THE WORLD FROM...Rio de Janeiro

Earth Summiteers find that what began as a concern over land or forests quickly turned to plight of farmers and foresters

TO view the world from Rio de Janeiro this week is to see a global village torn by inequality and headed for very tough political struggle.

It is a world of northern industrialized nations pitted against developing countries of the South who see themselves the victims of colonialism - literal colonialism that began with European explorations 500 years ago, and now an economic and technological colonialism widening the gap between rich and poor.

Seen from the Earth Summit now lurching toward its conclusion in Rio, it is also a world in which the United States, the lone surviving superpower in a time that has seen unprecedented movement toward democracy, is becoming increasingly isolated.

Since this is a United Nations gathering where everyone gets equal time regardless of population level, relative prosperity, or political power, it is perhaps to be expected that Uncle Sam would become a target.

"To those of us who have labored in the UN vineyards for years, it doesn't come as a surprise," confides one senior US delegate here. "What we do is never considered enough, and we've come to live with that."

When organizers of the UN Conference on Environment and Development sat down two years ago to plan this largest-ever gathering of delegates and national leaders, one wonders if they knew just how much they were undertaking.

This conference, which started out (at least in the public eye) being about saving rain forests and endangered species and preventing atmospheric pollution, has become a discussion of virtually every major problem facing mankind: from natural resources to poverty to political injustice to moral and spiritual values. Which is why it has been very difficult to find specific solutions.

"It's not just about land, but about farmers. It's not just about water, but about fishermen. Not just forests, but foresters," says Nitin Desai, deputy secretary-general of the conference. "The core of the problem is what [the environment] does to people's lives - to their livelihoods and well-being."

Numbers can never tell the full story of political dispute or human suffering, but they are one gauge of the world's health used over and over here.

* The typical European country consumes 10 times the energy per person of Africa; North America, 20 times. The ratio between personal income for the top 20 percent of people and the bottom 20 percent is 9 to 1 in the US (the highest in the industrialized world); the highest in the developing world is Brazil at 26 to 1.

* About 10 million children die each year from malnutrition and preventable diseases tied to environmental issues like dirty water and lack of sewage facilities. Because of discrimination against females, half the women in the world are illiterate, and 3,000 to 4,000 girls die each day who would not have perished if they were boys.

* The official UN goal for development aid to poorer countries is 0.7 percent of GNP from industrialized countries, but only a handful (like Norway) have met that goal. In fact, because of debt repayment and trade restrictions, countries of the South transfer $200 billion to the North each year.

James Grant, executive director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), and one of the most impassioned speakers here, says such figures are indicators of "social pollution."

Seen in this light, it's no wonder the world holds an Earth Summit only every 20 years. On the other hand, if such meetings were held more often, perhaps the environmental problems and related difficulties would be less severe.

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