Alternate Earth Summit Gives Voice to Grass Roots

WHILE diplomats and delegates here at the Earth Summit operate at a highly secure and overly air-conditioned convention center outside of Rio de Janeiro, a second mass gathering in the middle of this vibrant city gives a different view of what can happen when people gather to tackle the world's major problems.

This is the '92 Global Forum, the unofficial version of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development that continues through this week. It is a far more organic and sweaty get-together - frustrating in its inefficiency and ad hoc nature, yet promising in the way it seems to be turning many people to the possibilities of making a difference politically when they go back home.

At last count, there were 17,490 registrants representing 7,462 institutions from 167 countries. Many of these are nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and others are simply "NGIs" - or nongovernmental individuals as they have dubbed themselves. In the red

The forum is also worse than broke in that it is $2 million short of meeting its $12 million budget, which means that some contractors (like the one providing sound systems) may pull the plug as soon as today.

There are three major elements to the forum. At the Hotel Gloria and in other nearby facilities are hundreds of meetings on topics such as "the danger of nuclear energy," "environmental protection in China," and "spirit and nature." These feature experts and activists with lectures, panel discussions, and plenty of opportunity for anyone to speak in town-meeting fashion.

Across the street, Flamingo Park has been turned into a kind of massive trade fair with hundreds of booths for environmental groups and businesses, organizations promoting social justice, and indigenous peoples. These range from Greenpeace to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements to Lions International.

There also is an open speakers' forum where, for example, Jerry Brown told a packed, sweltering tent full of enthusiastic people Saturday that "money and corruption are at the heart of the rape of the earth." When he heard about the forum's financial difficulties, the former California governor and Democratic presidential candidate pulled $200 from his wallet, put it into a straw hat borrowed from a minister from New Hampshire, and passed it around, raising $1,575.28.

Within the Global Forum is a more formalized process for leaders of nongovernmental groups to have an impact on the official UN-sponsored summit and also to increase their power to influence agencies and elected leaders once the forum is over.

The NGO activities are meant to focus on proposed "treaties" (32 so far) on issues relating to the environment, social justice, and how NGOs can become more effective. Leading this effort by 200 to 300 groups is Barbara Bramble, head of international operations for the National Wildlife Federation and a very harried woman this week.

As she explained during a lunch constantly interrupted by minor crises reported over her cellular phone, many of those taking part either have little experience in such a meeting-and-caucusing process, or are frustrated by working incrementally this way, or both. In any case, they want to make some kind of major political statement in Rio rather than simply talk. Political change

For many of these delegates, particularly a large number from Latin American countries who must deal with corruption and repression, says Ms. Bramble, protecting the environment is really secondary to forcing more fundamental political change.

"There are a lot of justice and equity issues that aren't attacked when you change the nozzle on your showerhead, if you know what I mean," she says. "It's really a process of learning self-government."

Like the UN summit, Global Forum has produced much criticism of the United States. Such mistrust extends to the North in general, plus the UN and institutions like the World Bank, which many say are part of the problem.

Yesterday, many Global Forum participants took a break from their meetings to stage a protest march down Avenida Atlantica along Copacabana Beach. Then they got back to the work of changing the world.

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