South Presses Developed Nations' Responsibility for Environment
SAO PAULO, BRAZIL
THROUGHOUT the day at the gates of the Deposito de Sucatas Santa Clara, a corner junkyard in an industrial neighborhood of this metropolis, ragged men arrive hand-pulling big wooden carts full of scrap iron and paper. They pick up or buy the trash on the street, at the gates of private homes, and in dumps.
They sell it to Jose Paulo Martins, a former bank worker, and he resells it, making a 20 percent profit. The companies who buy the trash melt down the iron to make parts and turn the paper into cardboard boxes.
Mr. Martins accepts anything; he's out for the margin. "At the moment, I've got a washing machine, a stove, a metal desk, and the bars from a police station," he says with a laugh.
This is the nature of recycling in much of the third world, a far cry from the first world's selective trash pickup programs or parking lot dropoff points with special dumpsters for newspaper, glass, and other items. Dynamic resource use in many developing countries is driven not by a concern for the environment, but by pure economic need.
Even when the environment does receive attention, as it is beginning to do in the southern hemisphere, there are still ironic contrasts: The Industrias Klabin paper mill in southern Brazil has invested millions of dollars in reforestation and effluent treatment, but the Tibagi River it sits on is still polluted because a town upstream has no sewage treatment plant.
"Developed countries are worried about chlorofluorocarbons and the greenhouse effect, but less developed countries are concerned with basic sanitation," says Fabio Feldmann, a Brazilian congressman elected on an environmental platform.
The third world's concern issues from critical problems, such as the cholera epidemic that last year began moving across South America, the result of years of inadequate spending on water treatment and delivery systems. Solving this environmental problem alone will cost at least $200 billion in sanitation equipment, according to the Pan-American Health Organization.
Funds are also short in the South for many other pressing problems, such as providing alternative sustenance to farmers who are causing deforestation in Latin America and Asia. Money is also needed for research, for example on the pharmaceutical applications of the South's myriad plant species, and the effects of ultraviolet radiation coming through a gap in the ozone layer at the tip of South America. Some governments have also been unable to deal effectively with the needs of indigenous peoples, though
their survival is key to the preservation of many regions, such as the Amazon rain forest.
In Brazil, the government recently did set aside land for the Yanomami Indian tribe, but officials at the Indian affairs agency say they have no airplane or bus tickets for technicians or Indians to get to or from the Yanomami territory, no money for seeds, no diesel to run generators for radio communication, and no vaccines.
The government's National Institute for Amazon Research "is completely bankrupt," says an ecology researcher there, Philip Fearnside. "You're lucky if half [the funding] ever arrives ... and it usually arrives at the end of the year when it has lost most of the value" because of high inflation.
WITH an overwhelming environmental agenda, developing countries say the North not only should clean up the damage it causes directly but also has an obligation to help them.
"Underdevelopment is both a fundamental cause and a serious effect of the deterioration of the environment," the presidents of Amazon region countries declared after a meeting of the consultative Amazon Pact leading up to the UN Conference on Environment and Development starting today in Rio de Janeiro. "Thus the solution of environmental problems is intimately linked to a new attitude of international cooperation, which translates into the expansion of financial resources, greater access to technology, widened trade flows, and measures to solve the foreign debt problem."
Even as they ask for help, some environmentalists and government officials in the South are wary of the developed countries' growing attention to them, after what they see as decades of economic victimization.
Some members of Brazil's military think "the first world is using [conservation] as a bludgeon to slow down development," says David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia. "The first world is in bad shape in terms of exhausting energy resources, and the nationalist rhetoric thinks ... that the US, for example, wants to preserve the Amazon and use it for methane [production] in about 40 or 50 years."
Even in the developing world, much has changed since the last UN environmental conference, in 1972. At that time, many countries decidedly put economic growth over natural resource preservation. Today, information flows are faster, and democratic systems of government have taken root in a growing number of countries. The combination has led to growing environmental awareness, action, and cooperation.
Despite differences, the Rio conference should help to further this dynamic, activists believe. "No country, no matter how industrially powerful or weak, politically powerful or weak, large or small, has the unfettered freedom to set its own destiny or set its own policy," says Warren Lindner, international coordinator for the '92 Global Forum, a parallel event for nongovernmental organizations. "There are too many of us."