one delegation starts to raise an item with which they have problems, then we know lots of delegations will want to raise issues and reopen the text as well, and frankly I don't think we have time for that," he says.
TWO other important items are not open for nit-picking but will hinge on what countries decide to do here. These are the conventions on climate change and biological diversity.
The United States seems to be the whipping boy in both instances, having forced a watering down of the former and refusing to sign the latter. Both conventions will be open for signing through the Rio summit and for another 12 months back at UN headquarters. Then they will have to be ratified by national legislative bodies before they can become law.
There is some concern that the US action on climate change and biodiversity will have a chilling effect on developing countries, which may also refuse to sign the convention. "If that happens, then we really are in trouble," says Mostafa Tolba, executive director of the UN Environment Programme.
This kind of North-South split over key issues - particularly funding and the transfer of technology - was much in evidence as the daily general debate and negotiating sessions began yesterday at the massive "RioCentro" convention site located on a flat marshy plain a half-hour south of the city.
"These people don't need lectures on sustainable development," says Mahbub ul Haq, a senior UN official and principal author of its annual report on human development. "What they need is more options for this development."
"We are not here to score points along the North-South divide, but it is the crushing poverty and debt that are causing environmental problems in developing countries," says Ting Wen Lian, Malaysia's fiery ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. "In order to achieve sustainable development we need resources and technology. It is as simple as that."
Simple, perhaps, but far from easy. UNCED chief Strong looks at the job ahead and is reminded of his younger days as a mountain climber.
"As you near the top the air gets thinner, the landslides become more frequent and the hand holds get less secure," he says. "But if the issues weren't difficult we wouldn't be here."