Rio promises ring hollow in isles of despair

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The Independent Online
THE MOST important environmental conference since the Earth Summit in Rio two years ago - and the first test of whether the world's leaders intend to implement the resolutions they agreed there - is heading for failure.

At the Earth Summit the industrialised countries agreed to provide 'new and additional' finance to help Third World countries towards more environmentally friendly development. But here in Barbados, at the first international conference on the world's small island developing states (Sids), they are backing down.

The conference is addressing the future of one-sixth of the Earth's surface: the Sids control more than 30 million square miles of ocean through their exclusive economic zones.

Many of the world's most serious environmental problems are at their worst in Sids. Three- quarters of all known extinctions have occurred on islands.

Their water supplies are fast depleting, their forests are falling and their soils are being eroded. They have become dumping grounds for toxic wastes from overseas, while their fisheries are being depleted by foreign fleets.

Some also face a threat to their very existence from global warming. At least five countries - Tuvalu, Tokelau, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands in the Pacific and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean - could be completely submerged if the sea levels rise.

Only 3 per cent of a diminishing pot of aid is provided to tackle environmental problems.

But the Sids' case is falling on deaf or, in many cases, absent ears. Despite earlier promises, most of the rest of the world has refused to send senior figures to the conference. Then US Vice-President, Al Gore, was due to come, but will not now turn up; and Britain is sending Lord Arran, a junior environment minister. Even the usually sympathetic Nordic countries have clubbed together to send only one minister (from Iceland).

Many Third World countries want the conference to fail, because the Sids compete with them for aid money, and because they want an excuse to blame the rich for the failure of the follow-up to Rio.

'The momentum generated at the Earth Summit is faltering,' according to a report to the conference by 10 'eminent persons', including Chief Emeka Anyaoku, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, and Maurice Strong, who ran the Rio meeting. It blames the industrial countries for failing 'to honour the commitments' made two years ago.

Elizabeth Dowdeswell, executive director of the UN environment programme, terms the mood 'post-Rio depression'. And Gus Speth, head of the UN development programme, says: 'The momentum of Rio has rapidly declined. Where are the new and additional resources that were promised?'

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, spoke of the 'fatigue' of rich countries. 'We have too many other problems all over the world - drugs, Aids, so many ethnic wars,' he said. 'This creates a kind of distraction.'

He urged the Sids to get together and 'lobby' to gain attention for their problems. This is already taking place: 18 of their heads of state will meet here this week. They are forming a block at the UN - where they control more than one- fifth of the votes - and are beginning to assert this power.

'Before long there will continually be at least one or two members of the Security Council, who owe their place to the small islands,' said one senior UN official. Annette des Iles, the Trinidad & Tobago ambassador, warns: 'Those who don't take our concerns seriously will be sorry.'