ENVIRONMENTAL groups from rich countries have for years waged a campaign against those in poor countries who want to harness their natural resources for economic growth. Their efforts threaten to do lasting harm to the aspirations of millions of poor people in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and must be resisted at all times and in all places.

One of those places is the Copenhagen climate change summit taking place in Denmark. Thousands of delegates from around the world are gathered there trying to work on ways to limit global warming. But it is increasingly clear to those of us in the south that the north is using the summit as a way to maintain their living standards, while keeping the developing world in a state of destitution.

For example, just this week a document emerged that outlined a plan to stop poor countries from clearing some of their forest lands to make room for more productive uses, such as palm farming, rubber farming and urban development. The suggestion - encapsulated in the so-called "Danish text" - is risible and morally obtuse and its emergence threatens to torpedo the entire conference.

Every nation in history has harnessed its resources in the early stage of its development. Indeed, Europe itself was arguably the most forested region on the planet for most of its history until it started its economic growth path several centuries ago. Over the course of many decades, Europeans sensibly altered and re-altered their land use to permit more productive agricultural use and enterprise, with the resultant job creation.

Today, nations across the developing world aim to do the same thing - to harness some of their natural endowments to create products for sale in world markets. And so countries in Africa and Asia develop palm plantations to sell palm oil across the globe. Farmers in Latin America alter land uses to grow fruits, vegetables and flowers to satisfy customers in their region and beyond.

These efforts come with some ecological costs, just as they did in Europe , North America , Japan and other places in the north in decades past. Only once the northern nations became rich - and not a moment before - could they afford the environmental protections they now demand of their poorer neighbours to the south.

The environmental campaigners scored a victory this week, forcing a major multinational corporation, Unilever, to stop purchasing palm oil from a southern hemisphere producer.

The victory by the environmental activists will do nothing to protect the environment but it will toss thousands of poor people out of their jobs.

How Greenpeace employees can sleep well at night after an effort such as this is a mystery . Of course, they live in rich countries where everyone has soft pillows, fine linens, heating and air- conditioning, which must make sleeping with a guilty conscience easier.

The victory over Unilever is just a start, and green groups are hoping to use Copenhagen as their vehicle to, in effect, outlaw developing world vegetable oils across the globe.

If they succeed, millions of people whose livelihoods depend on natural resource industries will be thrown into economic chaos.

A little-reported but critical aspect of this story is that green groups are making common cause with large European vegetable oil producers. The European producers do not like the competition from Africa and elsewhere, and so they are pressing the European Union to halt imports of competing vegetable oils.

They mask their protectionist efforts under a cloak of environmental urgency, but the end result is the same - Europeans maintain their jobs and living standards while the poor countries are denied opportunity.

The rich-world campaign against palm oil is worrying on many levels. It shows how easy it is to promote a one- sided argument regarding forest destruction without balancing it with the many benefits that can arise from changes in land use - principally benefits to some of the world's poorest and most vulnerable people.

It also shows how easy it is for protectionists and businesses to use environmental issues to pass laws and regulations so as to further protect their interests, regardless of the implications for trade, the world's poor and consumers around the globe.

This episode also exposes the troubling hypocrisy at play in the climate change and broader environmental debate.

Europeans used their own resources and those from many other nations in order to advance, become powerful and improve the living standards of ordinary men, women and children.

Poor countries need to be given the same opportunity. Basic notions of decency insist on it.

- Ayodele is the director of the Initiative for Public Policy Analysis, Lagos, Nigeria.