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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    Nor were they able to settle how Agenda 21 would be paid for. Any aid would logically be administered by the Global Environmental Facility, a $1.3 billion fund that is run jointly by the World Bank, the U.N. Environment Program and the U.N. Development Program. Environmentalists are suspicious of the GEF because the World Bank, the lending institution through which most international aid has been funneled in the past, has a history of investing primarily in large, ecologically damaging capital projects such as jungle highways and hydroelectric dams. Developing countries resent the GEF because it is effectively controlled by the World Bank, which in turn is dominated by the industrialized countries. They also complain that it targets problems that . the developed world cares about, such as global warming and ozone depletion, rather than issues important to the developing world, including fresh-water supplies and the spread of deserts.

    The developing nations want a separate "Green Fund" that they could help manage and control. The donor nations, suspicious of corruption in the governments of the South, have so far refused to budge. And since the North controls the money, its position is likely to prevail. "That's what gets my goat," says Anil Agarwal, director of the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi. "They are the environmental crooks, and they have all the levers of power."

    Agarwal's comments reflect a new feistiness among developing countries on environmental matters. A coalition of them, called the Group of 77, has put up a remarkably united front in the Earth Summit talks. Led by Indians and Pakistanis, whose language skills and flair for bureaucratic nitpicking serve them well in parliamentary maneuverings, the G-77 nations have effectively resisted what they see as an effort to make them pay for the industrial world's environmental sins. "We may not have been able to get what we want," says India's Pachauri. "But we can draw satisfaction from the fact that we have prevented the West from ramming inequitable and unfair conventions down our throats."

    The industrial nations have shown no such solidarity. European nations, pressured by powerful green movements of their own, sound quite progressive on environmental issues, but they are still not very good at enforcing their antipollution laws. Japan, stung by its image as an ecological outlaw for its whaling practices and its insatiable appetite for raw wood, seems determined to present itself in these talks as an environmental world leader.

    The countries of the former East bloc have been largely sidelined. Not only are they torn by civil strife, but they are also confronted with hundreds of desperate environmental crises, ranging from an outbreak of malignant tumors in the heavily contaminated Silesia region of southwest Poland to a rash of lung, skin and eye disorders among Bulgarian children who live near chemical plants on the Danube River. Eastern Europe's governments, barely able to keep their economies moving, have little money to clean up pollution. In presummit negotiations the main role of what used to be called the second world was to insist that any funds for the developing nations be matched with set-asides for the "economies in transition."

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