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Methyl Bromide

A special session of the parties to the Montreal Protocol will be held in Canada on Mar. 24 and 25 to finalize negotiations on the exceptions to the use of methyl bromide requested by the United States. Used as an agricultural pesticide, methyl bromide is an ozone-depleting gas.

In November 2003, the George W. Bush administration sought exceptions to uses of methyl bromide in order to allow U.S. farmers to continue using the chemical on a variety of vegetable crops, particularly tomatoes.

But during the 15th conference of parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, held in Nairobi last November, negotiators refused the U.S. request and resolved to leave the matter to a decision by a special session to take place in Montreal.

The text of the Montreal Protocol, ratified by 183 countries, establishes a total ban on methyl bromide and on CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) and other substances that deplete the Earth's atmospheric ozone layer, which is responsible for filtering the Sun's ultraviolet rays, thus protecting all forms of life on the planet.

The treaty states that the industrialized countries must eliminate all use of methyl bromide by 2005. The gas is commonly used to fumigate crops, shipments and warehouses, and is blamed for causing harm to the environment and to human health.

A broad-spectrum pesticide that is easily applied, methyl bromide is slow to degrade and thus accumulates in crops, becoming dangerous to humans. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization FAO the human tolerance level in food is 0.3 mg of bromide per kilo of body weight.

In high concentrations, experts say methyl bromide can cause irreversible damage to lungs and the central nervous system, and can cause birth defects. The substance is linked to an increase in prostate cancer among farm workers, according to a study by the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

FAO drafted a global report on alternatives to methyl bromide for agricultural use, based on studies by other technical agencies of the United Nations.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains that there is no one alternative to replace methyl bromide, but rather several tools that used together can be effective, although only in the longer term.

Ten years ago, the United States began a gradual reduction of methyl bromide use, but annual consumption is still 21 tons.

An additional 10,000 tons would be manufactured in the United States if the exceptions to the Montreal Protocol are approved. That would increase U.S. utilization of the substance by 39 percent with respect to 1991.

Environmentalists and activists condemn the Bush administration's request to allow the ozone-depleting gas to continue to be used. But there is pressure from farmers, particularly from tomato growers in the southern state of Florida.

UNEP Ozone Secretariat
Montreal Protocol
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
EPA phaseout plan
Q&A on methyl bromide
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Methyl bromide exceptions requested by the United States
Report by U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
FAO report on methyl bromide alternatives
Tierramérica: Methyl Bromide on Its Way Out in Brazil and Cuba
Tierramérica: U.S. Wants to Expand Use of Methyl Bromide

Barcelona Forum 2004

More than five million people are expected to take part in the Barcelona Forum 2004 beginning May 9, a global encounter for debate on three major issues of the 21st century: cultural diversity, sustainable development and peace.

The event will last nearly five months, taking place in various spaces around Barcelona, a Spanish city known for its cosmopolitan spirit, its architecture and its cultural wealth.

Venues along the Mediterranean coast will host the Barcelona Forum 2004, which with an investment of some 400 million dollars is expected to draw citizens from around the world to discuss ways to reinforce their rights and cultural values as a means to improve the quality of life in the new millennium.

Opinion leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Carlos Fuentes and José Saramago are invited to be part of the 141-day event -- from May 9 to Sep. 26 in this Catalonian city that hosted the 1992 Olympic Games.

Among the hundreds of associations, foundations and non-governmental organizations to participate are Amnesty International, Save The Children and Green Cross International, as well as United Nations agencies, like UNESCO.

The Barcelona municipal government, the province of Catalonia and the General Administration of the State are drafting a Statement of Principles and Values that is to serve as a code of ethics to govern the activities of the forum.

The Agenda is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the principles of the United Nations, "the only values that have global acceptance," say the organizers.

"One of the wonders of our threatened planet lies in the variety of its experiences, of its memories and of its desires. Any attempt to impose a uniform policy on this diversity is a prelude to death," Mexican author Carlos Fuentes has said about cultural diversity, one of the forum's three pillars.

The environment is another pillar, and includes protecting biodiversity through conservation and rational use of natural resources, but also building a socially responsible global community that is committed to equitable and technologically sustainable economic growth.

For the third pillar, "conditions for peace", the words of 1991 Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi serve as the motto: "Peace, development and justice are all connected to each other. How can we expect economic development in a battlefield?"

Rounding out the Barcelona Forum's long agenda is an endless array of exhibits, concerts, plays, and food fairs. Internationally famed musicians, including Sting and Bob Dylan, will perform during the Forum.

Forum Barcelona 2004
United Nations
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Amnesty International
Save the Children
Green Cross International
Carlos Fuentes
Nobel Peace Laureates 1991
Bob Dylan website
Sting website

Animal Welfare, Human Welfare

More than 450 delegates from 70 countries took part in the Global Conference on Animal Welfare, in Paris last week. Inadequate conditions in managing farm animals could be the cause of diseases like avian flu, which is currently taking its toll on the poultry industry in Asian countries.

Headed by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), the conference sought to take the first steps towards defining international standards for appropriate livestock management, based on scientific studies.

The issues discussed in regards to animals raised in captivity included: space and natural surroundings; management and transportation; pain, fear and anxiety; injuries and illness; and food, water and nutrition.

According to the organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), industrial scale livestock operations use methods that are extremely cruel to animals, but profits have made them widespread.

Cows, pigs, chickens, rabbits and other animals are often kept in such small enclosures that they cannot turn around, says PETA.

Deprivation of exercise, food containing growth hormones and genetic modification are some of the other practices reported to be common on industrial farms.

Furthermore, says PETA, these farms are major sources of contamination of soil and water, and livestock use more than half of the water consumed in the United States.

The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) says the repeated outbreaks of animal-based diseases in Asia could be related to the expansion of industrial livestock farming.

WSPA is conducting the campaign World Farmwatch to serve as an incentive for humane and sustainable animal raising practices.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), as of early February 2004, around 45 million birds had been killed in Asian countries in an effort to halt the spread of avian flu.

Thailand is especially hard hit by this livestock disease, as its poultry exports -- a billion dollars in 2003 -- represent around seven percent of the global total.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says there have been cases of avian flu in humans, but they are believed to be the result of direct contact with infected birds or with surfaces contaminated by poultry excrement.

According to the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the avian flu virus is known as A(H5N1) and is also present in the U.S. state of Texas. The symptoms in infected humans are similar to the normal flue, but may also include eye infections, pneumonia and other serious complications.

According to FAO, without appropriate protection measures, infectious diseases can easily be reintroduced into areas that have been declared "disease-free", such as brucelosis (cows, sheep and goats) or tuberculosis can be passed from animals to humans.

The OIE conference underscored the importance of supporting developing countries in establishing animal welfare standards and respecting local realities. The OIE Internet site provides links to other organizations specializing in animal -- and human -- welfare.

Global Conference on Animal Welfare
World Organization for Animal Health
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
World Society for the Protection of Animals
UN Food and Agriculture Organization - on Avian Flu
World Health Organization
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Solar Energy

Viable but costly, solar energy is just beginning to find its way a half-century after it was proposed as an alternative. For developing countries, the use of this energy source could facilitate sustainable economic growth.

Fifty years ago, in 1954, Bell Laboratories presented the first solar cell capable of converting the Sun's rays into electricity, using a silicon semiconductor.

Solar energy is abundant but its distribution is very scattered, which means it must be concentrated to make it useable. In that sense, it is more costly to produce than other sources of energy, including fossil fuels.

According to the World Book Online Reference Center, there are two main ways to turn light into electrical energy: directly, through a photovoltaic conversion, or indirectly, through thermal conversion, which first turns light into heat, and then into electricity.

Considered an environmentally friendly energy source, the Sun's rays are used for various purposes, in the home, in farming and even in outer space.

Already, solar energy is used in homes to heat water and in heaters in general, as well as in small devices like watches or calculators. In farming, it is used in greenhouses, dryers and water purification or desalinization plants.

The major market for photovoltaic modules has been in the space industry. In 1962, Telstar, the first communications satellite to transmit television signals across the Atlantic, used 3,600 solar cells as its energy source.

The limited demand in the space industry is seen as one of the reasons why solar technology has remained costly over several decades.

The world's main solar energy markets are Japan, which has 40 percent of all solar cells installed, followed by Germany, with 20 percent, and the United States, with 12 percent.

Efforts to reduce costs of solar energy systems include selling surplus energy to electrical companies. Once the costs of investment are covered, the energy produced is practically free.

From the environmental perspective, an increased used in solar energy would mean reduced dependence on fossil fuels, which cause serious problems like global warming.

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of reducing by half the number of people living on less than a dollar a day by 2015, access to affordable energy services is essential. Some two billion people, mostly in rural areas, do not have access to electricity.

Through its Energy Sector Management Assistance Program, the UNDP has set up partnerships with organizations like the World Bank to establish options and financing for sustainable energy policies.

Other institutions working with the UNDP are the World Energy Council, E-7 Network of Utilities and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

In preparation for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, the UNDP put together three initiatives to ensure poor populations' access to modern energy services: Global Network on Sustainable Energy, Global Village Energy Partnership and LPG Challenge.

A report by the Inter-American Agency for Cooperation and Development presents the results of a pilot solar energy project in San Francisco, Honduras, which has been transformed into a village with Internet, distance education, tele-medicines and videoconferencing -- an example of how sustainable rural electrification and telecommunications can lead to economic and social development.

Bell Laboratories
Solar Energy, World Book Online Reference Center
Telstar Turns 40
Renewable Energy Sources
UNDP - Energy for Sustainable Development
IACD Report

COP7 of the Convention on Biological Diversity

More than 2,000 experts in biodiversity and sustainable development are participating in the 7th Conference of Parties (COP7) to the Convention on Biological Diversity, in Kuala Lumpur, Feb. 9-20. The central theme of the two-week debate is how to reduce biodiversity loss at all levels.

The Convention on Biological Diversity was adopted during the global meeting that was dubbed the Earth Summit, which took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Ratified by 188 countries, the Convention aims for sustainable development through three key objectives: conservation of biodiversity, sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable distribution of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.

At the COP7, government ministers, scientists and representatives of non-governmental and community organizations are gathered to discuss topics considered priority, such as mountain systems, the role of protected areas in preserving biological diversity, and transfer of technology and technological cooperation.

The delegates also seek to implement the targets, established at the COP6 that took place in 2002, for significantly reducing the loss of biodiversity by 2010 as a means to alleviate poverty and improve lives around the world.

That goal was ratified by the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002.

Global biodiversity indicators are to be used to evaluate progress in meeting the targets, and include: extension of natural habitats, abundance and distribution of species, change in the status of endangered species, genetic diversity of socioeconomically important species, and coverage of protected areas.

Indigenous leaders have issued an appeal to ensure that their communities are consulted in the creation of protected areas. Debra Harry, of the non-governmental Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism says the rights of native peoples over their lands and biological resources must be recognized before going on to other aspects, such as technology transfer and equitable distribution of biodiversity benefits.

The members of the Andean Community signed the Cuzco Declaration in Peru in 2002 on access to genetic resources, traditional knowledge and intellectual property rights in "megadiverse" countries.

Debate also includes the need to promote socially responsible investment by the private sector. A.H. Zakri, director of the Institute of Advanced Studies of the United Nations University, says there are signs that companies are finally joining the debate on biodiversity management, in areas such as carbon credits, labeling genetically modified products and a role for the private sector in international environmental agreements.

Extensive information on many topics covered by the Convention on Biological Diversity can be found on its web site.

7th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity
Convention on Biological Diversity
1992 Earth Summit
World Summit on Sustainable Development
2010 Targets for Conservation of Biodiversity
Rights of indigenous people and communities must be protected
Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism
Cuzco Declaration
Institute of Advanced Studies, United Nations University

Weapons of Mass Destruction

The discovery on Feb. 2 of the toxin ricin in the mailroom at the offices of the U.S. Senate majority leader has reawakened fears about the scope of bioterrorism.

The deadly poison ricin caused commotion when it was found in the offices of Senator Bill Frist. Some 40 employees were put through sterilization processes to make sure they weren't contaminated. None reported any symptoms from the poison.

Alarm increased when it was revealed that documents contaminated with the same chemical had been sent to the White House in late 2003.

Sudden fever, cough and excess fluid in the lungs are some of the symptoms associated with ricin poisoning. There is no known antidote. These symptoms may be followed by severe respiratory problems -- and potentially death.

Speculation about new attacks by terrorist groups have returned 28 months after letters laced with a white powder identified as anthrax claimed five lives and damaged the health of 17 people in the United States.

Some consider chemical and biological weapons among the greatest threats to humanity in the new century.

Internationally, these sorts of weapons are controlled by the Convention on Biological and Toxic Weapons that entered into force in 1975, and other multilateral agreements.

In 2002 it was believed that Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya and Syria possessed what are known as weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and the United States is thought to be the world's leading holder of such weapons.

The United States led the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, accusing the Arab country of possessing WMDs and thus posing a threat to the U.S. and the world.

However, on Feb. 5 the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the first time acknowledged that intelligence data may have overestimated the potential arsenals of illicit weapons in Iraq.

A study on bioterrorism in the 21st century says that in may 2002 the U.S. deputy secretary of state, John R. Bolton, reiterated accusations that Cuba could be using its biotechnology for other purposes, such as applying it to WMD programs.

As a result of the visit by former U.S. president , Jimmy Carter, to Cuba that same month, it was determined that there was no evidence of biological weapons production on the island and that Cuba's efforts to support the scientific development of other countries must be recognized.

Biological agents developed for war are being put to other uses. As part of Plan Colombia, a U.S.-backed campaign against drug trafficking in the South American country, it was proposed to use the U.S.-developed fungal agent fusarium oxysporum to eradicate illegal fields of coca bush, used in making cocaine.

That proposal came under fire, especially from environmental groups. The non-government Colombian organization Mama Coca charged that the fungus is a living organism that could migrate and reproduce, growing out of control and threatening fragile ecosystems, including the Amazon, where illegal drug crops are planted.

The Internet has numerous sites with information on WMDs -- biological and chemical weapons -- and about efforts to stop their proliferation.

AP - Poison Ricin Found in Sen. Frist's Office
Center for Disease Control: ricin
CDC: anthrax
Biological and chemical weapons
Convention on the Prohibition of Biological and Toxic Weapons
Status of the world's biological weapons
Tenet admits gaps in CIA intelligence on arms in Iraq
Bioterrorism in the 21st century
Mama Coca - in Spanish
BBC - Carter visit to Cuba
Red (Spanish and English)

Fight Against Slavery

2004 is the International Year to Commemorate the Struggle Against Slavery and its Abolition. A half-century since its international prohibition, new forms of slavery persist around the world today.

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) on Jan. 10 launched a series of events having to do with the international year against slavery, as a reminder of one of the darkest -- and ongoing -- chapters in the history of humankind.

The year 2004 also marks the bicentennial of one of the first nations of black people, Haiti, a symbol of slave resistance.

The existence of modern forms of slavery was resoundingly condemned by the international community gathered at the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, in 2001. As a follow-up, delegates are debating the effective application of the conference's Program of Action, in a meeting Jan. 26 to Feb. 6.

Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 establishes that: "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms."

According to a factsheet from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights:

"The word 'slavery' today covers a variety of human rights violations. In addition to traditional slavery and the slave trade, these abuses include the sale of children, child prostitution, child pornography, the exploitation of child labor, the sexual mutilation of female children, the use of children in armed conflicts, debt bondage, the traffic in persons and in the sale of human organs, the exploitation of prostitution, and certain practices under apartheid and colonial regimes."

According to the non-governmental group Anti-Slavery International, 20 million people were held in bonded labor in 1999, forced to work as a means to pay off a debt of some sort.

As for child labor, the anti-slavery watchdog group estimates that 70 percent of boy workers are in the agricultural sector, while most girl workers are employed as domestics.

Among those who are trying to deal with this problem are the group Working Children in Latin America (NATS), the African Movement of Children and Adolescent Workers, and Bhima Sangha, in South Asia.

According to the American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG), among the products of today's slave labor are sugar from the Dominican Republic, chocolate from Cote d'Ivoire, paperclips from China, carpets from Nepal and cigars from India.

The Internet holds a wealth of information on treaties and protocols related to eradicating slavery. The UNESCO portal provides historical information on slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean as well as in Africa.

International Year to Commemorate the Struggle Against Slavery and its Abolition
World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Anti-Slavery International
World Meeting of Working Children's Movements
Bhima Sangha
American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG)

World Economic Forum

Amidst criticisms from civil society groups, more than a thousand executives from the world's biggest corporations, national leaders and economists gathered in Davos, Switzerland for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, a defender of the current globalization process. Just days early, in Mumbai, India, some 100,000 people gathered to assert that "another world is possible."

Prosperity and security were the central issues of the WEF, also known simply as "Davos", which in addition to executives and political leaders, drew academics, non-governmental organization activists and religious leaders.

Founded in 1971, the Davos Forum has attempted to find solutions to the world's economic problems through its annual workshops and panel discussions. Its critics say the aim of these meetings is to seek ways to benefit the participants at the cost of global society and the environment.

In part as a response to criticisms of its closed-door meetings, since 2003 the WEF has held forums open to the public. The topic of debate this year was "Globalization or Deglobalization for the Benefit of the Poorest?"

Taking place in parallel to the WEF was the alternative meet known as Public Eye on Davos, a project of a coalition of non-governmental organizations from around the world.

Environmental watchdog Friends of the Earth notes that the first report of the WEF's Global Governance Initiative reveals just how big business fails to protect the Earth's natural resources and to attend to the needs of the poorest populations.

The initiative was designed to monitor progress on global efforts to implement the plans established by the United Nations Millennium Declaration. The report shows that the international community merited three points, out of 10, in areas like the environment, human rights and security.

As a counterweight to the Davos Forum, the World Social Forum was created, the objective being to create a platform for discussing strategies in opposition to the WEF's model of neoliberal economic globalization.

One of the criticisms of both the World Economic Forum and the World Social Forum as that they failed to produce concrete results. IPS news agency provided broad coverage of the two international events.

World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
Public Eye on Davos
Global Governance Initiative
Friends of the Earth
Global Greenhouse Gas Register
World Social Forum

Anti-nuclear Treaties

Under suspicion of violating international rules against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, in late 2003 Iran signed a protocol that opens the doors to unrestricted inspections of its national territory. The apparently innumerable efforts to stop the global arms race have proved insufficient.

The protocol that Iran signed requires states to provide a detailed declaration of their nuclear activities. In February 2004 the first report of inspections will be presented, after a year of investigations.

Other countries are also under international scrutiny.

Media reports indicate that Libya's announcements in December 2003 that it had renounced acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and would cooperate with United Nations inspections of its nuclear installations came after months of secret talks with London and Washington.

But contrary to expectations, the United States then took a step against the tide by beginning development of new atomic weapons.

The decision harks back to the Cold War, when the superpowers of the time, the United States and the Soviet Union, were enmeshed in an arms race that led to the proliferation of nuclear bombs.

Britain, France, China, India, Israel and Pakistan joined the club of nations possessing nuclear arms. Today, an estimated 28,000 atomic bombs exist worldwide.

Among the numerous disarmament agreements, the Non-Proliferation Treaty stands out. Since 1968 it has been the main international commitment to prevent the multiplication of nuclear arms and arms technology. It is the only legally binding multilateral treaty and has been ratified by the greatest number of countries.

Compliance with the treaty is verified through inspections led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

An accord specific to Latin America is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, signed in Mexico in 1967. It calls for nuclear technology to be used for peaceful purposes only, such as generating electricity.

The United States and Russia signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, which commits both sides to reducing their nuclear stockpiles so that by the end of 2012 their totals do not surpass 1,700-2,200 bombs in each country.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website offers an extensive list of references on treaties, reports and analyses related to nuclear weapons.

Iran Signs Additional Protocol on Nuclear Safeguards
Libya Cooperated Fully with UN Nuclear Inspectors
New Era of Nuclear Weapons
The Cold War
Non-Proliferation Treaty
Nuclear Numbers - global stockpiles
Latin American and Caribbean Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
International Atomic Energy Agency
United Nations Security Council
Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty
Bureau of Non Proliferation
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Electronic Waste

Mountains of outdated electronics are accumulating in landfills around the world. A new law in the U.S. state of California seeks to fight the problem through a recycling program to enter into force in July.

A pioneer in this area, the new California law, known as SB20, establishes that the consumer will pay six to 10 dollars at the time of purchase of each electronic item that contains heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, or cadmium.

The products covered by this legislation are mostly televisions and computers. Items with screens measuring less than four inches are excluded.

Once the electronic device has become outdated or no long works, the consumer can hand it over to a recycling center, free of charge. Currently, consumers pay recyclers around 20 dollars per item.

Estimates are that more than 22 million computers are sold every year in the United States alone. With the constant development of new technology, computers become obsolete in just two years.

Among the biggest concerns about electronic waste in landfills is the impact on the environment, as the chemical compounds contaminate the soil and can filter into underground water supplies.

And the process of recycling is not free of controversy. In the United States, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition denounced that Dell Computers obsolete machines were being recycled by prisoners who did not have the minimum protection for working with the dangerous substances.

A large portion of electronic waste is exported to developing countries, particularly in Asia, where companies restore used computers or dismantle the machines to recover metals like gold and copper. The practice is under scrutiny by the Basil Convention, which aims to prevent industrialized countries from transferring dangerous waste to developing countries.

While the European Union is working to eliminate the use of toxic materials in electronics by 2007, in Latin America, Brazil has had a program since 2000 under which manufacturers and importers of batteries containing heavy metals must take responsibility for collecting and recycling the used products.

Other efforts include "eco-labeling" of computers, which takes into consideration the design and use of materials, energy efficiency and manufacturing processes.

SB20 law
Recycling centers
RMD Technologies
Corporate strategies for electronics recycling: A tale of two systems
e-Junk Explosion
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition
Dell Computers
Eco-labels for computers


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