Summit to Save the Earth: Rich vs. Poor

North and South will meet in Rio to confront the planet's most pressing ills. The event could change the world -- or be a disaster of global proportions.

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Olivier Morin / AFP / Getty

Smoke from a Finnish factory.

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Anyone who has been near the seashore lately -- or listened to Jacques-Yves Cousteau on TV -- knows that the oceans are a mess, littered with plastic and tar balls and rapidly losing fish. But the garbage dumps, the oil spills, the sewage discharges, the drift nets and factory ships are only the most visible problems. The real threats to the oceans, accounting for 70% to 80% of all maritime pollution, are the sediment and contaminants that flow into the seas from land-based sources -- topsoil, fertilizers, pesticides and all manner of industrial wastes. Coral is particularly sensitive to sediment, and the reefs that fringe Asia, Australia and the Caribbean -- and provide a home to many of the world's fish species -- are already starting to die.

Every country contributes to the situation roughly in proportion to its size, although countries that are leveling their forests are making the runoff problem especially bad. Some ocean advocates called for a new global treaty that would deal specifically with land-based pollution. The U.S., on the other hand, favored strengthening existing international agreements to control this pollution, particularly at the national and regional levels. In the end, negotiators adopted the U.S. approach, agreeing that countries should commit themselves to cleaning up the seas but that it was premature to consider drafting a formal global treaty.

WHOSE WOODS ARE THESE?

Except for finances, no issue has divided North and South more sharply than the question of what to do about the world's remaining virgin forests. At the heart of the debate are the tropical rain forests -- and a fundamental difference in how each side sees them. To industrial countries they are a treasure trove of biodiversity and greenhouse-gas "sinks" that absorb CO2 and thus help keep global warming in check. To developing nations the forests are resources ripe for exploitation: potential farmland, a free source of fuel and a storehouse of exotic kinds of wood that command high prices overseas.

The Bush Administration had hoped to make deforestation a showcase issue going into Rio. The presummit discussions opened with a U.S.-inspired proposal for an outright ban on logging in tropical forests. But the developing countries retaliated by demanding that the language cover temperate and boreal (northern) forests as well. The move was clearly aimed at the U.S., which has strenuously resisted any scrutiny of the logging practices in publicly owned ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest.

At a separate conference in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month, Malaysia's feisty Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad reiterated the developing world's hard line on the issue. If the industrial nations think the rain forests are so important for biodiversity and CO2 storage, says Mahathir, why don't the rich, CO2-creating countries pay for the service of preserving those forests, instead of hectoring the poor countries not to utilize one of their few natural resources? Mahathir, of course, is not exactly a disinterested party; his country has been charged with rampant overlogging in peninsular Malaysia and Borneo.

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