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Three weeks before the U.N.-sponsored Rio + 20 summit conference on sustainable development, member countries that the United States hoped would produce a five-page summary of goals are instead haggling over a mammoth grab-bag of demands for new planetary regulation and assertions that industrialized countries, led by the U.S., should pay for, among other things, an unprecedented and massively expensive transfer of technology and funds to the developing world.

At one point, the text being debated by hundreds of negotiators climbed to 171 pages before being cut back by executive fiat to 86 pages—only to start climbing steeply again.

The unwieldy document covers everything from sustainable food strategies to codes of corporate responsibility to technology transfers—on highly favorable terms—to developing countries. Copies of the document are not being made publicly available.

The emergency bargaining session was intended as a last-ditch effort to bring some focus, energy and concision to the text after previous scheduled meetings led only to the current, bloated document.

“We were hoping it would inspire people, get them interested in the issues writ large,” a senior State Department official told Fox News. “ Right now, it’s just a long list of everybody’s projects, which is less valuable. “

The haggling over what will be said at the end of the three day Rio + 20 meeting, which starts on June 21 in Brazil, does not bode well for the summit, which U.N. organizers hope will inaugurate not only a radical overhaul of the world economy but a new and still unspecified era of “global environmental governance.”

The summit is also in danger of being overshadowed by deepening financial clouds over Europe and an economic slowdown between China and the U.S., as well as the ugly confrontation in Syria and an impending U.S. presidential election. As the State Department official put it: “We think the focus should be the future rather than a long negotiated text. Most countries around the world recognize that we are in difficult circumstances. This is not a time to talk about new financial commitments and transfers.”

Nonetheless, that is just the kind of sweeping and open-ended language that many countries evidently feel that the document should contain.

The messy document owes much to the huge, varied and often antagonistic interests that the U.N. decided to bring into the negotiation process, which includes not only national governments but also “civil society” groups ranging from business interests to native peoples to such undefined classes as “women.”

Some of the unmanageable complexity, however, is due to the internal machinations of the U.N. itself, which quietly decided last April to bring together representatives from at least 60 developing countries, “to share good practice on the themes of the conference and to learn from each other on their national preparatory processes for Rio +20. ”

The $2.8 million effort, billed as a “capacity building” exercise, brought together about 80 participants, including “senior officials from relevant ministries,” representatives of business, labor, indigenous people, farmers, “youth,” and “women” among others, along with parliamentarians and media from May 15 to 17 in Dakar, Senegal.

According to an internal Rio + 20 “concept note” describing the process, the aim was “to develop consensus on broad areas of national action, as well as on priorities for regional action and for international decision at [Rio + 20].

Or, in other words, how to hone and focus their lobbying efforts in advance of the meeting, and their efforts at shaping the outcome afterwards.

The organizers, which included U.N. development agencies and the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), which provides the secretariat for Rio + 20, also distilled 10 detailed country studies to offer proof that the whole idea of “sustainable development” works.

The studies were intended to show that the selected countries “have embarked on a more sustainable development path,” and “demonstrate how sustainable development approaches (such as fiscal reform for poverty reduction, economic valuations of natural resources, pro-poor payments for environmental services, as well as institutional and coordination arrangements) can contribute to the sustainable development agenda.”

How well the lobbying prep session went is not known.

(Alongside those advance efforts to shape the negotiating outcome for Rio + 20, minutes of a meeting of summit organizers held on May 1, and examined by Fox News, indicate that the U.N. intends to pay the way for “two participants…per developing country” to attend the Rio + 20 meeting itself. Full details of the subsidized attendance were to be determined at a later date.)

In a final complication to the last minute marathon bargaining, at least some international “civil society” organizations with close U.N. ties have been mobilizing pressure on their government representatives in the bargaining session to protect their special-interest sections of the bloated outcome document.

One such is a Spain-headquartered international organization of mayors known as “United Cities and Local Government,” which claims to include more than 1,000 member-cities 95 countries. United Cities includes a smattering of U.S. municipal and country officials in its ungainly executive bureau.

As the bargaining has gotten stiffer over the negotiating text, United Cities has been sending its members a form letter to pass on to national government ministers, urging them to preserve specific references to local government in the negotiating text, and thus, presumably, enhance the organization’s clout post-Rio + 20.

Whether the letter-writing campaign has been successful or not is unknown. But it certainly cannot be making the containment of Rio + 20s rhetorical sprawl any easier.

Fox News, 1 June 2012