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A Year After Rio, North and South Still Debate Priorities


ONE year ago, the leaders of some 106 nations gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and committed themselves to taking action on environmental issues around the globe.

But in the first post-Rio global environmental summit, the Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), which was designated to lead the implementation of the Rio promises, is short on funds and caught in a North-South debate over priorities.

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"People have a lot of good words for the environment, but in the end they don't pay for it," says Sabina Voogd, an observer from the private environmental group Greenpeace, at the meeting of the Governing Council of the UNEP.

The Rio summit outlined four primary global environmental concerns: climate, bio-diversity, deforestation, and desertification. Representatives of developing nations, however, say these priorities reflect the concerns of wealthier states.

At the Nairobi conference, which runs from May 10 to May 21, the Group of 77, comprised of developing nations, proposed reshaping UNEP spending priorities to give more attention to freshwater resources, housing, and poverty reduction. The proposal also calls for zero funding for protection of the atmosphere, currently the major UNEP budget item. Wealthier nations, concerned over depletion of the ozone layer, strongly opposed the proposal.

But the issue of where to spend the funds is frustrated by the lack of adequate pledges, according to delegates at the conference here. Despite the abundance of promises at Rio to begin addressing environmental problems, UNEP's funding this year is no more than last year, about $65 million.

After accounting for inflation, that means the agency's funding "is more or less at the same value as 1976," says a UNEP financial official here.

Even the funding target UNEP officials had planned for this year, $120 million, is "peanuts," says Bakary Kante, director of environment for the government of the West African state of Senegal.

"I have the feeling they [donors] are going back [on] some commitments at Rio," Mr. Kante said at the UNEP meeting here.

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Next week, for example, in Beijing, World Bank, UN, and donor officials will meet to discuss plans for using a pre-Rio fund of World Bank grants known as the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The $1.3 billion reportedly already pledged to the GEF from the developed world dwarfs the money UNEP has been getting.

But turning to the GEF means the developed nations will determine how the money is spent, notes Canadian Bob Munro, a private environmental consultant to African governments. "The North is trying to set the agenda for the South," he says.

Michael Howard, Britain's secretary of state for the environment, is more direct: "The people who are contributing the money are going to have the final say." He adds, however, that dialogue between developed and developing nations - is improving. He cited his recent meeting on environmental priorities with Kamal Nath, India's minister for environment and forests.

Donors from the developed countries are correct when they say they are making additional funds available for global environmental problems, says Vincente Sanchez, a Chilean delegate to the UNEP meeting.

"The catch is that all this [GEF] funding is for problems important to the developed countries, such as oceans, climate, and bio-diversity. We do not have [additional funds] for issues important to developing countries," he says.

Mr. Sanchez admits the Group of 77's zero figure on climate spending is "absurd," but he adds, "we're trying to make a point." The point is that the GEF, which already has $400 million earmarked for protection of the atmosphere, should be the major funder of such programs, not UNEP, he explains.

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