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ITALY: Aspartame Controversy Continues

MILAN - The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) upheld the safety of the artificial sweetener aspartame after evaluating the study by the European Ramazzini Foundation based in the Italian city of Bologna, which concluded that the widely used substance could have carcinogenic effects.

EFSA announced on May 5 that, based on the available data, it would not be necessary to re-evaluate the safety of aspartame (used in hundreds of sugar-free products, including the popular diet versions of Coca Cola and Pepsi) or to revise the daily intake approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration -- 50 mg per kilogram of the consumer's body weight.

In response to EFSA's statement, the Ramazzini Foundation defended its results, and its scientific director Morando Soffritti said the research would continue, "not only of aspartame, but also other chemical sweeteners used in foods, beverages and pharmaceutical products."


VENEZUELA: Parakeets Endangered on Margarita Island

CARACAS - Fewer than 20 blue-crowned parakeets (Aratinga acuticaudata neoxena) survive in the mangroves of La Restinga Park, on Venezuela's Margarita Island, in the Caribbean. The species is in grave danger of extinction, biologist Marialejandra Faría, of the environmental group Provita, told Tierramérica.

This is due to "the degradation of its habitat, the growth of neighboring populations, but also to poaching of the birds for pets," said Faría. "We could try a program to hatch eggs in captivity, but we don't have the resources," she said.

Provita has launched a program for young biologists involving 17 environmental organizations and 400 schoolchildren on Margarita, seeking to raise awareness about preserving the habitat of the blue-crowned parakeet and the yellow-shouldered Amazon parrot, whose population has grown from 750 to 1,900 in the past 17 years.


BRAZIL: Youths to Live an Amazon Adventure

SAO PAULO - Some 45 students from Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, Venezuela and French Guiana will retrace the same route followed by Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana along the Amazon River in 1541 and 1542.

The expedition, designed by the Organizations of the Amazonian Cooperation Treaty (OTCA), will depart from Quito on June 24 and is scheduled to arrive in Brasilia on July 27.

"The main objective is to encourage the kids to love and protect the Amazon. The important thing is that they are from different countries and speak different languages, which ensure the project's multiplier effect," OTCA secretary general Rosalía Arteaga told Tierramérica.

The students will be accompanied by 27 teachers and professionals from various fields, and will take part in cultural and scientific activities.


HONDURAS: Legislators Halt Forestry Law

TEGUCIGALPA - Honduran lawmakers are resisting approval of a new forestry law, and have agreed to start a new dialogue that overrules the one initiated more than eight years ago by civil society groups, politicians, labor unions and business organizations.

Legislative deputy Paola Castro, president of the commission that would draft the new law, told Tierramérica that "today we have new legislators and we believe it's best to start from zero."

But environmental leader Juan Almendares, of the Madre Tierra group, said in a Tierramérica interview that the lawmakers "are delaying the issue because they don't want a good law that favors the forests."

The bill proposes the creation of a Forest Ministry, national and municipal commissioner's offices, as well as the post of forestry regent, which would oversee logging opertations, and penalties for those who illegally cut and transport forest products. The law also calls for punishments of 6 to 12 years in prison for violators.


CHILE: No to Pulp Mill Waste in the Sea

SANTIAGO - Environmentalists, artisanal fisherfolk, community leaders and marine sport enthusiasts have told the Chilean government that the pulp mill plants must improve their technology and prevent discharge of their industrial waste into rivers, lakes and the Pacific Ocean.

"The authorities mast have the will to make technological change a reality in this type of industry, so that they don't contaminate water with waste that is toxic to human health," Antonia Fortt, environmental engineer with the Oceana organization, told Tierramérica.

The pulp mill firms Celulosa Aracuo and Constitución (Celco), which in 2003 caused a massive die-off of swans and other species in the Rio Cruces nature sanctuary, are planning to build a pipeline to discharge their liquid waste into the Pacific Ocean.


BRAZIL: Demands for Better Control of Chemical Spills

RIO DE JANEIRO - An inter-ministerial committee in Brazil has proposed a system that would obligate companies, ports and entities that handle chemical products to notify authorities about spills, given their serious threats to local populations.

The environmental legislation would require immediate notification, and would punish inaction, but in many cases the gasoline stations -- the main source of such accidents -- discover the spills when they are already serious and have contaminated underground water sources, for example, says geologist Kátia Duarte, who investigated the issue in Brasilia while researching her doctoral thesis, completed in 2003.

From 1978 to 2005, in Sao Paulo, the only Brazilian state to systematically monitor chemical spills, there were 6,303 such accidents recorded -- one-third involved liquid fuels.

An obligatory reporting system for spills is crucial for the effectiveness of the national plan adopted in 2004 to prevent environmental emergencies involving toxic chemicals.


GUATEMALA: Forest Fire Alert

GUATEMALA CITY - Guatemala declared an "orange alert" due to 18 fires in the northern department of El Petén, which threaten the archeological sites of Tikal and Piedras Negras, as well as the protected area Laguna del Tigre.

Army spokesman Jorge Ortega told Tierramérica that the armed forces are coordinating plans to fight the forest fires. Last Sunday, six trips were made by helicopters carrying thousands of liters of water to douse the flames.

According to Sipecif, the national forest fire prevention system, so far this year there have been about 200 incidents, which have claimed some 800 hectares of forest.

An estimated 173,000 hectares of forest are destroyed in Guatemala each year, of which 28,500 hectares are in protected areas.


* Source: Inter Press Service.

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