When we say the word "drought" we think of what is lacking: water. And images are brought to mind of its consequences, which can be devastating to the environment, to the economy and to human life.
"Drought is one of the fundamental causes of disasters on the global scale," says a web site about drought in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean, where the past 30 years have seen an increase in frequency and intensity of this phenomenon.
Early warning of drought is a top priority, because it can allow populations and governments to prepare for this natural and recurrent climatic event.
The drought web site of the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explains that drought can be categorized four ways: meteorological, when precipitation is below normal; agricultural, when soil moisture is insufficient for growing crops; hydrological, when surface and subsurface water supplies are below normal; and socioeconomic, when water shortages affect people directly.
Droughts have historically been powerful phenomena, decimating populations through starvation, forcing massive migrations and causing severe economic, social and political crises.
Droughts can also be triggered by special climatic situations, as occurs with El Niño, which appears every three to seven years and causes torrential rains in some places and severe drought in others.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has a web site with a special section on the issue of droughts, which if they persist, might end up producing a desert.
FAO: desertification, drought and their consequences
Drought monitor in the U.S.
NOAA: drought information center
Connect Yourself: El Niño
Connect Yourself: Deserts
The banana is a crucial fruit for human beings. But the production of this food -- essential for hundreds of millions of people around the world -- is faced with the serious threat of plagues, particularly the black sigatoka fungus and Panama disease.
These diseases could dramatically hurt the production capacity of some banana varieties that are highly popular among consumers if a formula is not found to keep them from spreading. Researchers are delving into areas like genetic manipulation and cross-pollination to produce resistant banana hybrids, and biological control of pests.
But what is the story behind these plagues? On the Internet there is abundant information about the topic. It is a matter of the future of the banana.
Even if you are not a regular eater of bananas, there are at least 500 million people who depend on this fruit -- particularly in Africa and Asia -- as their main source of protein. On the commercial scale, the banana is the most popular and most consumed fruit in the world, says the author of the web site Banana split.
There, too, it is noted that the two principal threats are Panama disease, caused by the fusarium oxysporum fungus that attacks the banana tree's vascular system, and black sigatoka, caused by Mycosphaerella fijiensis.
Panama disease is a major plague on banana plantations around the world, causing great losses in revenues, particularly in normally high-production areas like Central America.
Black sigatoka, a disease that causes spots on the banana tree leaves, dramatically reduces the leaf's photosynthesis, cuts fruit yields by as much as 50 percent and causes premature aging, a serious problem for fruit destined for export.
Factsheets on banana diseases
The Banana Wars against Fungus
"Transgenics will not save the banana"
Connect Yourself: Bananas and Plantains
International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain
BBC: Bananas could split for good
Parties to War
The drums of war have been sounding louder and louder during the past few months, and their echo is felt worldwide. Although an official conflict has not been declared, the tensions are evident, and have led to an avalanche of information on the Internet.
The stage for this war would be the Persian Gulf, and the protagonists of the climate of discord are the United States, which has announced attack plans for non-compliance with international weapons treaties, and Iraq.
The reasons behind a war are often seen as incomprehensible -- and even unconscionable -- by the world's "ordinary people".
The conflict between the United States and Iraq had its first chapter in the 1991 Gulf War. Since then, disagreements and tensions have been ongoing, as a detailed timeline of events proves.
Those in search of explanations for the causes of war have a daunting task ahead, keeping up-to-date with the wide array of news agencies with an Internet presence.
U.S.-based media outlets tend to follow more closely the news coming out of Washington, but Iraq also has its on version of events.
And there are media that offer a unique perspective on the conflict and the surrounding tensions, such as Inter Press Service's special web page dedicated to the Iraq crisis.
News agency web sites provide a great deal of information about a war that has not yet begun. And they have also made evident the wide range of opinions on the conflict, including mobilizing the increasing population that favors peace.
Inter Press Service: Iraq - special edition
BBC: Conflict with Iraq
CNN: Showdown Iraq
The New York Times: Iraq
Iraq News Agency
U.S. Department of State
IPS: Timeline Iraq - A decade of tensions
Wheat is one of the basic grains that gave rise to civilization. Wheat cultivation is profoundly linked to ancient and modern history. This grain is milled into flour and used to make a food that is essential to millions around the world: bread.
A quick search on the Internet shows just how important wheat is today. To begin, it is the raw material for bread in much of the world, and historians say it has been cultivated for at least the last 10,000 years. The long history of the cereal is due to the fact that it is a key source of nutritional energy.
There are numerous varieties within the wheat family, but the most commonly used today are Triticum durum and Triticum compactum.
Wheat, like other cereals such as rice in Asia or maize in certain parts of Latin America, served as a trigger for the development of civilizations.
The most widely cultivated crop in the world, wheat feeds a large portion of the global population, meaning it is also the focus of studies to improve crop yields and increase nutritional properties, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
And around the world, this grain is part of a very active market. All would indicate that there is enough wheat grown, but that it is not fairly distributed among the global population.
Wheatfoods: Grains nutrition info center
History of wheat
History of bread
Taxonomy of wheat
In Context: Myths about Food and Hunger
Weapons for Sale
The weapons market evokes the dark side of world trade because it is ultimately a deadly business that moves billions of dollars each year. Some of the consequences are predictable: conflict, death, devastation.
The existence of the arms trade does not go unnoticed, as there are several organizations that monitor it and denounce illegal activity. Many groups have an Internet presence, like the Federation of American Scientists, which reports that weapons deals are worth more than 20 billion dollars annually.
Amnesty International warns that transfers of weapons and military services can foment and exacerbate human rights abuses. The United Nations is carrying out an intense campaign for disarmament, considered a high priority in a world that often seems armed to the teeth.
Activists are particularly concerned about small and light weapons, which are more easily smuggled across borders and disseminated throughout the population. Such weapons cause the deaths of some 500,000 people each year, of which 200,000 are victims of homicide, suicide, crime and accidents.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) maintains a website/exhibit denouncing small weapons, providing abundant information to underscore the harmful impacts of arms proliferation.
The Internet is a good place to learn more about efforts to fight weapons trafficking, legal documents like the Inter-American Convention against illicit weapons deals, and more links aimed at creating a more peaceful world.
UNICEF: Taking Aim at Small Arms
Inter-American Convention against the illicit manufacturing of and trafficking in firearms, ammunition explosives and other related materials
UN: peace and security through disarmament
Federation of American Scientists
UNIDIR - UN Institute for Disarmament Research
Tierramérica - Connect Yourself: Disarmament
Bananas and Plantains
Bananas and plantains are fruits thousands of years old that have become an important food for humans. The banana trade is a dynamic market and has led to scientific delving into its genetics and its possibilities for ecological production.
The Internet is abundant with information on this -- at least for now -- abundant fruit. A good place to start is the banana page of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The sustainable increase in productivity of banana plantations is a key objective of the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP), which reports that these fruits provide an important part of the diet for 400 million people in a hundred countries each day.
The website Bananas: a musa species notes that the banana tree is currently grown in all tropical regions of the world and the fruits represent the fourth leading crop in the world, after rice, maize and wheat.
The banana and plantain are originally from the Indo-Malaya region, but the migration of these species has been occurring since prehistoric times. India and Brazil are the leading producers of these fruits.
FAO: Banana page
International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain
INIBAP: banana links
Banana: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
Banana: a musa species
BBC: Bananas could split for good
Bananas on the web
Forests and Deforestation
Forests cover 3.87 billion hectares of the earth’s surface, according to the latest report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on the State of the World’s Forests
The 2001 report underlines that 95 percent of that surface area corresponds to naturally occurring forests and 5.0 percent to plantation forests. It also points out that 14.2 million hectares are lost every year to deforestation, and 5.2 million hectares are planted, amounting to a net annual loss of 9.4 million hectares.
FAO’s forestry division states that progress was made towards conservation goals in the 1990s, but warns that in order to bring to life a vision based on sustainable management, a number of factors are necessary, such as the capacity to equitably finance the costs and benefits of strides made in conservation, as well as the materialisation of effective political commitments.
In September 2003 delegates from around the globe will take part in the XII World Forestry Congress to promote the conservation of forests, a habitat that is home to 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity, as the conference web site notes.
Although the surface area covered by forests may appear extensive, the web site of the World Resources Institute http://forests.wri.org/ shows an animated map that clearly demonstrates the enormous reduction of forest land over the past 8,000 years.
Deforestation is produced by the excessive use of forestry resources, in other words the cutting of trees by large logging interests as well as small farmers who clear land to make way for their crops. Other factors are natural catastrophes and forest fires.
Abundant information can be found on the Internet on the characteristics of deforestation, especially in tropical forests, which according to a web site are home to 70 percent of the world’s plant and animal species. There is also a large quantity of specialised reports on the issue and web sites that provide information useful to outlining plans for the management of forest ecosystems.
FAO: The State of the World’s Forests
XII World Forestry Congress
World Resources Institute
Global Forest Watch
Deforestation: Tropical Forests in Decline/Canadian International Development Agency
The Sun's Rays
Solar radiation was essential for the emergence of life on Earth, but today doctors are issuing an alert: envrionmetnal and social changes have turned the Sun's rays into dangerous company when they shine too brightly.
The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that the greatest danger lies in ultraviolet (UV) rays, which are thought to be responsible for the increase in cancer and ailments related to the skin and eyes, the human organs most exposed to sunlight. The United Nations health agency warns that these rays are a threat to everyone.
The Intersun portal is a cyberspace offshoot of the WHO-sponsored Global UV Project that warns that these rays play a role in the two to three million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer and 132,000 cases of malignant melanoma reported each year. The harmful radiation could also contribute to the two million cases of blindness arising from cataracts that are recorded worldwide each year.
There has been an increase in these cases. Why? On the one hand, there is a greater tendency towards sun exposure, for aesthetic motives like suntanning. But all sources on the Internet consulted on this matter point out that the thinning of the ozone layer, known as the ozone hole, is a factor that affects a large portion of the Earth's surface.
The thinning of the ozone layer is caused by pollutants produced by human activities, such as the manufacture and use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and is a serious problem because this atmospheric shield is what protects us from the potentially harmful rays of the sun, like UV.
To combat the emissions of these contaminants, many nations of the world have signed the Montreal Protocol, which is seen as successfully curbing the production of CFCs and other ozone depleting substances. But experts warn that the effects of the ozone hole will continue for at least a half-century unless all production of such substances is halted immediately.
Meanwhile, to protect ourselves, information is helpful. Intersun posts a UV index to categorise the danger of the suns rays.
WHO: Intersun The Global UV Project
Intersun: UV index
Connect Yourself: Ozone Hole - A Threatening Void
UNEP: Ozone Secretariat
Connect Yourself: Montreal Protocol on Ozone
World Social Forum 2003
The World Social Forum, in its third annual meeting, January 23-28, will proclaim its central message with renewed energy: "another world is possible". And the host city is once again the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, which expects tens of thousands of people to converge on this "open meeting space".
The Internet is a good source for learning about the details of this global meeting in Brazil, with informative portals dedicated especially to the Forum, such as Portoalegre2003.org, sites that explain the origins and types of issues debated, or simply provide facts about the city serving as the venue for the meet, Porto Alegre.
The official World Social Forum web site states that 30,000 participants from 121 countries are expected to attend. These multitudes will represent approximately 5,000 organizations and will be able to choose from among 1,700 activities -- seminars, panel discussions, workshops -- scheduled for the six-day event.
The Forum is intended as an encounter of civil society organizations, networks and movements, such that people or entities linked to government or political parties are not allowed to participate, unless an individual wishes to on his or her own account. Nor are representatives of armed or military groups permitted to take part in the event.
This year's Forum, organized by a committee made up of numerous civil society groups, is based on five thematic pillars: democratic and sustainable development; principles and values, human rights, diversity and equality; media, culture and non-domination; political power, civil society and democracy; democratic world order, anti-militarization and promotion of peace.
Since 2001, the meeting has been held annually as a civil society response to the World Economic Forum, held at the same time in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos. The WSF's aim is to promote development based on human well being and a globalization process based on solidarity.
In 2004, the World Social Forum will be held in India.
World Social Forum 2003 - official web site
Porto Alegre 2003
Government of Rio Grande do Sul: World Social Forum
World Economic Forum
Porto Alegre: Internet links
Grains of rice have been feeding human beings since the dawn of civilization. Today this cereal originating in the wetland regions of Asia is the basic food of more than half the world's population.
According to one web site, at the global level, rice is ranked second -- after wheat -- in terms of the total area planted with the grain, but if one considers its importance as a food crop, rice provides more calories per hectare than any other cereal.
Total rice output worldwide reaches 590 million metric tons, most of it grown in Asia, though it is also an important agricultural product in other regions.
The scientific name for rice is Oryza sativa, a monocotyledon of the Poaceae family. The history of rice begins with references in China dating back 5,000 years, although it is suspected that the grain originated in India, where there are several endemic wild rice species.
There is a great deal of information to be found about rice on the Internet. Most of it involves rice as a culinary ingredient, the basis for a vast collection of recipes from all points of the compass, ranging from the famous Spanish paellas to Italian risottos to an infinite number of Asian dishes.
In doing a bit of web surfing, one can delve into data about how rice is grown, the ups and downs of the international rice market, and the challenges for the future, such as the need to boost yields, the debate on genetically modified rice, and the sustainability of rice cultivation.
One place to start is the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and its International Rice Commission.
FAO: International Rice Commission
Rice on the Web
History of Rice
Fly fishing is a sport that is quickly gaining followers around the world. But this approach to fishing is unique: although the objective is to catch salmon or trout, the sport is closely linked to nature conservation efforts.
Fly fishing requires some special skills, as well as knowledge about the habits of the species being sought, the conditions of the water, and particularly the techniques for snagging, netting and then releasing the fish.
One of the most important characteristics of fly fishing is precisely its "catch-and-release" approach, which means learning how to get the fish to bite the "fly", reel the fish in, and let it go without causing it any harm.
But not only does this sport seek to preserve the fish population, it also considers the ideal fishing sites to be those where human intervention is minimal, and of course those with uncontaminated water. Fly fishing is a sport based on technique and enjoyment of the outdoors. The objective does not involve putting a fish in a frying pan.
The boom in fly fishing is big in the 21st century, and anyone looking for information will realize just how big after browsing the Internet, and the Yahoo! directory on this sport in particular.
The sport is on the rise in Latin America as well, with Argentina and Chile attracting fishing enthusiasts from around the world. Mexico and Brazil also tout their own fly fishing locations.
Anglers Adventures in Argentina and Chile
Go Chile: Fly-fishing guide
Fly-fishing in Patagonia
How to release the fish
Fly fishing: FAQs
Yahoo! - Fly fishing
Quinua, also spelled quinoa, is often mentioned as the sacred food of ancient Andean cultures, as an element of the indigenous people's diet in the past, long forgotten. But more recent research into its unique qualities has turned this South American plant into a product with great future potential.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), quinua is one of the few plant-based foods that is nutritionally complete (pdf), that is, it holds the appropriate balance of proteins, carbohydrates and minerals necessary for human life.
This "perfect food" is produced by a highly resistant plant that easily adapts to different growing conditions at a wide range of altitudes. It can be cultivated at 4,000 meters above sea level and in arid or semi-arid zones.
The scientific name for quinua is Chenopodium quinoa Wild. It is also known as "the wheat of the Incas", although it is not really a cereal. One website notes that some studies show that this grain began to form part of the human diet in the Andean Mountains at least 5,000 years B.C.
There are several kinds of quinua, but the best known is quinua real. This variety is used in many ways, but mostly as food for humans and forage for livestock.
With such a long history, the utilization of this unique grain in cooking has given rise to a very interesting cuisine. Beyond being prepared and eaten in the humble homes of its home region, quinua is gradually being adopted in cooking in other latitudes, in healthy and sophisticated recipes.
For the peasant farmers of some parts of the Andean region, quinua is a fundamental part of daily life, which is why they immediately came to the defense of the grain when they heard that a variety of quinua had been patented in the United States.
"Our intellectual integrity has been violated," the farming families said in a statement, noting that quinua was genetically improved through traditional crossbreeding techniques by the residents of the Andes over the last several millennia.
FAO: Under-Utilized Andean Food Crops (pdf format)
Quinua: an introduction
Chenopodiace: directory of texts on quinua in English
Chemical pesticides represent an age-old human desire to live free of the plagues that complicate daily life. But in contemporary times, we are aware of the other face of these substances: they are dangerous to human health and the environment.
In November 2002, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) approved a revised version of the International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides. According to the text, the governments are apprised of their responsibility to regulate these substances, to help countries with technical difficulties to mitigate the dangers in using pesticides, and to engage in good conduct in pesticide production and trade.
The use of pesticides in farming is widespread all around the world as many consider it essential for achieving the best crop yields. However, the list of substances applied on crops includes some that are dangerous, leading organizations like the FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) to insist on precautions in handling and sales of these products.
One website on pesticides cites WHO figures indicating that two million people are poisoned each year by these chemicals and some 200,000 die as a result! Another website with basic information on pesticides warns of the harm that can come from contact with the eyes and skin or if the compounds are inhaled or swallowed.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Internet portal on the subject states that there are 17,000 pesticides registered in that country, with three-quarters used in farming and a quarter used in urban areas. Time is critical in any case of pesticide poisoning, warns the EPA.
In addition to the dangers posed by direct contact, there is another important pesticide-related problem: environmental contamination. This occurs with long-lived chemicals that remain in the soil, water and in the cells of plants and animals, which might ultimately be consumed by humans. The question remains: Can these poisons be useful?
IFAO: Int'l Code of Conduct on Distribution and Use of Pesticides
FAO: Pesticide Management Unit
FAO/WHO: Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues
EPA: portal on pesticides
EPA: pesticide safety programs
What you should know about pesticides…
Pesticides, Human Health and the Environment
Yahoo!: links on pesticides