THE United Nations population conference in Cairo is billed by many international leaders and demographic experts as an opportunity to lay the groundwork for reducing global population growth.
But for Manuel Gomez Granados, the conference represents one aspect of a war he sees the wealthy North waging against the ever-growing populations of the South.
``This is a form of war, like the cold war, only now the rich countries want to impose their concepts of family and what they consider a modern style of living on the poor countries,'' says Mr. Gomez, spokesman for the Mexican Institute for Social Christian Doctrine in Mexico City. ``We must tell them we are not interested in their model.'
Gomez, whose organization maintains close ties to the Roman Catholic Church, reflects a point of view that has gained volume in many developing countries like Mexico with the arrival of the population conference.
One cause for the fireworks in Mexico is the government's silence on what its position on abortion will be. The practice is illegal here in most cases, but experts estimate that perhaps 1 million pregnancies are aborted every year - frequently with dire consequences for women.
Beyond the debate over abortion, comments like Gomez's reflect a broader concern in developing countries - among supporters and critics of the UN conference - that wealthy countries are targeting the world's poor as the culprits in population growth and related problems like environmental degradation.
``Poor women are being blamed for the over-population of the world and the ecological crisis, but we are very clear that we don't accept that blame,'' says Sylvia Marcos, a Mexican women's rights advocate long active throughout Latin America. ``A US child will spend and consume so much more than a child born in Mexico. There's no comparison in the impact on the environment.''
And though Ms. Marcos is attending the conference as a nongovernmental organization representative and supporter of the draft declaration, she rejects population control under any guise. ``We don't want the rich countries telling us how many babies to have, but we don't want the church or our own government imposing that on us either.''
Still, the theme of Western imposition of conditions and lifestyles has struck a chord. On Aug. 20, for example, the presidents of seven Central American countries issued a declaration stating the position of their delegations in Cairo would be ``to defend the moral and spiritual values of our societies.''
Part of the explanation, some observers say, is that the United States is seen to be the principal force behind an international conference dealing with such sensitive issues as family and sexuality at a time when US society is widely condemned as decadent.
``In so many of these family and moral areas we are discussing, the US is not our idea of a positive example,'' says Ramon Sanchez Medal, honorary president of the Mexican Commission for Human Rights, a private organization of conservative lawyers.
At the same time, some experts say a wariness toward Western motives in such international initiatives has grown since the UN's 1992 conference on the environment in Rio de Janeiro.
``[Developing countries] didn't accept responsibility for the environmental crisis in Rio, and what many are saying now is they don't accept becoming the scapegoats for [the West's] sense of crisis over population growth,'' says Betsy Hartmann, director of the Hampshire College Population and Development Program in Amherst, Mass.
Criticizing what she considers a US exaggeration of the impact of population growth, Ms. Hartmann says, ``We don't have the Soviet Union any more, so we've made population growth in the developing world the `Evil Empire'.'' To back up her statement, Hartmann points to the US Agency for International Development's designation last year of rapid population growth as a ``strategic threat.''
``Even the UN blames the developing world's poor for most deforestation,'' she says, ``which conveniently ignores reality.'' If Southeast Asia's forests are disappearing, she says, it is largely to satisfy wealthy countries' desires for tropical woods.
Hartmann's position that the developing world's population growth ``isn't the bogyman it's made out to be'' - and that the Cairo conference ``ignores the real causes of poverty and the environmental crisis'' - is finding an echo here.
``No one talks about a small country like Japan being a threat because it has 100 million people, but a Mexico with 120 million people in the next century is considered a menace to the rich,'' Mr. Sanchez says. ``Instead of trying to impose their morals so there will be less of us, they should be discussing education and technology transfer so our people have the means to develop their human potential,'' he adds. ``But that's not what Cairo is about.''