With deserts swallowing their arable land at an accelerating pace and their precious forests rapidly disappearing, African leaders are discovering that the industralized world's preoccupation with environmental issues is relevant to their continent as well.

Getting that message to their people has not been easy, however.

While maintaining their own dedication to economic development, African policymakers no longer view environment and development as conflicting issues.

At the United Nations environmental program's fifth governing council meeting in Nairobi in May, Africa's former suspicious of the environmental issue had all but disappeared. Even countries like tiny Gabbon now have environment ministries.

This is a far cry from the controversial 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, which created the U.N. agency, there. African and other Third World countries claimed that the West was trying to deny them the benefits of industrialization.

Alfred Heller, an American delegate in both Stockhholm and here in Nairobi said, "There was intense suspicion among Third World countries that the environmental issue was an elitist industrialized ploy and that pollution was a problem for the West but not for the Third World. But you don't hear any of that rhetoric here now."

"We haven't given up our commitment to rapid economic expansion," said Prof. Richard Odingo, of Nairobi University. "But we don't want to repeat your mistakes and import your pollution."

The environment is no longer dividing the rich and poor countries because the Third World has realized that development and a concern for its environmental consequences must go hand in hand.

"We don't want outmoded polluting technology and we get angry when we hear that the U.S. Agency for international Development donates pesticides to developing countries which are banned in the United States because of their negative environmental impact," Prof. Odingo said.

Perez Olindo, formerly Kenya's director of wildlife and ne of Africa's leading conservationists said. "We're now beginning to think in terms of hole systems."

"In 1972 my interest were narrowly confined to wildlife and forest conservation. But now, as I become more educated, I'm realizing how these are tied to desertification, water quality and pollution." Desertification is the spread of deserts to formely fertile area.

African environmentalists, though, are working under much greater hardships than their Western counterparts. Olindo, for instance, was so zealous in trying to stop animal poaching and the illegal charcoal burning that has destroyed much of Kenya's once profligate forest that his responsibilities were transferred from wildlife conservation to the treasury.

Citizen's groups in Africa are rare and when they do exist they do not command the clout of similar groups in the West.

Although a politician may grasp the urgency of forest conservation, he will have difficulty explaining a ban on cutting trees to constitutents who rely on firewood or charcoal to cook their food.

He may know that cultivating riverbeds leads to water pollution and silting, but his constituents with little land and 10 months to feed have more immediate worries.

Colonial governments in Africa were committed to forest and soil conservation, but any African leader who calls for a return to the mandatory one day a month of digging terraces and planting trees would run the risk of ending his political career.

Nationalist politicians at the time of independence opposed such methods of forced conservation and even today few would admit that their political expendiency was environmental irresponsible.

African environmentalists and governmental leaders are, therefore, still searching for policy initiatives that are both popularly acceptable and in live with national development objectives.

This is particularly complicated bycause rapid population expansion is upsetting an ecological balance that existed just one generation ago and because industrial pollution is new to Africa. In Europe and America, black lung disease and streams with undrinkable water have been facts of life for generations but they were unknown here until recently.

"It's hard to convey the message of forest conservation to a woman who believes that firewood, like water, come from God," said Prof. Odingo.

In the West, citizens pressured their governments to act on environmental issues, but in Africa the situation must be reversed.

"Africa can't wait for environmental education," Odingo added, "we must use force."