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Strong Treaties Elude Even Activists at Earth Summit


RIO DE JANEIRO — Dissatisfied with the official accords being produced at the Earth Summit, environmental activists from around the world planned to set their governments an example by churning out dozens of strong treaties containing measures they would take to attack the planet's ills.

Instead, the activists negotiating the largely symbolic pacts at a side summit here are embracing the kinds of positions they faulted their governments for espousing and, in the process, are fighting just as bitterly.

Take an accord on environmentally sound agriculture. In the sweltering heat of a large tent erected in an outdoor park, the activists haggled over an American's suggestion that the treaty call on groups around the world to work toward a 50% reduction in pesticide use by the year 2000.

Multilingual participants listened to translations on headsets, just like those used by the official delegates at the United Nations-sponsored summit 25 miles away.

The pesticide goal did not enthuse activists from poor countries, where hunger is a far more pressing problem than agricultural chemicals. The target was finally dropped.

"The idea is to have a treaty general enough so that people can sign it," said Roger Blobaum, associate director of a U.S.-based group that promotes organic farming and other environmentally sensitive agricultural practices.

Throughout the summit, environmental groups have condemned government negotiators for compromising on vague, weak treaties. But the irony of resorting to similar measures at their own summit appears to have escaped many of them.

Like the official delegations, activists often have been divided along geographical lines--those from developing countries aligned against those from the industrialized world.

The poorer groups want their richer counterparts to share their funds. The richer groups are resisting, citing the recession, among other considerations.

American environmental groups, which have lambasted President Bush for refusing to sign a major conservation treaty at the official summit, are themselves not planning to sign all of the activists' pacts.

"I have been a little bit disappointed," said Navroz Dubash, a policy analyst for the Environmental Defense Fund, a major American environmental group. "We were too much like the governments, nit-picking over words and phrases rather than discussing the actual concepts."

Many of the activists' accords commit the participants to lobby for change, adjust their lifestyles to reflect environmental concerns and collect and share information on ecological problems.

Some activist groups have asked their attorneys to look over the documents to ensure that they would not be legally binding if signed, said an environmentalist who did not want to be identified.

One of the treaties dwells on recognition of the "historical, ecological and cultural debt" the industrialized countries in the North owe to the poor nations in the South.

"So how many Northerners are going to sign that one?" asked Barbara Bramble, a National Wildlife Federation attorney who is helping coordinate the non-governmental summit.

During negotiations, groups from the poorer countries--referred to as the "South" in U.N. parlance--have accused Northern activists of arrogantly entering their countries and pushing for environmental projects that fail to consider the economic needs of the local populace.

"The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund (which have overseas projects) have had a bad rap," Bramble said. "They have gone around telling other people what to do instead of asking people what they need."

American environmentalists are learning during these talks that some of their ecological zeal abroad has not always been appreciated.

Bramble noted that successful efforts by American environmentalists and others to prevent a U.S.-based multinational corporation from drilling for oil in a national park in Ecuador backfired. The American company pulled out but was replaced by a national corporation with a far worse environmental record, she said.

Activists from poorer nations also resent attempts by environmental groups to negotiate "debt-for-nature" swaps, in which foreign debt is forgiven in return for creating a natural reserve or other environmental projects. In the eyes of the Southern groups, the debt was contracted illegally and should not even be recognized.

"Some people here are having their eyes very much opened," Bramble said.

Southern activists bristle when their Northern counterparts dwell only on environmental issues in the talks. They want to discuss development as well and suspect that environmental reform may be just, in Bramble's words, "a plot to keep them down."

Northern environmentalists roll their eyes and stalk out of meetings when activists from poorer nations launch into harangues about their oppression at the hands of the industrialized world.

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