Environmental Groups Are Given a Voice as Heads of State Prepare for the Rio "Earth Summit," Non-Governmental Environmental Organizations Prepare for Their Own Meeting to Push for Increased International Efforts in Environmental Protection and Natural Resource Management. WORLD ENVIRONMENT

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WHEN heads of state and official delegates from around the world meet in Brazil this June for the "Earth Summit," they will be just a fraction of those gathered to debate and act on issues related to global environment and development.

Also participating in and observing the two-week discussions and negotiations in Rio de Janeiro will be thousands of representatives from non-government organizations (NGOs). In fact, there will be two summits going on simultaneously: the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) for government representatives, and across town, the '92 Global Forum where an estimated 10,000 participants from more than 1,000 groups will hold hundreds of meetings.

This combination of government-private activity has been going on for months now, with NGOs playing an important role in shaping both questions and answers in preparation for the official UN conference in Rio. Maurice Strong, secretary-general of UNCED, describes the role of NGOs as "indispensable," and the UN has provided some financial and logistical support. Voice of negotiations

Non-governmental groups, says Sarah Burns of the World Resources Institute, are "the conscience, the independent voice of the negotiations.... We act as a kind of pressure group alongside the official negotiations."

Included here are mainline United States environmental groups like the Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation, groups with broader (and sometimes more radical) social and economic agendas like the Maylasia-based "Third World Network," labor unions and industry groups, women's rights and church organizations, and those working to limit world population growth.

There are tiny grass-roots efforts as well, like the 12 students taking a course in "Sustainable Economics" at Berkeley High School who recently traveled by train across country from California to sit in on the current UNCED preparatory session in New York.

The umbrella organization for the 160 US grass-roots groups involved with the Earth Summit, the San Francisco-based "US Citizens Network," has been actively lobbying official delegates at the UN. "That's our strength," says Catherine Porter, the network's executive director, who describes NGOs as "a critical and valuable part of the process." More international efforts

For many non-government groups, that process has included steady pressure on governments to accelerate both environmental protection as well as citizen participation in international efforts dealing with a wide range of political, social, and economic issues. Some NGO observers recently went so far as to interrupt a recent speech at the UN by US Enviromental Protection Agency administrator William Reilly.

A Bush administration official involved with US environmental policy-making calls some of this public pressure "games-playing," but adds that, "for the most part, {NGOs} have been constructive. …