World Leaders Gather at Rio for Earth Summit International Consensus Sought on Tackling Hunger, Deforestation, Toxic Air and Water

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ON this day, the United Nations claims, some 100 to 300 plant and animal species around the world will die out - far above what scientists believe is the natural rate of extinction, and largely attributable to human impact on the environment. Also today, the UN predicts, 40,000 people (mostly children) will die from hunger and hunger-related diseases. Much of that loss, too, is because of human impact on the environment.

These are the defining figures that have brought more than 100 heads of state or government, 10,000 delegates, and another 20,000 observers to the "Earth Summit," which starts here tomorrow.

Since the last gathering convened 20 years ago, both the seriousness of global environmental problems and general awareness about them have increased dramatically, as has the level of human suffering due to related poverty. (See summary of issues, Page 10.)

Maurice Strong, secretary-general of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, as the meeting here in Rio is officially called, puts the problem this way:

"Humanity is confronted with deepening disparities within and between nations. There is pervasive hunger, poverty, illiteracy, and ill health. The ecological consequences of ozone depletion, climate change, soil degradation, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and the increasing pollution of air, water and land threaten our common and sustainable future."

Mostafa Tolba, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), stresses that there are in fact no "global" ecological issues, but instead "the global crisis facing our planet is the sum total of the billions of daily actions of individuals, industries, and governments."

Among the problems detailed in the UN report:

rMore than 25 billion tons of topsoil are lost each year due to erosion tied to agricultural activities. Use of chemical fertilizers has doubled during the past 20 years, but the period also saw the number of chronically hungry people increase by 90 million to a total of 550 million.

rSome 900 million people in urban areas are exposed to unhealthy levels of sulphur dioxide, and more than one billion are exposed to excessive levels of particulate emissions.

rSix and one-half million tons of garbage are dumped into the oceans every year.

There are other problems as well. James Gustave Speth, president of the World Resources Institute points out that because of a 50 percent increase in the rate of tropical deforestation during the 1980s, "an area ... about the size of the state of Washington now is lost each year; that's an acre and a half a second."

"Humans continue to alter in a few decades precise ecological balances that have evolved over billions of years," says Dr. Tolba of UNEP. "The facts show again and again - in dwindling fish stocks, projected shortfalls in fuel wood, quickening soil erosion, and millions of tons of greenhouse gases spewed into the atmosphere - that time is running out. …