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How Earth's land is used Thursday, 22 August, 2002, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK

From rain forests to the desolate polar wastes
By Dr David Whitehouse BBC News Online science editor

A new global map taken from space is providing scientists with their most detailed picture ever of the Earth's ecosystems and land use patterns.

The data will aid scientists and policy makers involved in land resource management as well as a range of global monitoring objectives such as determining the amount of Carbon released into the atmosphere that could contribute to global warming.

The maps were developed at Boston University, US, using data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (Modis) instrument on Nasa's Terra satellite. The maps are based on data collected between November 2000 and October 2001.

Scientists say the image is an important milestone. "These maps mark a significant step forward in global land cover mapping by providing a clearer, more detailed picture than previously available maps," says Professor Mark Friedl of Boston University.

"With data collected over several years," he adds, "we will be able to create maps that highlight global-scale changes in vegetation and land cover in response to climate change, such as drought.

"We'll also be establishing the timing of seasonal changes in vegetation, defining when important transitions take place, such as the onset of the growing season."

The last global maps of this kind were produced from data collected in 1992 and 1993 by a previous satellite.

Colour coded

Terra was launched on 18 December 1999 and is regarded as the flagship of Nasa's Earth Observing System series of satellites.

The map shows global land cover types in different colours. Each land cover has a different effect on carbon and climate cycles.

There are 17 different land cover types shown in the image, including 11 natural vegetation types such as deciduous and evergreen forests, savannas, and wetlands.

Also show are agricultural land use and land surfaces with little or no plant cover - such as bare ground, urban areas and permanent snow and ice.

"This product will have a major impact on our carbon budget work," says Professor Steve Running of the University of Montana, who uses the land cover maps in conjunction with other weekly observations from Modis.

"With the Modis land cover map we can determine current vegetation in detail for each square kilometre; for example, whether there is mature vegetation, clear cutting, a new fire scar, or agricultural crops.

"This means we can produce annual estimates of net change in vegetation cover. This gets us one step closer to a global picture of carbon sources and sinks."

Concern over baby gene selection Wednesday, 2 October, 2002, 00:05 GMT 01:05 UK

Parents might be able to choose their baby's IQ Parents should not be allowed to select embryos for IQ or personality, an ethical watchdog in the UK has warned.

It may soon be possible to choose children with a particular behavioural trait, according to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

Genetic testing in fertility clinics could in theory allow embryos to be selected for the likes of above average intelligence, good behaviour and even sexual orientation, it says in its latest report, Genetics And Human Behaviour: The Ethical Context.

But such a move would be morally and ethically wrong, says a working group set up to canvass public opinion.

Currently, the selection of embryos using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis is restricted to serious diseases.

But working group member Professor Terrie Moffitt says there is "serious concern" that new applications could follow.

"Parents are highly motivated to have the best child possible - some would consider such a selection technique if it were available," the Institute of Psychiatry professor told BBC News Online.

"The science is active and is progressing," she added. "We want progress in analysing ethical and moral issues to keep pace with the progress of the science."

Research 'justified'

The report follows a public consultation on research into a possible link between genes and behaviour.

It is a controversial area not just because of concerns about the scientific validity of the work, but also because of the ethical, legal, and social implications.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics team looked at intelligence, antisocial behaviour, personality traits and sexual orientation.

So far, despite a number of highly publicised claims, no genetic variant has been shown conclusively to influence any of these, it says.

Professor Bob Hepple, QC, chairman of the working party and master of Clare College, Cambridge, said: "This is a potentially explosive area and the first question we asked was whether such research should be carried out at all.

"We concluded that it can be justified because it has the potential to advance our understanding of human behaviour. However, it is important to create safeguards to protect against its misuse."

Genes and law

The report also looks at the possible impact of genetics on criminal justice.

It concludes that genetic information about normal behaviours does not absolve an individual from responsibility for an offence.

However, the information could be taken into account by judges when sentencing, in the same way that environmental factors, such as poverty or an abusive childhood, may be considered.

There is also concern that people might be encouraged to take medication to alter certain behaviours.

"We recommend that the Department of Health should ensure that the deliberate prescribing of medicines for behavioural traits within the normal range be monitored and, if necessary, controlled," says Professor Baldwin, a member of the working party and head of the department of philosophy at the University of York.

'Bad science'

Dr Helen Wallace of the pressure group GeneWatch UK says behavioural genetics in itself is flawed.

"Behavioural genetics is bad science leading to bad policy," she told BBC News Online.

"Genes are very poor predictors of behaviour because behaviour is complex.

"The danger is that a focus on genetics leads to a neglect of the underlying social, economic and environmental factors influencing things like crime."

Cloned animals 'safe to eat' Wednesday, 21 August, 2002, 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK

By Richard Black BBC Science Correspondent

An influential committee of scientists in the USA has declared that eating food made from cloned animals appears to be safe.

However, it says that products made from genetically-modified animals could pose a risk to human health.

It also believes that animals created both by cloning and genetic modification raise significant concerns over environmental risks and animal welfare.

The committee was set up by the National Academy of Sciences in response to a request from the US government.

The government's regulatory body, the Food and Drug Administration, is currently debating whether it should allow the sale of GM meat and milk.

Its decision is anticipated by the end of the year, and the committee's report will be influential in deciding whether it approves these products for market or rejects them.

Data deficit

The committee admits that data is scarce, particularly on animals cloned from adult tissue, like Dolly the sheep - the technique known as somatic nuclear transfer.

"Limited sample size, health and production data, and rapidly changing cloning protocols make it difficult to draw conclusions regarding the safety of milk, meat or other products from somatic cell cloned individuals," it says.

Some evidence comes from animals cloned by different, older techniques. Over two thousand Holstein cattle have been cloned since the 1980s in the USA, using methods called embryo splitting and blastomere nuclear transfer, BNT.

These techniques have not been adopted widely, mainly because they do not improve yields.

"Food products from BNT clones have been consumed by humans, with no apparent ill effects," the report says. But it urges the Food and Drug Administration to run tests on food made from cloned animals.

On genetically-engineered animals, the report is more equivocal.

It says that with any genetically-modified organism, there is a large degree of uncertainty about how, when and where inserted genes will turn themselves on.

New genes inserted into the DNA of GM animals will make proteins which are not normally present in the human diet, the report says. These could produce allergic reactions, or even be poisonous.

The committee concludes that some GM animal products may pose what it calls a "moderate degree of concern" .

The report was welcomed by the Biotechnology Industry Organisation, BIO, a lobby group based in Washington DC.

"It's very positive. They found no evidence of any danger from drinking milk or eating meat made from cloned or genetically-engineered animals," said spokeswoman Lisa Dry.

"That's the same as we've found with genetically-engineered crops."

According to BIO, there are currently about six companies in the world producing farm animals by cloning or genetic engineering.

Flying fish

The main issue with GM animals, the committee says, is the potential spread of inserted genes into the wild.

Fish, it says, present a particular problem. GM salmon which start life in farms may well escape into rivers and seas; and if they are bigger or fitter than normal salmon, their genes will spread through wild populations.

Modified species might also be able to establish themselves in new areas of land or water. "A transgene that increases fitness or adaptations increases the risk of establishment and results in the highest level of concern," the report concludes.

The other concern the scientists raise is animal welfare.

The report notes that some cloned animals, including cattle, have health problems around the time of birth, with some calves growing so big that they cannot be born naturally.

This aspect of the report drew approval from Dr Sue Mayer of GeneWatch, an independent UK-based research group.

"The committee has said that substantial differences can occur in genetically-engineered and cloned species," she said. "That means they need to be treated differently."

Coming revolution

So far, the genetic revolution has largely passed animal farming by; but the committee expects this to change.

"Many of these recent advances have not yet left the experimental stage," they say, "But it is clear that that several, including transgenic finfish, which are soon likely to be commercialised, are likely to assume importance."

The biotechnology industry sees GM animals as providing several benefits to consumers.

"You could make animals with less fatty meat, or more nutritious milk," according to Lisa Dry. "Or they could be more resistant to diseases, which could make them safer for humans to eat."

But Sue Mayer disagrees. "We're deeply concerned that anyone is thinking of producing farm animals by such techniques," she said. "There are much better ways of solving the world's agricultural problems."

Gene-Altered Animals' Risk Detailed
Panel Notes Benefits but Urges Better Federal Oversight

By Justin Gillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 21, 2002; Page A01

Genetic manipulation of animals poses serious risks to the environment and potentially to human health, and federal efforts to manage those risks are disorganized and probably inadequate, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences said yesterday.

In a long-awaited report, the nation's premier scientific body identified a slew of concerns relating to the biotechnology industry's efforts to clone animals and to manipulate their genes. The escape of such animals into the wild could alter species or even wipe them out, the report said, adding that the introduction of gene-altered meat, milk or eggs into the food supply could harm people unless managed carefully.

Despite those concerns, though, the report did not call for a wholesale rejection of cloning or genetic manipulation. To the contrary, committee members noted many potential benefits of animal biotechnology, including cheaper, more healthful food and new drugs and medical treatments that could save human lives.

The report, which identified many of the theoretical risks and pointed toward ways of minimizing them, is an effort by the nation's scientific establishment to help regulators and the public catch up with a fast-moving technology.

A handful of cloned animals have already been transferred to American farmsteads, and products derived from them or their offspring have been held out of the food supply only because companies and farmers are complying with informal government requests.

Companies have created animals that make human drugs in their milk, and they are working on pigs whose hearts or livers could be transplanted into human patients to replace failing organs. Thousands of other research projects along these lines are underway.

Although the committee identified various risks to people from animal biotechnology, those were generally perceived as mild to moderate, the report said. It called for renewed efforts to be sure gene-altered foods don't create allergic reactions that could sicken or kill people, for instance. And the committee said assiduous efforts must be undertaken to be sure milk or eggs containing human drugs don't wind up in the food supply.

On one of the most-discussed issues of the day -- whether meat or milk from cloned animals and their offspring should be allowed into the food supply -- the committee found almost no cause for alarm and said such food was highly likely to be safe. It did call for studies to be sure such meat and milk don't differ markedly from unaltered food.

The committee's most serious concerns were environmental, and they focused particularly on genetically altered fish and insects, which can escape easily, are highly mobile and can set up breeding populations in the wild. Fast-growing gene-altered fish that escaped might easily outcompete wild cousins and drive them to extinction, the committee said.

The committee cited insects as another example. Researchers are trying to create a mosquito that can't transmit malaria to people, for instance. But the malaria parasite helps hold mosquito populations in check, and replacing wild mosquitoes with malaria-resistant strains might actually lead to more mosquitoes and greater transmission of mosquito-borne ailments other than malaria, the committee noted.

This kind of research has provoked fear, controversy and, at times, wild investor enthusiasm. Both sides in the debate over animal biotechnology welcomed the report yesterday.

Skeptics of the technology said it confirmed some of their fears. "It certainly brings into question the use of this technology in our food," said Matt Rand, campaign manager for biotechnology at the National Environmental Trust in Washington.

Biotech advocates said the report showed that the potential problems, though real, are not sufficient grounds to halt their research, and advocates predicted the report would become the basis for new federal policies.

"There are stories floating around on the Web that we've got 500-pound fish that are going to grow to the size of sharks and threaten children on the beach," said Joseph McGonigle, vice president of Aqua Bounty Farms Inc., a Waltham, Mass., company that has drawn worldwide protests for its efforts to create fast-growing salmon through genetic manipulation. "This is nice, for a change."

McGonigle acknowledged the salmon pose a theoretical risk, and said his company hopes to deal with it by growing only gene-altered salmon that are sterile -- and thus can't threaten wild Atlantic salmon populations, which are already endangered.

The National Academy of Sciences commissioned the report, from a panel of academic experts, at the request of the Food and Drug Administration, one of the agencies on the front lines of regulating the technology.

The report was originally scheduled for release today, but leaked a day early after summaries were distributed on Capitol Hill. Academy reports tend to be taken seriously by all political factions on the Hill, because they represent the thinking of the nation's smartest researchers.

John G. Vandenbergh, a professor of zoology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, noted that the committee, of which he was chairman, was asked only to identify risks of animal biotechnology, not benefits. The view was widespread among committee members that, in many cases, the risks are manageable and the benefits considerable, he said.

"I think the whole committee feels that all the flowers that are blooming in the biotechnology garden don't necessarily have to be picked," he said. "We have to be careful about which ones we do pick."

The panel said federal agencies such as FDA and the Department of Agriculture are stretching a patchwork of laws, written for other purposes, to try to stay on top of biotechnology, and the panel expressed concern that these efforts, while well-intentioned, remain fragmentary and inadequate.

"There is some validity to that," said Stephen F. Sundlof, director of FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine. "At least, the laws that we're operating under are not as explicit as they could be in giving us the authority to regulate in this area." He said the agency would likely issue some new policies based on the report, and would study whether broader regulations are needed.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

This is a thing of a past in many parts of West Africa

Sahara desert frontiers turn green Wednesday, 18 September, 2002, 22:06 GMT 23:06 UK

By Corinne Podger BBC science unit

Satellite pictures of northern Africa show that areas lost to the Sahara desert during decades of drought are turning green again.

Analysis of images show deserts retreating in a broad band stretching from Mauritania to Eritrea, according to research in British magazine New Scientist.

The driving force behind the retreat of the deserts is believed to be increased rainfall.

Better farming methods have also played a critical role, according to researchers.

Twenty years ago, severe droughts turned much of northern Burkina Faso into a desert.

But satellite surveys of the region have shown that vegetation is returning to the country - and, indeed, across the southern edge of the Sahara desert.

Reclaiming farmland

The surveys were funded by Dutch, German and American aid agencies, and will be presented to ministers in Burkina Faso later this year.

And new comparisons with archived images also show increasing grassland and forest vegetation in southern Mauritania, north-western Niger, central Chad, as well as in Sudan and parts of Eritrea.

And the researchers say that while overall improvements have been steady, dramatic progress has been made in particular villages and areas, particularly those where donor agencies have invested consistently in soil and water conservation.

One particularly successful farming technique is known as "contour bunding". It consists in placing lines of stones along slopes and contours on the land to help rainfall soak in, and to stop topsoil washing away.

And that is helping to transform thousands of hectares into productive fields - where nothing grew just a decade ago.

Asian haze poses 'widespread threat'

Sunday, 11 August, 2002, 16:58 GMT 17:58 UK

By Alex Kirby BBC News Online environment correspondent

Pollution in south-east Asia is a regional and a global menace, according to scientists working for the United Nations.

They say the region's brown haze affects rainfall and farming, and puts hundreds of thousands of people in jeopardy.

They fear the pollution's impacts will worsen over the next 30 years.

It has a direct effect on human health, they say, causing more respiratory disease.

The scientists, working for the UN Environment Programme (Unep), have based their work on data gathered by the Indian Ocean Experiment (Indoex), supplemented by satellite readings and computer modelling.

The team includes Professors V Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, US, Paul Crutzen, of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Germany, and A P Mitra, of India's National Physical Laboratory.

The head of Unep, Dr Klaus Toepfer, told journalists in London the threat was real.

He said: "The haze is the result of forest fires, the burning of agricultural wastes, dramatic increases in the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles, industries and power stations, and emissions from millions of inefficient cookers burning wood, cow dung and other 'bio-fuels'."

Monsoon warning

These initial findings clearly indicate that this growing cocktail of soot, particles, aerosols and other pollutants is becoming a major environmental hazard for Asia.

"There are also global implications, not least because a pollution parcel like this, which stretches three kms (two miles) high, can travel halfway round the globe in a week."

The scientists say the haze is reducing the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth's surface by up to 15%. But it also absorbs heat, and they estimate that it is not only cooling the Earth's surface but warming the lower atmosphere appreciably.

They believe this is altering the winter monsoon, sharply cutting rainfall over north-western Asia and increasing it further east.

The models they used suggest the haze may reduce rain and snow over north-west India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and neighbouring parts of western central Asia by between 20% and 40%.

'Premature deaths'

The report's authors say the reduction in solar energy reaching the Earth's surface also means less oceanic evaporation of the moisture which controls summer rainfall.

They estimate that the haze could be reducing India's winter rice harvest by up to 10%. And they fear "several hundreds of thousands" of premature deaths from haze-related respiratory diseases.

The south Asian region judged to be especially affected includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. But Unep says the haze problem is at least comparable, and perhaps worse, in south-east and eastern Asia.

The report, commissioned by Unep, was prepared by the Center for Clouds, Chemistry and Climate.

Kalahari bushmen have used Hoodia for centuries

Kalahari cactus boosts UK drug firm Tuesday, 30 July, 2002, 11:44 GMT 12:44 UK

An anti-obesity drug made from a Kalahari desert cactus is a step closer to reality after its developer, UK drug company Phytopharm, signed a fresh deal with US giant Pfizer.

The deal means Pfizer will take development of the drug, called P57, inhouse, and will aim for key clinical tests by 2003.

The US group will pay $2.8m for half a ton of chips from the Hoodia Gordonii cactus which forms the basis for P57.

The deal also means that while Pfizer develops botanical versions of the drug, Phytopharm is free to come up with semi-synthetic variants by itself.

In the hope of staving off the anger that sometimes surrounds companies which exploit traditional medicines without rewarding their original discoverers, the company signed a deal in 1997 with the South African government for a cut of the royalties.

The announcement, which could mean $32m for Phytopharm in milestone payments as development proceeds as well as royalties on sales, triggered a sharp rise in the company's shares.

Having drifted lower and lower in recent weeks, largely on a lack of fresh news about P57, Phytopharm shares rose as much as 12% in early trading before settling back to a near-5% gain at 280 pence by 1050 GMT.

Herbal remedies

P57 is central to the future of Phytopharm, a company which started out reverse-engineering Chinese herbal remedies.

Since then, it has continued to concentrate on traditional natural medicines.

In P57's case, the Hoodia Gordonii cactus has been used for centuries by the Xhomani Sans bushmen of southern Africa's Kalahari desert, to suppress the appetite during long hunting trips.

It works by making patients feel full after ingesting it, and the company says it has been shown to lower food intake by 30-40% in a small study just completed.

The mammal was first discovered by a British explorer

Spotted: After 70 years

Thursday, 20 June, 2002, 15:50 GMT 16:50 UK This is the first ever photograph of a secretive African carnivore known only by its skin.

No trace of the animal has been seen since a single spotted pelt was found by a British explorer in 1932.

After 70 years, the animal has finally been captured on camera. The metre-long mammal is a member of the mongoose family.

It was snapped by a remote camera trap on the eastern side of Tanzania's Udzungwa Mountains National Park.

Secretive creature

A scientist from the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) rediscovered the carnivore, known as Lowe's servaline genet.

"This is the first ever photograph of Lowe's servaline genet and confirms the animal's existence after 70 years," says WCS researcher Daniela De Luca.

"We now hope to find out more about the animal and thus help ensure its survival."

The creature was first described by British explorer and naturalist Willoughby Lowe. It is thought to be nocturnal and to live in trees. Scientists plan to carry out more research in the area to see how many are left.

Aspirin 'halves lung cancer risk'

Wednesday, 26 June, 2002, 06:38 GMT 07:38 UK Aspirin is already used for heart disease and arthritis Women who take aspirin on a regular basis cut their risk of developing the most common type of lung cancer by more than half, scientists have claimed.

The study, involving more than 14,000 women, suggested the drug's anti-inflammatory effects reduce the chances of developing any form of lung cancer by a third.

The US team said that not smoking is still the best protection against the disease.

But they said aspirin, already widely used for the prevention and treatment of heart disease and arthritis, offers substantial benefits.

In a second study published in the British Journal of Cancer, experts predicted lung cancer deaths in the UK will fall significantly over the next five years, as more people stop smoking.

Bowel cancer

The New York-based research team compared 81women who developed lung cancer with 808 who had not, and looked at whether they used aspirin.

It was found that those who had taken aspirin three or more times a week for at least six months were "substantially" less likely to develop cancer.

The risk of developing any type of the disease was cut by a third, while the risk of non-small cell lung cancer - which accounts for about three quarters of cases - was reduced by more than half.

Further research is examining whether aspirin can help reduce the risk of bowel cancer and there is already some evidence it could protect against oesophageal cancer.


Dr Arslan Akhmedkhanov, who led the study at New York University's School of Medicine, said: "Not smoking is by far the best way to avoid lung cancer, but our study suggests that regular aspirin use could also confer some degree of protection against the disease."

He said further research was needed to confirm the study's findings.

Professor Gordon McVie, director general of Cancer Research UK, which owns the British Journal of Cancer, said: "Aspirin is a remarkable drug with a wide range of health benefits, and this is the latest evidence to suggest that it could become a useful weapon against cancer.

"But as much as these results are encouraging, people shouldn't fool themselves into thinking that taking aspirin somehow counteracts the dangers of smoking.

"Everything else pales into insignificance compared with the lethal effects of tobacco."

'Getting the message across'

A second study, published in the British Journal of Cancer, predicts UK death rates from lung cancer in under 75s will fall by 20% in men and 8% in women over the next five years.

Deaths in under 55s are set to fall more sharply - by 26% in men and 15% in women - because of drops in the numbers smoking.

But the analysis of 20 countries, by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, found other European countries are set to fare less well, as both smoking and lung cancer rates remain high.

Dr Paul Brennan, who led the research, said: "Health campaigns in the UK have been extremely successful at persuading people, particularly men, to kick the habit, and as a result deaths from lung cancer are starting to come down.

"But sadly, across Europe the anti-smoking message doesn't seem to be getting across.

Professor McVie said although there was good news about UK smoking habits, people should not be complacent.

"Young women in particular are seemingly immune to anti-smoking campaigns and we need to find new ways of getting the message across. "

Amazon destruction rate 'falls' Wednesday, 12 June, 2002, 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK

Environmentalists say development must be controlled Brazilian environmental officials have said that the rate of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has fallen sharply.

Figures released by the environmental ministry showed that between 2000 and 2001 the rate of destruction fell by 13%, with 15,787 square kilometres (6,095 square miles) destroyed in 2001 by either logging or forest fires, down from 18,226 sq km (7,037 square miles) a year earlier.

The Brazilian Government said that the improved figures - that mark a return to late 1990s figures - were the result of increased monitoring of hotspots and continuing efforts to change land use in the Amazon.

However, environmentalists, despite cautiously welcoming the news, said that more action to control development of the world's largest rainforest was needed.

Environmental concerns

The Amazon, which covers an expanse of territory larger than Western Europe, is thought to be home to up to 30% of the world's animal and plant life and is an invaluable source of novel medicines.

Much of the forest's destruction is caused by small farmers, who are authorised by local authorities to cut or burn down portions in order to carve out land for cultivation.

Analuce Freitas, a co-ordinator for Brazil's World Wildlife Fund, said that the only way Brazil could cut deforestation rates was to revamp existing development policies to take into account environmental concerns.

"If environmental policies are not integrated with development projects, these numbers will not change," she told Reuters news agency.

Sustainable development

Other environmentalists warn that the fluctuations in the figures make it difficult for the ministry to claim that deforestation is under control.

Environmental affairs minister Jose Carlos Carvalho has said that as sustainable development projects replace the agricultural and cattle raising activities that prevail in much of the region, so deforestation will decrease.

Of the Amazon's total coverage of 3 million sq km (1.8 million miles), it has been calculated that about 600,000 sq km (240,000 square miles) has been destroyed by human encroachment in the past few decades.

Brazil spies on Amazon loggers Thursday, 25 July, 2002, 20:52 GMT 21:52 UK

The Amazon basin needs to be monitored says SIVAM Brazil has launched a $1.4bn radar system to spy on illegal loggers, miners and drug runners in the Amazon rainforest.

President Fernando Henrique Cardoso flew to the jungle city of Manaus to inaugurate the System for the Vigilance of the Amazon (SIVAM), as the project is called.

Its network of radars, control towers and aircraft will also help to catalogue the forest's immense diversity of plant, insect and animal life and monitoring indigenous populations.

The SIVAM programme began 10 years ago in response to illegal activities that infest the Amazon forest - the size of western Europe.

But critics say the radar system, which was designed by an American company, will give Big-Brother-style control over the Amazon and its border with cocaine-producing Colombia, to the United States.

"It is clear that this was a geopolitical move by the United States with grave consequences for possible military activities," said opposition lawmaker Arlindo Chinaglia, who backs the re-opening of a congressional probe into SIVAM.

'Gaping hole'

Critics also claim that US radar designers Raytheon received preferential treatment in winning the contract. Brazil's Aeronautics Ministry denies the claims.


SIVAM officials say that the 25 radars, control towers and surveillance planes will be a vital tool against drug or wood smugglers whose runways and roads are camouflaged by the forest canopy.

"There was a gaping (security) hole over more than half of the Amazon," said SIVAM spokesman Jurandyr Fonseca.

But defence experts says the radar will be a toothless tiger, with the Brazilian military banned from shooting down suspect aircraft.

"We are going to be in a pretty pathetic situation," said Roberto Godoy, a defence affairs correspondent with Estado de S.Paulo daily.

"We have the electronic eye, the capacity to intercept, but we are not permitted to do this."

Environmentalists are also sceptical that wildlife will benefit because of budget cuts to federal environmental agencies.

"Fighting logging has nothing to do with registering that logging is going on," said Paulo Adario, coordinator of Greenpeace's Amazon campaign. "It has everything to do with political, economic and administrative measures."

S Korea launches cloning inquiry Friday, 26 July, 2002, 12:18 GMT 13:18 UK Scientists say cloning is not yet safe for humans Prosecutors have been asked to investigate a company's claim that it has implanted a cloned human embryo in a South Korean woman.

Health officials in Seoul have so far been unable to authenticate the claim by Clonaid, a US-based religious sect.

South Korea's Ministry of Health and Welfare has now asked the Seoul District Public Prosecutors Office to start a criminal investigation.

South Korea has no law banning human cloning so investigators will concentrate on whether laws that ban unlicensed or unethical medical activities or practices have been violated.

Kwak Gi-hwa, a spokesman for Clonaid's South Korea office, said this week that its head office made a Korean woman pregnant with a cloned embryo, with help from BioFusion Tech, a firm based in the southeastern city of Daegu.

Mr Kwak told the BBC the woman was two months into the pregnancy with the implanted foetus, but did not give more details.

Crime denied

A director from the health ministry, Lee Jae-yong, told the Associated Press news agency that BioFusion denied conducting any experiments on human cloning.

"Everything remains under the veil, so we have had to ask the prosecution to intervene," he said.

Both South Korea's health and science ministries have drafted separate laws that would ban cloning of humans and limit stem cell research.

The two bills are being combined into one which is reportedly being put on the fast track for approval by the National Assembly.

Scientists who have been involved in animal cloning overwhelmingly believe that at present human cloning is unsafe; that the risk of problems is simply too high.

BioFusion, however, says it is sure the technology is safe, and that the pregnancy could be terminated if problems do emerge.

BioFusion's parent organisation, Clonaid, was founded by a religious cult, the Raelian Movement, which believes life on Earth was created by extra-terrestrials.

Space rock's close approach Thursday, 20 June, 2002, 16:29 GMT 17:29 UK

By Dr David Whitehouse BBC News Online science editor

Astronomers have revealed that on 14 June, an asteroid the size of a football pitch made one of the closest ever recorded approaches to the Earth.

It is only the sixth time an asteroid has been seen to penetrate the Moon's orbit, and this is by far the biggest rock to do so.

What has worried some astronomers, though, is that the space object was only detected on 17 June, several days after its flyby.

It was found by astronomers working on the Lincoln Laboratory Near Earth Asteroid Research (Linear) search programme in New Mexico.

Catalogued as 2002MN, the asteroid was travelling at over 10 kilometres a second (23,000 miles per hour) when it passed Earth at a distance of around 120,000 km (75,000 miles).

The last time such an object is recorded to have come this close was in December 1994.

'Wake up call'

The space rock has a diameter of between 50-120 metres (160 - 320 feet). This is actually quite small when compared with many other asteroids and incapable of causing damage on a global scale.

Nonetheless, an impact from such a body would still be dangerous.

If 2002MN had hit the Earth, it would have caused local devastation similar to that which occurred in Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908, when 2,000 square kilometres of forest were flattened.

Dr Benny Peiser, of Liverpool John Moores University, UK, told BBC News Online: "Our ever increasing observational capacity is now detecting these close shaves from small objects.

"The probability is actually quite high that a Tunguska-sized object will hit us in our lifetimes."

'Bolt from the blue'

A major issue of concern centres on how late this object was picked up.

Dr John Davies, of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, has calculated the orbit of the asteroid from the Linear data.

He concludes that the asteroid came out of the Sun and was impossible for Linear to see until one hour after its flyby of the Earth on the 14th.

Dr Davies said: "...if an asteroid were to approach close to an imaginary line joining the Earth and the Sun it would never be visible in a night-time sky and would be quite impossible to discover with normal telescopes. Its arrival would come, literally, as a bolt from the blue."

Space-based telescopes, such as Hubble and the future European Gaia spacecraft, are the only means of searching for asteroids in the daytime sky.

Space rock 'on collision course' Wednesday, 24 July, 2002, 02:29 GMT 03:29 UK An asteroid could devastate Earth

By Dr David Whitehouse BBC News Online science editor

An asteroid discovered just weeks ago has become the most threatening object yet detected in space.

A preliminary orbit suggests that 2002 NT7 is on an impact course with Earth and could strike the planet on 1 February, 2019 - although the uncertainties are large.

Astronomers have given the object a rating on the so-called Palermo technical scale of threat of 0.06, making NT7 the first object to be given a positive value.

From its brightness, astronomers estimate it is about two kilometres wide, large enough to cause continent-wide devastation on Earth.

Many observations

Although astronomers say the object definitely merits attention, they expect more observations to show it is not on an Earth-intersecting trajectory.

It was first seen on the night of 5 July, picked up by the Linear Observatory's automated sky survey programme in New Mexico, US.

Since then astronomers worldwide have been paying close attention to it, amassing almost 200 observations in a few weeks.

Dr Benny Peiser, of Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, told BBC News Online that "this asteroid has now become the most threatening object in the short history of asteroid detection".

NT7 circles the Sun every 837 days and travels in a tilted orbit from about the distance of Mars to just within the Earth's orbit.

Potential devastation

Detailed calculations of NT7's orbit suggest many occasions when its projected path through space intersects the Earth's orbit.

Researchers estimate that on 1 February, 2019, its impact velocity on the Earth would be 28 km a second - enough to wipe out a continent and cause global climate changes.

However, Dr Peiser was keen to point out that future observations could change the situation.

He said: "This unique event should not diminish the fact that additional observations in coming weeks will almost certainly - we hope - eliminate the current threat."

Easily observable

According to astronomers, NT7 will be easily observable for the next 18 months or so, meaning there is no risk of losing the object.

Observations made over that period - and the fact that NT7 is bright enough that it is bound to show up in old photographs - mean that scientists will soon have a very precise orbit for the object.

Dr Donald Yeomans, of the US space agency's (Nasa) Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, told BBC News Online: "The orbit of this object is rather highly inclined to the Earth's orbit so it has been missed because until recently observers were not looking for such objects in that region of space."

Regarding the possibility of an impact, Dr Yeomans said the uncertainties were large.

"The error in our knowledge of where NT7 will be on 1 February, 2019, is large, several tens of millions of kilometres," he said.

Dr Yeomans said the world would have to get used to finding more objects like NT7 that, on discovery, look threatening, but then become harmless.

"This is because the problem of Near-Earth Objects is now being properly addressed," he said.

Galapagos spill decimates iguanas Wednesday, 5 June, 2002, 21:23 GMT 22:23 UK

Scientists say an oil spill off the Galapagos Islands last year has caused the death of more than 60% of marine iguanas - a species unique to the Pacific Ocean islands.

The spill happened when an Ecuadorian oil tanker ran aground in January 2001 depositing around three million litres of crude oil into the sea.

Yet compared to other tanker accidents, the concentrations of oil found just offshore were fairly small, and the prevailing view at the time was that Santa Fe, one of the Galapagos Islands, had escaped serious contamination.

But now researchers have concluded that even this small amount of pollution can have severe effects on wild animals.

They are warning against complacency over the impact of oil spills, even when it seems they have caused little environmental damage.

The research, carried out by Martin Wikelski, a biologist of Princeton University, New Jersey, and others, is published in Nature, the British scientific weekly.

Its authors estimate as many as 15,000 marine iguanas died on Santa Fe in the 11 months after the accident.

The figures are considered highly reliable as the marine iguana population on Santa Fe has been closely monitored for years.

Although it is uncertain why they died, oil washed up on the island's shoreline could have poisoned the reptiles or the algae that they consume, or perhaps they starved to death, the research suggests.

Wildlife on the Galapagos Islands, a World Heritage Site located about 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) west of mainland Ecuador, has evolved separately from the rest of the world.

This separation has turned the islands into a biological time capsule.


Martin Wikelski and the Galapagos National Park are suing Petroecuador, Ecuador's state-owned oil company, for damages.

Petroecuador President Rodolfo Barniol would not comment on the study or the lawsuit.

The captain of the tanker admitted his navigational mistake while steering the Jessica into harbour on San Cristobal Island caused the spill.

The accident happened when the tanker ran onto a reef just off the island as it prepared to enter the harbour to deliver fuel.

Captain Tarquino Arevalo, who admitted confusing two landmarks, was jailed for 90 days last year and had his professional licence suspended.

Brazil's Awa struggling to survive Wednesday, 28 August, 2002, 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK The Awa rely on traditional hunting methods Ten years after a demarcation agreement at the Earth Summit, the Awa people of Brazil are still struggling for their very existence.

BBC World Affairs correspondent Mike Donkin travelled to the Awa territory in the heart of the Amazon to assess the situation.

We glimpsed her on the bank as our wooden boat skimmed the creepers after a long day rounding the bends and rocks of the Caru River.

She was fishing, a child asleep against her breasts and a pet monkey perched on one shoulder, at perfect peace in the shade of the rainforest.

When we landed we followed Kawaia to the hut built of palm fronds where her husband, naked except for a twine armband, was whittling sharp points on a cluster of bamboo arrows.

Kawaia gutted the fish and chopped leaves for their meal.

The forest has always sustained the Awa people and they have sustained the forest. Now the tribe's way of life is at risk, and so is their very existence.

Forest nomads

Kawaia and her husband were found hiding in the trees, the only survivors of a massacre after ranchers and loggers started to exploit their stretch of the Amazon.

A swathe of forest has since been cut for timber and turned into grazing pastures. This is the land the Awa had always hunted as nomads.

Some Awa still roam the forest without coming into contact with anyone else. The rest - 230 in all - stay reluctantly, for safety, in villages supervised by the national Indian agency, Funai. They want the forest back, and they have taken their fight to the Brazilian courts.

A group of Awa men took us on a trek through their domain. We walked first to a hillside where sunlight scarcely filters through the dense foliage.

This is where they hunt. The prey might be forest pigs, armadillos, tapirs or brightly plumaged birds.

The Awa stalk them with long bows and short spears. Their eyes are sharp, their aim usually deadly, but they caught nothing on our outing and that is becoming all too common.

One hunter, Kamara, explained: "Wherever we look the whites have left their tracks. They destroy the trees where the animals live and the fruits that they eat. Every day there seems to be less game and we must go further to find it."

Brazil's priorities

Kamara moves cautiously as he hunts these days. Onece, when he climbed a tree to retrieve a monkey he had trapped, a white gunman shot and wounded him.

He led us to a hillside where a few charred tree trunks rose through acres of green scrub.

"They plant this grass for the cattle," he said. "But it does not last and then they move on to plant more. The forest can never grow back. They will finish it off, and we cannot live without it."

Moments of daily life around the village seem to confirm this.

A man sings as he roots through the undergrowth for berries to make medicine. An old woman twists stiff palm leaves to make a hammock.

A girl paints her young brother's face with a black fruit dye before he joins his first hunt.

All around them modern Brazil's priorities are closing in fast. A railway has been cut through the forest to transport iron ore from a vast mine funded by the World Bank and the European Union.

Two hundred wagons rattle behind each train, with loads worth millions of export dollars.

The line has opened the way for settlers, many poor Brazilians escaping the overcrowded cities, to try their luck at farming on this far frontier in the state of Maranhao.

The towns they build start small but grow, then the dirt roads turn to asphalt.

To defend the Awa's interests in the wake of all this, Brazil's Government has stationed a couple of officers from its Indian Affairs agency at each of the four villages.

They are well-meaning, but effectively powerless.

Patrolino Viana took us to the makeshift sign erected on the border of the Awa land he is charged with protecting.

It read 'Keep Out' in Portuguese, but as he showed us, a settler wandered past. He admitted defeat.

"All the time there are more and more invasions," he said. "There are no police, no government forces here to stop them."

We went on to a nearby settlers' farm. In the compound a woman pounded grain with a primitive wooden pestle. She was grinding flour for her family while her daughter loaded a mule.

Their house was made from mud and bare of furniture.


"Life is not just hard for the Indians, it is hard for us too," the woman said. "We need land as well."

The conflict between Indian rights and development is not new to Brazil. In the early 1980s, the country's parliament agreed that all ancestral indigenous land should be mapped, marked out, set apart and protected.

When world leaders gathered at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro a decade ago they endorsed this process of demarcation.

Some of the Amazon tribes have seen demarcation happen - but not the Awa.

The economy of Maranhao State relies on cattle ranching, and if the ranchers are not politicians themselves they have influence where it matters.

Few of the state's voters are likely to raise a voice for Indian rights either. This is why the Awa have taken recourse to the law.

A prosecutor will press their case for demarcation against the determined resistance of one rancher, who claims that the state actually sold him his holding and gave him a paper attesting there were no Indians on it.

The rancher asked in a local newspaper, "Why do the Indians need my land? They have so much already." The court case will almost certainly take years, too long for the Awa.

The only pressure being brought which may tilt the odds a little more in their favour is a campaign launched by Survival, the international organisation which supports tribal peoples.

It is led by a Briton, Fiona Watson, one of the few Westerners to visit the Awa.

"This is not a people who need aid or handouts, they can care for themselves," she says. "They just need their land rights respected so they can live the life of their choosing.

Awa example

"When the political leaders gather in Johannesburg to see what progress there's been since they last met in Rio they should look hard at Brazil and ask what has become of its promises."

With sustainability as the theme for the latest summit, the Johannesburg delegates could also do worse than turn to the example set by the Awa.

As dusk falls in their village the children jump excitedly from tree branches to swim together in the river. Around a fire outside their huts the hunters gather to sing, in their strange staccato language.

Their songs celebrate days in the forest and the good things it provides.

Man may be perfectly in tune with nature here, and nature with man. But if the Awa's voice is not heard and heeded, the rainforest will soon echo to a people's lament.