Current Issue
Print Edition
Inter Press Service
Search Archive
  Home Page
  Current Issue
  People of Tierramérica
Kyoto Protocol
  About us
  Inter Press Service
The world's leading provider of information on global issues
United Nations Development Programme
United Nations Environment Programme

Connect yourself

The Cartagena Protocol

On September 11 the Cartagena Protocol entered into force, the first international treaty on the transfer, management and use of organisms modified using biotechnology techniques. It is hoped that the treaty will foment the safe use of transgenics, an issue that has awakened a heated global debate, pitting the United States against Europe.

Adopted in 2000 by the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the treaty seeks to make international trade in genetically modified organisms (GMOs) more transparent through security measures that meet the needs of consumers, industry and, most of all, the environment.

The Protocol is intended to prevent potential conflicts between trade rules and the international biosecurity regimen, says a guide to the treaty provided by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

The process of reconciling the legitimate interests of trade, biosafety and others has not been easy. There is a bitter dispute between those who see biotechnology as the road to food security and those who point to ethical, environmental, health and social reasons to establish tight controls for GMOs.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), issued a Statement on Biotechnology in March 2000, maintaining that this branch of science offers powerful tools for sustainable development of agriculture, fishing and forestry, as well as for the food industry.

Meanwhile, environmental groups like Greenpeace believe that the biological wealth inherent in traditional crops is a global natural heritage threatened by genetic contamination. They blame biotech transnationals like Monsanto, the world's leading seed producer, of pressuring governments to discard mechanisms for controlling transgenic products.

And the United States and the European Union are at the forefront of the dispute. Last July, the European Parliament adopted a law requiring all foods containing GMOs to be labeled so that consumers are aware of what they are buying and eating.

The United States and other producers of transgenic crops, including Argentina, are demanding that the World Trade Organization (WTO) suspend the ban on sales of genetically modified foods in the EU, imposed in 1999.

In June of 2003, the republic of Palau became the 50th country to ratify the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety, allowing the treaty to enter into force. The first meeting of the parties to the Protocol will take place in Kuala Lumpur in February 2004.

Cartagena Protocol
Convention on Biological Diversity
FAO on Biotechnology
WTO - dispute on biotech products

World Ozone Day

The scientific community estimates that the ozone layer, which filters the ultraviolet rays of the Sun, could recover its density by the middle of this century. Recent studies show an improvement, a closing of the so-called ozone hole, but only in the upper stratosphere.

Efforts to limit production and use of ozone depleting gases must continue, and that is the point of World Ozone Day, observed every Sep. 16.

A report from the American Geophysical Union (AGU) found that the depletion of the ozone in the upper stratosphere -- 35 to 45 km above the earth's surface -- has slowed since 1997.

But the authors state that only a small percentage of ozone is located at that level, and the problem of ozone depletion remains serious.

Ozone is a harmful contaminant in the atmosphere closest to earth, but in the stratosphere, it protects the planet from excessive solar radiation. The process of restoring this protective shield should continue with the progressive elimination of ozone-depleting gases like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

The Montreal Protocol, signed Sep. 16, 1987, limits the use of substances that damage the ozone layer. In 1985, the international community agreed on the Vienna Convention to protect the ozone layer from CFCs, and other gases like methyl bromide, halons and carbon tetrachloride.

Since the scientists Mario Molina, of Mexico, and F. Rowland, of the United States, warned of the role of CFCs in the depletion of stratospheric ozone, concern about environmental and health consequences have led to international campaigns, and the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded the two experts in 1995.

The United Nations Environment Program's OzonAction website underscores that the international fight to protect the ozone layer is a success story among global environmental campaigns.

Since 1985, studies have revealed the existence of the ozone hole over Antarctica.

In 2000, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reported that the hole had reached a record size of 28.3 million square km, three times bigger than Australia or the United States, including Alaska.

But in 2002, abnormally warm climate conditions produced the smallest ozone hole since 1988.

UNEP - Ozone Secretariat
Vienna Convention
Montreal Protocol
American Geophysical Union
FAQs about Ozone
OzonAction Program
Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer

Protected Areas

There are 100,000 protected areas around the world, which together would cover an area larger than China and India combined. But very few provide benefits to the communities that inhabit them. Some 2,500 delegates are meeting in Durban, South Africa until Sep. 17 to discuss the problem, under the auspices of the Fifth World Congress on Protected Areas.

Organized by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), it is the largest forum for drafting an international agenda on protected areas. The main objective is to promote national policies to preserve biodiversity, with "benefits beyond borders."

Land and water ecosystems of biological importance -- due to their species diversity -- have been included in the category of national parks, landscapes, reserves, or natural monuments, set aside to protect a country's biological heritage.

But the latest concept of "protected area" takes into account wildlife areas and the notion of sustainable use reserves, according to the World Commission on Protected Areas, comprising a network of environmental experts.

In May 1997 the first Latin American Congress on National Parks and Protected Areas was held in Santa Marta, Colombia, where participants assessed progress and limitations in applying the concept of the Biosphere Reserve in Latin America.

In March of this year, the First Mesoamerican Congress on Protected Areas took place in Managua, Nicaragua, under the theme of "promoting conservation for development and integration."

World Congress on Protected Areas
IUCN - World Conservation Union
World Commission on Protected Areas
Mesoamerican Biological Corridor
World Bank - on protected areas

WTO on the Road to Cancun

The August 30 agreement on granting poor countries access to low-cost medicines was among the few items of good news on the rocky road towards the World Trade Organization's Fifth Ministerial Conference, to begin in the Mexican city of Cancun on Sep. 10. Disagreements persist in nearly all other areas of the ambitious negotiating agenda, including agricultural trade, services and investment. The environment, meanwhile, is but a marginal issue.

The WTO, founded in January 1995 as a result of the accords of the Uruguay Round of trade talks (1986 to 1994), will gather the trade ministers from its 146 member states in the Caribbean coast city of Cancun, Mexico. The officials have four days to try to overcome the obstacles standing in the way of achieving the goals set out in the Doha Development Agenda.

Previous ministerial meets took place in Singapore, Geneva and Seattle. The latest was in the Qatar capital, in late 2001, and now the ministers are getting ready to head to Cancun to continue the WTO-led process of global trade liberalization.

The WTO has no agreement specifically dedicated to the environment, but it does have a Committee on Trade and Environment, which discusses, for example the trade provisions in multilateral environmental accords, "green" labels on export products and the representation of environmental groups in trade talks.

The United Nations Environment Program and representatives from some international environmental agreements will have an ad hoc presence at the Cancun conference.

In the UNEP document on Trade and Environment, the agency's director, Klaus Toepfer, calls for more active UN participation in trade negotiations, and urges greater emphasis on issues such as trade in environmental goods and services, as well as curbing the negative environmental impacts of agricultural trade subsidies.

The compatibility of WTO rules and the standards set by environmental treaties is a crucial matter. There are some 20 multilateral environmental accords, such as the Montreal Protocol on reducing ozone-depleting gases, which sets restrictions for the production, consumption and trade of aerosols that contain CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons).

Likewise, the Basel Convention monitors trade and transport of toxic waste, and the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), regulates commerce in wildlife.

Multilateral organizations like the World Bank, specialized groups like the Trade Forum, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, as well as representatives from a broad spectrum of civil society groups will also be on hand in Cancun, proposing different approaches and alternatives to the international trade negotiations.

WTO Fifth Ministerial Conference
Doha Development Agenda
WTO Committee on Trade and Environment
United Nations Environment Program
UNEP Document on Trade and Environment
Montreal Protocol on Ozone-Depleting Materials
Secretariat of the Basel Convention
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
World Bank
World Social Forum
International Trade Forum

The Cockroach

The evolutionary persistence of the cockroach over hundreds of millions of years -- in which it hasn't much changed in appearance -- while the planet has undergone dramatic transformations is an impressive feat, but not enough to win people's affection.

Indeed, the feeling of disgust towards cockroaches is practically universal. Perhaps contributing to the negative image is the fact that cockroaches carry bacteria and microorganisms that cause illness among humans.

Geologists from the University of Ohio, in the United States, reported in 2001 the discovery in a mine of the largest complete fossil of a cockroach that inhabited the plant 300 million years ago, 55 million years before the first dinosaurs. The " Artopleura apustulatus" measured 8 cm long.

These resistant bugs play an important ecological role by incorporating nutrients into the environment. Cockroaches consume organic matter, and their waste in turn feeds microscopic organisms that turn it into humus, enriching the earth's soils.

But their resistance is just what makes them so frustrating. Scientists in many countries are at work to develop insecticides to control cockroach populations where they have become a problem.

The Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, identified the key mechanisms for insecticide resistance developed by the German cockroach, Blatella germanica, one of the most common cockroach species around the world, measuring 12 to 16 mm.

The female produces 18 to 48 eggs every 20 to 25 days and, like all cockroach species, it can carry bacteria and viruses that cause diarrhea, hepatitis, salmonella and tuberculosis, and the insect itself can trigger allergies.

ARS entomologist Steven M. Valles discovered a substance called esterase in several cockroach species that made them resistant to pesticides.

Valles's studies revealed that mutations in the proteins of the insect's nervous system were related to the ability to tolerate poisons.

It is of little comfort to know that of the more than 4,000 cockroach species that inhabit the planet, only a handful choose to share our homes.

U.S. Agricultural Research Service - cockroach resistance
The Cockroach Home Page
Cockroaches and evolution
Cockroach directory

Addictions - Tobacco

The death toll from tobacco use could reach one billion this century, according to estimates by the International Union Against Cancer (UICC), a network of 30 organizations from around the world.

If current rates of consumption continue, the number of deaths attributed to tobacco -- 100 million in the past hundred years -- will skyrocket, says the World Health Organization (WHO).

The alarm was sounded during the World Conference on Tobacco, held in Helsinki Aug 3-8. Around 2,000 experts from more than 100 countries studied international policies and proposals from anti-tobacco groups. They also took a look at the possibilities of achieving the goals set by the Convention on Tobacco Control.

The Convention, signed in May by 192 countries, includes among its objectives the total ban on advertising of cigarettes and other tobacco products.

A study by the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), explains that tobacco consumption has been a part of human cultures for hundreds of years, but it wasn't until the past century that cigarettes began to be manufactured on a massive scale.

Smoking became widespread and today one out of three adults in the world smokes.

The U.S.-based center Science, Tobacco and You explains that nicotine is the cause of tobacco addiction. Nicotine is an active ingredient in cigarette smoke. It is an alkaloid that produces pleasant sensations and affects the chemistry of the brain, says the center's website.

In 1492, when Christopher Columbus reached the New World, he didn't pay much attention to the tobacco plant, native to the Americas. He was focused on finding gold. But some of his crew quickly developed the habit of smoking… and the rest is history.

World Health Organization - Tobacco Free Initiative
International Union Against Cancer
Framework Convention on Tobacco Control - final text
Pan-American Health Organization
Science, Tobacco and You
ASH - Action on Smoking and Health
UICC - report

The Telescope

Since Galileo Galilei developed the telescope in 1610, ongoing efforts to perfect this technological tool have been key to advancing knowledge of the Solar System and of the cosmos. For many, the giant steps modern science has made as a result feed the fantasy of conquering outer space.

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is currently building a telescope that will be capable of detecting the first light of the universe, which appeared an estimated 11 billion years ago.

The James E. Webb space telescope, named in honor of the man who led NASA's Apollo missions to the moon, is under construction and slated to be up and operating in 2010.

Costing 824.8 million dollars, the Webb telescope will be used to peer into farthest regions recorded by the Hubble telescope, a distance of between 10 billion and 11 billion light years. The telescope will be placed 1.5 million km from Earth at the Lagrange Point 2, a site of equilibrium between the gravitational pulls of the Earth and Sun.

Many astronomers believe the new Webb will shed light on the big mystery of how the stars and galaxies were formed hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang, the explosion that theory says gave rise to the universe.

The Webb project began eight years ago, and is to replace the Hubble, the world's most important space telescope to date, and bearing the name of U.S. astronomer Edwin Hubble, considered the father of modern astrophysics.

Data gathered by the Hubble helped scientists to locate the oldest known planet, estimated to be 13 billion years old.

The Hubble was placed in orbit in 1990 for a 20-year mission to end in 2010.

There are several other space telescope projects underway around the world. Next year the Canary Islands Telescope is slated to begin operating, financed by Spain, Mexico and the United States.

Telescopes have helped astrophysicists get to know the cosmos, including the discovery of giant black holes, the formative stages of solar systems, and other phenomenon that contribute towards dating the origins of the universe. But not all seen through the telescope are wonders of the cosmos.

But not all seen through the telescope are wonders of the cosmos. There is plenty of space garbage too -- artificial objects like defunct satellites and used rockets, and other material that has come from humanity's exploration of what lies beyond.

James E. Webb Space Telescope
PBS - Big Bang, deep space timeline
Big Bang Theory
Hubble Telescope
Canary Islands Telescope
Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope


The bat is not a blind flying rodent, like many people seem to believe. It is a mammal of the Chiroptera order and serves many essential functions in nature: the bat pollinates plants, distributes seeds and controls insect populations.

Social rejection of bats is unfounded, says one website, stressing that this flying species controls pests in crops and in forests and adds diversity to the world's fauna. Destruction of bats' natural refuges, alteration of their habitat and widespread use of chemical pesticides are among the main threats they face.

To date, 1,075 bat species have been registered around the world, 150 more than were known to exist in 1990.

The "new" species, identified thanks to DNA sequencing techniques, have mostly been found in Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands.

The most ancient fossils of bats date back 50 million years, but they were not all that different from the bats we see today.

These members of the Chiroptera order range greatly in size and appearance, and there is even a hairless species.

Some scientists maintain that primates (lemurs, monkeys and humans) and bats share a common ancestor similar to a shrew.

In tropical zones, seed dispersal and pollination by bats are vital for the survival of rain forests, says the website of UK-based Bat Conservation International.

The guano bat, which measures some 93 mm long and weighs 15 grams, relies on its big ears to locate its prey. This species inhabits caves ranging from the southern United States, through Mexico, Central America, and down into central Chile and Argentina.

The U.S.-based conservationist Wildlife Trust says the largest known colony of guano bats is found at Bracken Cave, north of San Antonio, in the state of Texas. It is home to around 20 million bats that are capable of consuming 250 tons of insects each night.

In the northeast Mexican state of Nuevo León is La Boca Cave, which at one time held the largest guano bat colony, but 95 percent of its population has been lost in the past decade, says the Wildlife Trust website.

Bats are nocturnal and use a specialized system known as echolocation to navigate the dark skies. They emit a high-pitched sound, which bounces off even the tiniest objects and reaching the bats' sensitive ears, allowing them to capture their insect prey.

Bat Conservation International
Wildlife Trust
Hanford Reach National Monument
Silver-haired bat

Birds of Prey

With their powerful hooked beaks they tear the meat from the kill, which they capture thanks to incredibly keen eyesight. These attributes apply to vultures, eagles and hawks, as well as other species known as birds of prey, or raptors.

Through the 1960s, human activities took a tragic toll. The birds' nests were destroyed, the hatchlings were killed, adult birds hunted down -- an apparent attempt to exterminate them.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, "Raptors have existed for 75 million years and today there are over 450 species including eagles, hawks, falcons, vultures, buzzards, ospreys, harriers, kites and owls. They live in most habitats in virtually all areas of the world."

The website of the World Center for Birds of Prey tells the story of the "triumphant return" to Panama of "Ancon", a harpy eagle that the Central American country loaned to the U.S.-based Peregrine Fund.

For 10 years, Ancon -- alongside his mate "Olafa" -- was the focus of a team of scientists who developed techniques for raising endangered birds in captivity.

Experts consider the harpy eagle an indicator species, because the fate of the bird reflects the health of the ecosystem in which it lives. Because it is a predator, it is at the top of the food chain. The bird's disappearance means that it does not have the food sources or habitat necessary to survive.

WWF- Birds of Prey
The Peregrine Fund
Audubon Adopt-a-Bird
The Raptor Center
Yahoo! Directory - Birds of Prey


Peyote, a bitter plant containing some 60 different alkaloids, has been revered as sacred by many indigenous Mexican cultures throughout the centuries. Today, however, the plant is far better known for the hallucinogenic effects it produces once ingested.

Peyote is a flowering plant of the Cactaceae family, commonly found in dry regions of the Americas. The plant is a light blue-green, bears small pink flowers, and has a carrot-shaped root. Unlike other cacti, the peyote has spines only as a young plant. However, its areola —the area on the stem that usually produces flowers and spines—is well-pronounced and is identified by tufts of hairs.

There are more than 100 species of plants with psychoactive properties, says a study by Mexico’s National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO), and the ancient cultures of the Americas have a long history of using these hallucinogenic plants.

"These plants contain chemicals – alkaloids – capable of promoting abnormal states of awareness, altering the senses of sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. For this reason some cultures see them as bringers of knowledge, as divine instruments, sources of a profound and mysterious wisdom, of beauty and inspiration, as well as a means of maintaining cultural integrity," the study says.

Through rituals using hallucinogenic plants, ancient civilizations sought "to induce initiation into certain mysteries and to cure illnesses of the body and soul." Some types of mushrooms and plants are consumed by traditional healers, priests or shamans, says CONABIO.

The Tarahumaras, Tepehuanes, Coras and Huicholes are some of Mexico’s indigenous groups that have preserved their ancient rituals and whose legends and history are associated with the use of plants like peyote.

An Internet site for the Imaginaria magazine shows the work of Frenchmen Antonin Artaud and Gerard Tournebize, authors of the two-volume "A Trip to Tarahumara Country". According to that work, the religious ceremonies of the Tarahumara encapsulate all the knowledge that this group possesses of the world. All the elements in these rituals, like peyote, are symbolic, it adds.

For the Tarahumara, peyote is a being that has the ability to teach humankind how to walk the righteous path. The peyote ceremony represents the curing of the soul.

Peyote has been a controversial plant since the time of the Spanish colonizers, according to the magazine El Mercurio. The Spanish chroniclers said that "those natives who ate peyote were possessed by a terrifying demonic vision." The consumption of peyote was outlawed by the Holy Inquisition after 1617.

"On the basis of several historical events recorded in Indian chronology, Fray Bernardino de Sahagun estimated that peyote was known to the Chichimeca and Toltec at least 1,890 years before the arrival of the Europeans. This calculation would give Mexico’s ‘divine plant’ a history of some 2,000 years," the magazine said.

There are at least 30 species of cacti known as peyote, but not all have a recorded history of having been used as hallucinogens, says one article on psychoactive plants of the New World.

Much of what is known about peyote came from the chronicles of Francisco Hernandez, physician to King Phillip II of Spain, who traveled several times to Mexico to study the sacred use of peyote in indigenous cultures.

Regarding its toxicity, the botanical site states that there are no known cases of death from ingesting peyote. The site also notes that the peyote has hallucinogenic and psychoactive properties that influence perception, in particular the sense of sight.

German pharmacologist Arthur Heffter extracted mescaline from peyote in 1896, the first known hallucinogenic compound isolated by humankind.

Consuming mescaline alters the sense of consciousness. This substance is toxic in doses higher than 0.5 grams and produces symptoms such as severe nausea, vomiting, rapid heart rate, anxiety and hypertension. Some people develop psychosis after consuming mescaline.

Tradition has it that peyote possesses medicinal properties, and it is used to treat influenza, arthritis, diabetes, intestinal problems, the effects of snake bites, scorpion stings and other types of poisonings.

The National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity
Botany of the Peyote
Imaginaria Magazine
El Mercurio Magazine
A Guide to the Cactus World
Narcotic and Hallucinogenic Cacti of the New World
Medicinal Uses of the Peyote


Desertification and drought leave in their wake severe economic, environmental and socio-political troubles around the world. Every year, six million hectares of productive land disappear and millions of dollars in income are lost due to land degradation and declining agricultural yields.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) says that after a great deal of study and debate experts defined desertification as a phenomenon of land degradation in arid, semi-arid and sub-humid dry areas arising from the negative effects of human activities.

Although this serious problem dates back centuries, it took on global importance when in the early 1970s hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of the severe drought that hit sub-Saharan Africa. The International Conference to Combat Desertification was held in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1977.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification entered into force in 1996 after more than 50 countries ratified it. The Convention's objectives are to fight desertification and to curb the effects of drought through effective measures at all levels.

In 1994 the UN General Assembly designated Jun. 17 as World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. The date marks the anniversary of the Convention.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), arid lands cover nearly 30 percent of the planet's land surface and are inhabited by around 900 million people.

The FAO cites various factors that contribute to desertification: climate fluctuations, poor use of land, inappropriate farming methods, increased demographic density, economic pressures and changes in land ownership structures.

The impacts of desertification are felt on all continents. In Latin America and the Caribbean, which cover 20.18 million square km, more than 25 percent of the territory is arid land. Of that total, 70 percent shows signs of advanced stages of desertification.

United Nations Environment Program
UN Convention to Combat Desertification
World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought
Food and Agriculture Organization - on desertification
Inter-American Development Bank - Chronicle of a Drought Foretold
UNEP - Afghanistan's Wetlands and Birdlife Bear Brunt of War and Drought
World Bank - key desertification issues
Sustainable Development Communications Network - desertification directory


Desertification and drought leave in their wake severe economic, environmental and socio-political troubles around the world. Every year, six million hectares of productive land disappear and millions of dollars in income are lost due to land degradation and declining agricultural yields.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) says that after a great deal of study and debate experts defined desertification as a phenomenon of land degradation in arid, semi-arid and sub-humid dry areas arising from the negative effects of human activities.

Although this serious problem dates back centuries, it took on global importance when in the early 1970s hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of the severe drought that hit sub-Saharan Africa. The International Conference to Combat Desertification was held in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1977.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification entered into force in 1996 after more than 50 countries ratified it. The Convention's objectives are to fight desertification and to curb the effects of drought through effective measures at all levels.

In 1994 the UN General Assembly designated Jun. 17 as World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. The date marks the anniversary of the Convention.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), arid lands cover nearly 30 percent of the planet's land surface and are inhabited by around 900 million people.

The FAO cites various factors that contribute to desertification: climate fluctuations, poor use of land, inappropriate farming methods, increased demographic density, economic pressures and changes in land ownership structures.

The impacts of desertification are felt on all continents. In Latin America and the Caribbean, which cover 20.18 million square km, more than 25 percent of the territory is arid land. Of that total, 70 percent shows signs of advanced stages of desertification.

United Nations Environment Program
UN Convention to Combat Desertification
World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought
Food and Agriculture Organization - on desertification
Inter-American Development Bank - Chronicle of a Drought Foretold
UNEP - Afghanistan's Wetlands and Birdlife Bear Brunt of War and Drought
World Bank - key desertification issues
Sustainable Development Communications Network - desertification directory


Iguanas have a look that seems to hark back to a life in the very distant past of this planet. These reptiles are found primarily in the Americas, and in modern times have become a sort of cult object, and in some cases the source of concern for the very survival of certain species within the extensive family.

Iguanids constitute a family that covers 650 to 700 species, says the Familia iguanidae website, which also notes that nearly all of them inhabit the "new world" of the Americas, save for the exceptions in Madagascar and Fiji. Iguana species vary greatly, giving the lie to the large reptile stereotype.

From the point of view of scientific classification, iguanas are of "complicated design" and the various species range from a mere 7.5 cm to a full 2.0 meters long. They can be insect-eaters, carnivores, herbivores or omnivores.

Most iguanas reproduce by laying eggs, but there are some exceptions, which give live birth, such as the Phrynosoma douglassi, says another website.

The most popular face of these reptiles belongs to the green iguana, which is the preferred species among enthusiasts who raise these reptiles. Their dinosaur looks but docile character have conquered the hearts of many humans.

But beyond interest in iguanas as unique reptiles or as pets, there are many who are involved in fighting for their protection. These animals can be victims of habitat destruction as well as hunting, as there are people who deal in the unregulated trade of iguana meat and eggs.

On the Internet, the cases of the Mona Island iguana and the Utila iguana are highlighted in campaigns underway to protect them from extinction.

A look at the Iguanids
Green Iguana: biology
Mona Island Iguana
Conservation Project Utila Iguana
Rhino Iguana
Familia iguanidae
Iguana links


The areas of the world categorized as wetlands have one element in common: water. These are highly productive ecosystems, essential for preserving biodiversity. So it is no surprise that there are numerous campaigns to defend wetlands from degradation and protect them from disappearing.

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, an international treaty signed in Iran in 1971, defines these ecosystems as areas where water is present all or part of the time, and maintains a depth of less than six meters.

The Convention has 136 signatories, which in their national territories hold a total of 1,284 wetlands covering 108 million hectares, reports the Ramsar website.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) web page on wetlands highlights its definition that these include swamps, marshes, rivers, saltwater pools, estuaries and shallow coastal waters. Wetlands cover an estimated six percent of the earth's land surface.

Wetlands are one of the most productive ecosystems in the world, sustaining 40 percent of fish species and many other species, including aquatic birds. Together with rainforests, wetlands are also among the most threatened ecosystems, due to their transformation, development and contamination, says the Ramsar website on biodiversity.

Under the auspices of the Ramsar Convention, since 1997 World Wetlands Day is celebrated every Feb. 2 with the aim of raising awareness about the importance of these ecosystems. This year, the theme was: No Wetlands! - No Water!

The dire situation of these natural sites has triggered reactions around the world. The organization Wetlands International states that its mission is to "maintain and restore wetlands, their resources and biodiversity for future generations."

Various human activities require the natural resources provided by wetlands and therefore depend on maintaining their ecological conditions, says the Argentine Secretariat of Environment and Sustainable Development website.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) further reminds us that wetlands are to be found everywhere, "from the tundra to the tropics, on every continent except Antarctica."

The fate of these ecosystems is on the agenda of debate on sustainable development and environmental protection. And in early 2003 experts sounded the alarm about the devastation that would be caused Iraq's wetlands as a result of the U.S.-led war.

Ramsar Convention on Wetlands
World Wetlands Day 2003
Wetlands International
Classification system for wetland types
Eden in the Line of Fire: Wetlands in Iraq
U.S. EPA: wetlands
EPA: What are wetlands?
IUCN Regional Office for Mesoamerica: wetlands, water and coastal zones
Wetlands links

World Environment Day 2003

World Environment Day 2003 is dedicated to a crucial element for the survival of civilization and nature alike: water. The message for this awareness-raising event is that we must do everything possible to conserve this natural resource and to improve its distribution among the world's people.

Celebration of World Environment Day every June 5 are taking place in cities and other locations around the world with events and activities that share the aim of urging people to get involved in protecting nature and work towards sustainable development.

Each year, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) chooses a country to serve as the global host of the event. This year, the honor goes to Beirut, Lebanon -- the first time in an Arab country.

UNEP's main web-page on World Environment Day 2003, dedicated to water, states that the objective is for all of us to contribute to conserving this most valuable source of life on our planet. Two billion people around the world lack regular access to safe drinking water, says the website.

The choice of this theme for World Environment Day coincides with the UN's designation of 2003 as International Year of Freshwater. The call to action for sustainable use of this resource states that this is "a year of opportunity."

World Environment Day began with a United Nations decision in 1972, the same year that Sweden hosted the UN Conference on the Human Environment, the first global meeting dedicated exclusively to the degradation of Earth's natural resources and habitats.

Among the many governments taking special action for this year's event is Argentina, whose Secretariat of Environment and Sustainable Development issued a communiqué: "We must look at the state of our environment. We must carefully consider the actions that each one of us must take in directing our shared duty of preserving life on Earth with resolution and confidence."

Environmental organizations, like the World Conservation Union (IUCN), are also taking advantage of World Environment Day to call citizens to action, particularly to protect water resources, which are key to ensuring a sustainable future.

UNEP: World Environment Day
UNEP: Arab country hosts World Environment Day
UNEP: WED program of events
UN: International Year of Freshwater
Official website for Year of Freshwater - Special Days
Tierramérica: Water
IUCN: commemoration of World Environment Day
Report on UN Conference on the Human Environment (1972)

U.S. Environmental Policy

The environmental policy of the United States is relevant to the entire world, both because of the ecological impact of that country's huge economy and high level of consumption, and its role as the world superpower.

But what is the U.S. environmental position? And what is unique to the George W. Bush administration? What kind of legislation is in place or will prevail in that country? A good place to begin to answer these questions is the Internet.

The Bush government has already been at the forefront of several environmental controversies. Perhaps the most contentious was Bush's refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that establishes actions and goals for reducing the global process of climate change.

Bush argues that "our air is cleaner, our water purer and our lands and natural resources better protected" than 30 years ago, according to the presidential commentary posted on the U.S. government's website for Earth Day, celebrated Apr. 22.

The principal U.S. body for this sector is the Environmental Protection Agency, which has some 18,000 employees to carry out its mission: "to protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment -- air, water, and land -- upon which life depends."

Details on the Bush administration's environmental policy can be found on the official White House Internet site, with a special section dedicated to the president's view on the environment, as well as related decisions, speeches and other materials.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality is active in defining strategies and policies in that area.

On the legislative side, in the U.S. Congress, there is plenty of specialized information provided by the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, and the Senate's Committees on Environment and Public Works and Energy and Natural Resources. It is here that lawmakers study and debate draft legislation.

And if even more information is sought, there are Internet links on environmental policies, as well as news sources like the Environmental News Service (ENS), and basic documents like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

EPA - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
White House - President's Commitment to the Environment
U.S. Government on Earth Day
White House Council on Environmental Quality
National Environmental Policy Act of 1969
House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee
Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Internet links on U.S. environmental policies
IPS on Environment

Environmental Legislation and Law

The need to protect the environment produced the emergence worldwide of an environmental legal framework in the form of laws, agreements, regulations, decrees and treaties, of national or international scope, requiring a high level of expertise among environmental lawyers.

A large portion of this legislation was produced during the past 30 years, the response to growing concern about the fate of planet Earth. And although the effectiveness of some of the legal tools is questionable, their mere existence provides a basis, a motive, for the thousands of pro-environment campaigns that in a not-so-distant past lacked even that simple reinforcement.

In today's world there are numerous international agreements, laws and other legal documents related to the use and conservation of natural resources and to the environment in general, and this is reflected in the Internet, where resources abound, generally aimed at experts in environmental law.

There are services like ECOLEX, an international database run with the backing of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), which offers information about environmental legislation the world over.

Part of the resources in the database are provided by FAOLEX, of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), described as "a comprehensive and up-to-date computerized legislative database, the world's largest electronic collection of national laws and regulations, as well as treaties, on food, agriculture and renewable natural resources."

As occurs in other legal spheres, the application of environmental law is not easy. That is why there also exist support mechanisms, like the UNEP's Environmental Law Program for Latin America and the Caribbean, which provides technical assistance and training.

In the case of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), in addition to facilitating searches of legislation from around the world, it aims "to solve environmental problems and promote sustainable societies through the use of law."

UNEP: Environmental Law Program
UNEP: Environmental Law in Latin America and the Caribbean
ENTRI: Environmental Treaties and Resource Indicators
ECOLEX: Gateway to environmental law
CIEL: Center for International Environmental Law
Hieros Gamos: links on international environmental law


One hears the word "hydrogen" today and thinks of the future. Research being conducted around the world explores the possibility of using this simple element to generate energy. Hydrogen is abundant and its utilization as an energy source, many say, would not be harmful to the environment like non-renewable fuels are.

Hydrogen is a chemical element with one atom. At room temperature it is an inflammable, colorless, odorless gas. It is also the most plentiful chemical element in the universe, and forms part of a multitude of substances, including water.

Its abundance, which stands in contrast to the finite amounts of fossil fuels available in the world, and its environmental qualities are generating a great deal of excitement about hydrogen's potential, which in turn creates an enormous amount of information available on the Internet, ranging from academic conferences to the pioneering companies in the sector.

Although hydrogen is utilized as a fuel for space travel, new studies are seeking ways to extend its use to other areas. Because hydrogen can be obtained from a broad range of sources, it could ultimately reduce the economic, political and environmental costs of energy-producing systems.

There are websites extolling hydrogen energy's environmental benefits, with claims that it does not produce pollution or consume natural resources. There are no byproducts or toxins associated with hydrogen energy production, say some specialized Internet sites.

Its use in carrying out modern-day activities as common as driving a car takes place through a special fuel cell, similar to a battery, though it does not "lose its charge", but continues functioning through a cold combustion process based on… you guessed it, hydrogen.

"A fuel cell consists of two electrodes sandwiched around an electrolyte. Oxygen passes over one electrode and hydrogen over the other, generating electricity, water and heat," says one of the principal sources of information on this topic,

A wide array of actors are participating in the search for ways to make hydrogen use economically viable, including oil companies and automobile manufacturers. One of the biggest challenges is to find a way to separate this element from other substances at a cost that would allow its use on a major scale. It must also be proved that massive use of hydrogen fuel is safe for the environment and human health.

In order to bring to fruition the promise of this "petroleum of the future" will require vast investments, which in the United States alone should reach 100 billion dollars, according to a report by the Worldwatch Institute.

Hydrogen: never-ending fuel source
Hydrogen fueled cars
Wired: How Hydrogen Can Save America
Worldwatch Institute: Hydrogen
E-magazine: Jeremy Rifkin on the hydrogen economy
How the hydrogen economy works A Hydrogen Economy Is a Bad Idea
U.S. National Hydrogen Association
What is hydrogen?

Birds in Danger

Birds are present around the globe, represented by some 9,700 known species, and are an important part of the Earth's biodiversity. The bad news is that approximately 12 percent are in danger of extinction.

An organization dedicated to promoting the protection of birds, BirdLife International, reports that 1,186 species are categorized as "endangered". Further details about various birds from different regions can be found through the BirdLife website's search engine.

Another website on threatened birds warns that 182 species are in critical danger, meaning they have just 50 percent chance of surviving the next decade. And reminds us that extinction is forever.

Deforestation, expansion of farmland, hunting, wetlands deterioration, illegal trade in wildlife and the introduction of new predators can all pose threats to the survival of bird species.

The Red List published by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), seen as the leading source of information on species threatened by extinction, includes in its Internet version a list of more than 2,000 entries under "birds".

The plight of our feathered friends is well documented in many sources available on the Internet, with websites specific to birds found in specific countries, or representing conservation societies, like the well-known Audubon.

BirdLife International
BirdLife: species search
Endangered birds
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species - background
Red List: threatened bird species
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
Birds of the World
Connect Yourself: The Art of Flying


In Mesopotamia, which means "land between rivers", the earliest human civilizations flourished. Thousands of years later, that territory is known as Iraq, a place where the echoes of war threaten the last vestiges of a millenniums-old history.

The ancient story of Mesopotamia became a current topic of interest through the dissemination of news, including televised images of the destruction and pillaging of invaluable archeological sites and historic collections, including those of the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad.

Since the beginning of the conflict Mar 20, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) urged special protection for the historic wealth found in Iraq, but all signs are that the history of humanity was not a priority in this modern-day conflict.

UNESCO underscores the importance of the artifacts of Mesopotamia, as they represent the cradle of civilizations that marked the transition from pre-historic times in the history of humanity.

Mesopotamia's geography was a determining factor in the emergence of the first cultures in that area 9,000 years b.c. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which encircle the territory, provided optimum conditions for a development capable of changing the course of humanity's path through time: agriculture.

The fertile plains of Mesopotamia began to transform the previously wandering, nomadic groups of humans into the first sedentary and "civilized" society, says one specialized website.

Beginning some 3,500 years b.c., the Sumerians, Acadians, Assyrians and Babylonians began to make their mark on the region. We know it was there that writing, mathematics, the wheel, architecture, astronomy, money, irrigation and laws were developed. In different periods, city-states flourished, and of course, for thousands of years it has been the scenario for war.

The names of cities like Ur or Nippur, of legendary heroes like Gilgamesh, of the Code of Hammurabi, of the amazing buildings known as ziggurats, come from ancient Mesopotamia. And mythic events, like the flood and the loss of languages in the Tower of Babel were set in that ancient land.

For the curious, there is much to be discovered about ancient Mesopotamia on the Internet. A good starting point is a set of hyperlinks on the topic, allowing us to use cyberspace as a bridge to the past…

Internet resources about Antiquity: Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia: a chronology
Mesopotamia: Internet links to history pages
The Code of Hammurabi
Ancient Mesopotamia: basic facts

SARS - Atypical Pneumonia

The outbreak of atypical pneumonia, with the first cases appearing in Asia, in just a few weeks has become headline news around the world, largely because the illness remains a mystery, because it is potentially deadly, is highly contagious, and seems to like air travel.

This new form of pneumonia is technically known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, terminology that is utilized by international health bodies like the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), the latter likely the Internet's leading source of information on the subject.

The WHO is coordinating efforts to provide epidemiological, clinic and logistical support for the countries where the disease is most prevalent. A mission from this United Nations agency traveled to China in early April to try to find the origins of this atypical pneumonia, which in a matter of weeks has claimed more than 100 lives around the world, though mostly in Asia.

News of the outbreak of this illness immediately had an impact on the Internet. Web sites with information on SARS have proliferated, as evidenced by a specialized directory of links set up in Canada, the country outside of Asia that has reported most cases.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control web site states that patients with SARS can transmit the disease to others through casual contact. It is known how long before or after the symptoms appear that a SARS patient is contagious.

A special Internet site of the Government of Hong Kong, one of the areas hardest hit by the disease, calls upon citizens to take precautionary measures to avoid contracting the illness, such as wearing a mask that covers the nose and mouth.

The continued spread of the disease and rising death toll have filled the news, leading the New York Times to set up a special section on SARS, while the Yahoo! directory is replete with information and Google gives web surfers some 50,000 results to choose from to satisfy curiosity about the illness.

SARS: information resources on the Internet
PAHO: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome
PAHO Warning on Pneumonia
U.S. Centers for Disease Control: SARS precautions
Yahoo! Directory - SARS
The New York Times: special on SARS (free registration needed)
Google News: SARS
Hong Kong: atypical pneumonia

Humanitarian Emergency

The war in Iraq has caused a humanitarian emergency affecting 27 million people. The conflict has obvious repercussions for a civilian population that is already suffering the lack of health care, food, water and housing, even if they are not directly threatened by bombs and bullets.

The humanitarian crisis in Iraq has triggered an international mobilization to gather support and resources for operations aimed at alleviating the suffering. The United Nations has announced that efforts to benefit civilian Iraqis will require at least 2.2 billion dollars.

Of that sum, 1.3 billion dollars would be earmarked for a gigantic operation to distribute essential items under the auspices of the World Food Program (WFP).

On its web page about the war in Iraq, WFP warns that this could become the largest humanitarian operation in history.

The alarm created by the scope of the humanitarian emergency is evident on the Internet, where specialized agencies of the UN, international organizations and a veritable avalanche of news items cover the issue, providing details of its emerging characteristics and potential magnitude.

The web site of the Center for Humanitarian Information on Iraq provides some of this data, while the Yahoo! directory allows web surfers access to a special section on links to humanitarian organizations.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees has special operations under way in neighboring countries, awaiting up to 600,000 people who could be displaced from Iraq by the war.

UNICEF (UN Children’s Fund) has also issued a global alert: The children of Iraq have been trapped by war for the third time in 20 years. Nearly half the population of that country is under age 20. At least 166 million dollars are needed to provide them the assistance they need.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also has a special section of its web site dedicated to Iraq. There it announces that resources totaling 300 million dollars will be needed to confront the health challenges created by war.

The International Red Cross is present on the Internet, underscoring the need to respect international treaties in regards to treating prisoners of war. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, expresses concern about the human rights violations occurring in the context of the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

UN: Iraq
World Food Program: Crisis in Iraq
UNHCR: Emergency in Iraq
WHO: the situation in Iraq
Human Rights Watch: Iraq
Yahoo!: Iraq – Humanitarian Relief

The Maya

The Mayan civilization for more than 3,000 years shone throughout Mesoamerica, which continues to be inhabited by its descendants. The imprints, achievements and mysteries these ancient peoples left can also be explored via cyberspace.

A great number of web sites in various languages delve into this civilization and its incredible culture. Some web sites focus on archeological projects and invite interested browsers to join the excavations -- if only virtually.

From this wondrous landscape emerged a highly developed civilization, one that flourished while Europe remained submerged in relative darkness, comments the Mundo Maya portal.

Another site in Spanish, "a light in the Mesoamerican jungles", says that the "basis of Mayan philosophy was built upon harmony: creativity and receptivity, earth and sky, life and death, day and night, masculine and feminine, good and evil."

The architectural development of the Maya allowed them to erect enormous structures as part of their cities in the middle of the jungle. The structures have endured centuries -- even millennia -- and today remain a source of constant awe.

Archeologists have also discovered the great mathematical abilities of the Maya, their very precise calendar, details about their political organization into city-states, and about their daily lives, including the games they played. Some of these discoveries are explained on the web site "Rabbit in the Moon".

But we still do not know everything about the Maya because a large portion of their legacy was destroyed after the arrival of Europeans in the "new world". Their history becomes all the more interesting with the resulting mysteries. How did the peoples who lived in the Mesoamerican region achieve such a high level of development? What caused the decline of this civilization?

The Mayan influence extended over what are today southeast Mexico, the territories of Guatemala and Belize, and western Honduras and El Salvador. There are some 4.5 million people of Mayan descent in the region, speaking languages that are a legacy of that distant past.

Portal: Rabbit in the Moon
Mayan architecture
The Maya Calendar
History of the Maya
Yahoo! - Maya culture


Anti-personnel landmines are deadly devices that, hidden underground, lie in wait of victims. Each year, thousands of innocent people are maimed or killed by these "conventional weapons", lethal objects whose threat is not diminished at the end of a war. Although there is a major international effort to eliminate landmines, the menace persists.

A great deal of information on landmines and their impacts can be found on the Internet. One web site, titled "The Silent Shout", of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), explains -- by the numbers -- the scope of the problem: in 68 countries there are 115 million landmines in the ground. Once these devices are in place, they can remain active for decades.

There are as many as 100 million landmines in stock and an average 2.5 million are "planted" each year. The creation of a minefield renders land useless and complicates efforts to establish peace processes. But worst of all, landmines cause an estimated 2,000 injuries or deaths each month. And 30 to 40 percent of victims are children. UNICEF calculates that, worldwide, there is one anti-personnel mine for every dozen children.

Landmines can be manufactured for a mere three dollars each, says the UNICEF web site. But to eliminate these devices requires an outlay of about 1,000 dollars apiece.

A landmine can be described as a hollow object with an explosive charge inside and a detonator that is activated under the pressure of a minimum weight.

The landmine problem is characterized by its magnitude, which has led to the signing of the Convention on the matter, which according to the information available on its related web site had 146 signatory nations and 131 ratifications as of January 2002.

The Convention commits the states party to the treaty to not use anti-personnel mines and to eliminate or to verify the elimination of all such existing weapons.

The International Committee of the Red Cross stresses that the countries which have adopted the Convention have two key dates to remember: by the end of 2003 most will have to destroy all of their antipersonnel mine reserves, and by the end of 2009 they must have cleared all minefields within their territories.

The main Internet clearinghouse for information on the humanitarian crisis caused by the indiscriminate use of landmines is the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

International Campaign to Ban Landmines
Mine Ban Treaty text
Ratification status
International Committee of the Red Cross - landmines
World Council of Churches: landmines campaign
UNICEF: The silent shout



Copyright 2003 Tierramérica. All Rights Reserved

















































A special reserve of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere, in Mexico. / Photo credit: Semarnat





























Tobacco's death toll will skyrocket if consumption patterns hold. /Photo credit: Agencia Brasil











The oldest known planet in our galaxy



















































































































A wetland in the United States. Source: U.S. NOAA









































Photo source: White House/ Tina Hager













There are laws, rules, agreements, treaties and decrees to protect the environment. Credit: M. Griffin / FAO

















Photo source:


















Photo source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
























Hong Kong government website announcement about SARS





















Children in northern Iraq. Source: UN Oil for Food Program





















Mayan city of Calakmul. Photo source: UNESCO Heritage of Humanity




















The cover of "The Silent Shout". Source: UNICEF