A Journalist's Guide to the U.N. Earth Summit: Rio Correspondents Say the Real Story Is Not with the Heads of State

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Rio correspondents say the real story is not with the heads of state

Although some editors may think that President Bush and the other 100 heads of state will be the big story at the United Nations' Earth Summit, it is really citizens groups such as Grandmothers Against Nuclear Weapons and the Earth Love Fund which deserve a second look.

For the more than 2,500 international journalists descending on Rio de Janeiro to cover the conference, take a tip from correspondents in Rio. The interesting stories -- the color, the lively quotes, the heated debates -- will be across town at the numerous parallel events.

"That's where you'll find the impassioned speeches, with people trying to transmit energy to the United Nations' conference," says Time magazine correspondent Ian McCluskey.

As some journalists see it, the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development -- June 3 to 14 -- which is supposed to lay the fertile ground for worldwide environmental policies, may just be a lot of fertilizer. At preconference cocktail parties in Rio, reporters quip about Earth Summit hot air contributing to global warming.

"I think this conference is just going to be a dull formality," says Bruce Handler, the Rio de Janeiro bureau chief for the Associated Press. "How can you sustain reader interest writing this story for Joe Pickup for 11 days?"

Journalists in Rio agree that most of the U.N. conference will be no more than photo ops, signing ceremonies, and bureaucratic haggling. Treaties on reducing greenhouse gases and combating ozone depletion have already been debated and reported on and await only signatures.

"After the opening statements, we'll have 10 days of guys saying, 'Now we call on the representative of Botswana,' and he'll get up and read a paper and everyone will fall asleep, really," Handler says.

Journalists agree that news will pick up when President Bush arrives for his whirlwind appearance toward the end of the conference. Then again, Handler adds, "You're not going to get German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and George Bush sitting down at the podium arguing face to face about pollution controls.

"The action will be out at the Global Forum where the so-called peoples' group will give their views on the official positions being taken or not taken by governments."

The Global Forum, the largest of the parallel events, is an umbrella organization set up for the over 250 different groups which are providing alternative solutions on the issues being debated at the official U.N. conference. The Global Forum has been designated by Earth Summit secretary Maurice Strong as the entity to assure that the voices of citizens are heard.

Varying viewpoints will be given from groups such as Greenpeace, the International Indigenous Commission, and the Business Council for Sustainable Development.

Other rare perspectives will come from the Institute for Planetary Synthesis and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association.

Though some journalists dismiss the gathering as an "ecological Woodstock," it is these numerous seminars and debates that will critique what comes out of the U.N. conference.

Rio-based journalists say coverage of the Earth Summit will need to be mixed with comments and reaction from environmentalists, business leaders, women's groups, scientists, artists, and religious figures who will be tackling the issues of environment and development at the parallel events.

McCluskey says that "The issues are far too important to leave to governments, which is why the Global Forum is important. Governments can't really decide anything because they are too concerned with their own elections. …