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.

  • Olivier Morin / AFP / Getty

    Smoke from a Finnish factory.

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    A major obstacle to sustainable development in many countries is a social structure that gives most of the nation's wealth to a tiny minority of its people. "A person who is worrying about his next meal is not going to listen to lectures on protecting the environment," says R.K. Pachauri, director of New Delhi's Tata Energy Research Institute. What to Northern eyes seems like some of the worst environmental outrages -- felling rain forests to make charcoal for sale as cooking fuel, for example -- are often committed by people who have no other form of income. Yet if the barriers that keep those people poor have withstood wars of liberation and social revolutions, what are the chances that they will fall in the name of environmentalism?

    The disparities that mark individual countries are mirrored in the planet as a whole. Most of its wealth is concentrated in the North. "The reality is that there are many worlds on this planet," says Chee Yokling, a Malaysian representative of Friends of the Earth, "rich worlds and poor worlds." From the South's point of view, it is the rich worlds' profligate consumption patterns -- their big cars, refrigerators and climate-controlled shopping malls -- that are the problem. "You can't have an environmentally healthy planet in a world that is socially unjust," says Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello. Counters a U.S. representative to a presummit negotiating session: "They are trying to lay a collective guilt trip on us because we try to give our people a higher standard of living."

    It comes down to a matter of cash. The North has it. The South needs it. And the changes that must be made to achieve sustainable development will not occur unless some of that wealth finds its way from North to South. So far, the industrial nations have held pretty tightly to their purse strings. In March the U.S. did pledge $75 million to help poor countries find ways to reduce the production of gases that may cause global warming; and at the presummit negotiations, there were hints from developed nations that as much as $6 billion in debt relief and other financial guarantees might be forthcoming at the Rio conference itself. But that is a pittance compared with the $125 billion that Strong has said the developed nations will need to contribute annually to protect natural resources and clean up pollution. (The developing countries, he says, would have to put up an additional $500 billion a year.) To put that in context, the annual U.S. defense budget is $290 billion. "The bottom line is money," says Kamal Nath, India's Minister of Environment and Forests. "If the West does not give funds, the Earth Summit will die a natural death."

    The tensions between North and South, and the financial conflicts that underlie them, run through every issue before the Rio negotiators -- even to the question of whether those are the proper issues to be discussing. Among the major disagreements:


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