UNITED NATIONS -- Representatives from more than 160 nations agreed early yesterday on a document that commits the industrial nations of the Northern Hemisphere to help poorer Southern Hemisphere countries develop in a way that will not damage the environment.
The document, in draft form, was the only full accord resulting from five weeks of U.N. negotiations in preparation for an international environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro in June.
Three other major issues taken up in the preparatory negotiations remain unresolved.
Although the conference adopted portions of Agenda 21, a plan for cleaning up the world's environment in the 21st century, disputes continue on how to pay for the cleanup, whether developing nations should have free access to new, environmentally sound technologies, and how to safeguard the world's forests. Discussion of these issues will resume in Rio.
Also unresolved are two legally binding conventions -- one on stabilizing climate and the other on protecting the diversity of plant and animal life.
The draft Rio Declaration on Environment and Development commits the world's nations to a number of principles that have not been universally accepted before.
At its heart is an agreement that eradicating poverty is an "indispensable requirement for sustainable development."
The other main points are that those who pollute should bear the cost of cleaning up, that nations should guard against environmental damage even if there are not established scientific reasons for precautions, that women have "a vital role in environmental management and development" and that while nations have a right to exploit their own resources, they have no right to "cause damage to the environment of other states or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction."
The richer northern nations acknowledge, in convoluted language, that the damage their own industrialization has done and the greater wealth they have acquired give them a special responsibility to help poorer lands raise living standards in environmentally safe ways.
And developing nations, which have environmental problems such as overgrazing of land and the destruction of forests, pledge to curb soaring birthrates that contribute to poverty and to environmental degradation.
The declaration, which was adopted early yesterday morning, emerged from a long and bitter North-South political struggle that dominated the meeting.
At first, the negotiators hoped to draft an Earth Charter, which the industrial nations saw as a relatively short statement, committing countries in soaring, visionary language to safeguard the world's natural inheritance.
But developing nations insisted on a more detailed, pragmatic document that would force the North to take responsibility for the world's environmental difficulties and promise to help them continue their development safely.
In addition to financial help, the developing nations are asking the richer ones to share new manufacturing techniques that will enable them to industrialize without polluting.
"The declaration captures the middle ground between the North's concern with cleaning up the environment and the South's concern with continuing its economic development," a Western diplomat said afterward.
No industrial nation has committed any specific amount of money.
It is estimated that the poorer nations will need $125 billion a year in foreign assistance to fully carry out Agenda 21 -- about $70 billion more than the $55 billion they receive in aid from the North today.
Such an increase in aid is generally dismissed as unrealistic in the present economic climate.
Developing nations appeared particularly pleased with the final text, seeing it as a victory for their view that any general statement of environmental principles must also address their development needs.
"Developing countries feared recolonization through environmental conditionalities because they are weaker than the North," said Tariq Osman Hyder of Pakistan, chief negotiator for the Group of 77, as the developing countries call themselves at the United Nations. "But this document achieves a middle point between northern and southern goals."