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These stories were published Tuesday, July 6, 2004, in Vol. 4, No. 132
Jo Stuart
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Report cites ecotourism
Too much Mother Nature spreads new diseases
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
and the University of Wisconsin 
News Service

A new research report contains a warning against too much contact with nature.

The report says that seemingly innocuous pursuits like ecotourism and agriculture can bring previously unknown diseases into human contact.

The report, carried this month in an environmental journal, would seem to suggest caution in opening up new land to agriculture or to development. Costa Rica, of course, is a very diverse country and also in the throes of rapid development.

Ecotourism is the backbone of the industry here. 

The report says the problem is worldwide and urges more training and research into the impact of ecosystem change. The concerns have been voiced before, but the report synthesizes a variety of experiences and research.

The report summarizes a scientific meeting, titled "Unhealthy Landscapes," co-sponsored by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Program.

As people remake the world's landscapes, cutting forests, draining wetlands, building roads and dams, and pushing the margins of cities ever outward, infectious diseases are gaining new toeholds, cropping up in new places and new hosts, and posing an ever-increasing risk to human and animal health, said the report.

Writing this month in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, an international team of experts warns that widespread changes in the global landscape are providing new opportunities for dozens of infectious diseases, including scourges like malaria, dengue fever, Lyme disease, yellow fever, cholera, influenza, foot and mouth, and hemorrhagic fevers. The journal is published by the U.S. National Institutes for Health, a government agency.

"Evidence is mounting that deforestation and ecosystem changes have implications for the distribution of many other microorganisms, and the health of human, domestic animal and wildlife populations," according to the report compiled by the Working Group on Land Use Change and Disease Emergence, an international group of infectious disease and environmental health experts. 

"Many of our current activities, primarily for economic development, have some major adverse health effects," says Jonathan A. Patz, the lead author of the report, and a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor.

A detailed understanding of the influence of human activities on the spread of pathogens, the report notes, is limited to only a few diseases. In the northeastern United States, for example, studies have documented that forest fragmentation, urban sprawl and the erosion of biodiversity have contributed significantly to the spread of Lyme disease. 

A more global example is the AIDS virus, which scientists think may have first infected "bush meat" hunters given access to Africa's tropical forests by the growing network of logging roads in the continent's interior. 

The disease subsequently spread by human contact and has become a global tragedy through the ability of humans to travel the world with relative ease. 

In scope, the issue is broad, affecting nearly every corner of the globe. The causes are as varied as the human activities that create the opportunities for pathogens to thrive, spread geographically and invade new hosts. It involves well-known and pervasive pathogens such as the parasite that causes malaria, a disease that claims more than 1 million lives annually, to diseases like SARS that are relatively new and, so far, limited. 

"There is no single smoking gun," said Patz. "The causes are interwoven into current unsustainable development practices. " 

The list of activities that contribute to the spread of infectious disease, according to the Environmental Health Perspectives report, is long and varied, ranging from ecotourism and agriculture to war and civil unrest. 

Even climate change or extremes, the report notes, can trigger a chain of events that manifests itself in the emergence of new diseases. 

An example cited in the report is the emergence of nipah virus in Malaysia and Singapore in 1999 when El Niño-fueled fires are thought to have driven fruit bats from their forest habitat to farms where the virus was transmitted to pigs and humans. 

The report makes a series of recommendations to address the issue, including linking land use to public health policy, expanding research on deforestation and infectious disease, the development of policies to reduce "pathogen pollution," and the establishment of centers for training in ecology and health research. 

"While there are many health crises around the world today, there are ongoing human activities that threaten natural resources key to sustaining the health of future generations," says Patz. "We need to look at the root causes of the spread of infectious disease, and many of these are related to habitat and ecosystem change."

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Weather warnings
for boats, bathers

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The weather bureau has issued a strong warning for tourists and those using small boats in the Pacific.

Waves 10 to 12 feet high will continue until at least Wednesday, according to the Instituto Meteorológico Nacional. Small boats will have a tough time, but the effect on the tides will be highly dangerous for bathers.

Rip tides, of the type that killed three women Saturday in Parrita, are being enhanced by the atmospheric disturbances in the Pacific, institute meteorologist Luis F. Alvarado said in a warning issued Monday afternoon.

The biggest danger is about three hours before high or low tide, he said.

The disturbance also brings renewed rain to the Central Valley and all over the country today. The rain is likely to be so strong that Alverado said that precautions should be taken.

Fierce downpours are likely today in most sections of the country, at least in the afternoons.

The country had nearly a week of mostly clear weather with only a little rain. However, Monday the rains returned, as is typical this time of year.

Lawmakers leave desks
for midterm break

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

There will not be legislative action for the next two weeks. Deputies voted Monday to have a vacation until July 19.

The move is controversial because several major bills, such as the proposed tax reform package, are in the final stages of consideration. So is an investigation of legislative appointee Alex Solís, the new contralor general de la República.

There was more bad news for the tax plan Monday. The Sala IV constitutional court has agreed to study arguments that Mario Redondo, the former president of the Asamblea Nacional, exceeded his authority when he set a March 6 deadline for  a committee to issue an opinion on the plan.

Action on the package that will raise $500 million more in new taxes is frozen until the court rules on the petition filed by several deputies who favored more debate in committee.

Pacheco cranks up
anti-drug battle

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

President Abel Pacheco said Monday that the goal of his administration is to have a Costa Rica free of drugs, and that was the route to which he would direct the government.

The president was inaugurating new quarters for the 2-year-old Instituto Costarricense Sobre Drogas. The organization’s efforts are largely educational.

The government in a national plan against drugs will try to reduce the demand and control the use of drugs in the country, said Casa Presidencial.

Costa Rica has been swamped by cheap cocaine because the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States led to stronger border security there.

However, Pacheco also noted the prevalence of synthetic drugs, which he said had a sad advantage for the consumer because they are more within reach and control is more difficult.

Drawing on his experience as a psychiatrist in the Hospital Nacional Psiquiátrico, Pacheco said that he knows that only the will of a person can pull him or her from the world of narcotics. But Pacheco said to help such persons there needs to be social support, including the family.

The main way to fight addiction is with prevention, the president said, adding that the fight was one for all Costa Ricans, not just the government.

The institute receives financial support in part from drug and money laundering funds that are confiscated in police investigations.

Motorists hurry up
to bring in vehicles

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The company that inspects motor vehicles says that it has experienced a 30 percent increase in appointments, mostly because it announced that it would start charging for reinspections July 16.

The company, Riteve SyC, says that some inspection stations are booked until July 15. But others still have space.

The company also said that it appears rejections have diminished slightly.

The company, which had a bid rejected to increase the inspection fee that is now 8,805 colons (about $20), said two weeks ago that it would charge 4,400 for a second inspection of a rejected vehicle. In the past, such reinspections were free.

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International agencies bet millions on Colombia
Special to A.M. Costa Rica 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The International Monetary Fund has announced it will provide Colombia with $284 million in assistance, after giving strong backing to the Andean nation's economic policies.

In a statement last week, the fund said the new disbursement brings to $1.7 billion in total aid it has provided to Colombia under a stand-by arrangement that was approved in 2003. The fund says a stand-by arrangement is financial help approved for a country up to a defined amount and in a defined period of time, provided that the country adheres to the provisions of the agreement.

The International Monetary Fund said Colombia's "strong policy track record is bolstering confidence and contributing" to the country's economic recovery. The fund added that in 2004, Colombia's gross domestic product is projected to rise strongly, and inflation will probably continue to decline.

Colombia is "well-placed" to adjust to a gradual rise in interest rates in the United States, provided that Colombian economic policies continue to be strong, the fund said.

The statement came as a key U.S. interest rate was raised June 30 for the first time in four years by the policy-setting group of the U.S. central bank. The Federal Open Market Committee of the U.S. Federal Reserve System said it decided to raise the federal funds rate — the rate banks charge one another for overnight loans — by 0.25 percentage points to 1.25 percent.

The fund said that in 2004, the main policy challenge for Colombia is to "take advantage of the cyclical upturn in activity to press ahead with reforms that are crucial to sustain" the country's economic recovery.

The fund said that economic reforms in Colombia, together with prudent macroeconomic policies, "should lay a solid foundation for sustained growth and financial stability over the medium term, while also reducing poverty and improving social indicators."

For his part, Roger Noriega, the U.S. assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, says that Colombia's economy, after several years of recession, has "bounced back and is enjoying robust growth."

Noriega said in testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Government Reform that employment in Colombia is up, as is the confidence of Colombians in their economic future. Colombians, said Noriega, "are poised and eager to forge a strong trade partnership with the United States through a free-trade agreement." 

He noted that formal negotiations on such a trade pact began in May.

Meanwhile, the Inter-American Development Bank announced last week that it had approved a $10.3 million loan to Colombia to improve national public administration.

The project will promote continued fiscal sustainability and transparent and efficient public management in Colombia, the bank said.

The bank said Colombian central government ministries will be supported in its efforts to emphasize greater productivity, a higher level of policy coordination, and improved service delivery. 

Public employment management will be upgraded through the use of modern, integrated technological tools, and the workforce will be enhanced through training in new skills, the bank said.

Mexico's Fox suffers reverses in three races for governor 
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

MEXICO CITY, México — President Vincente Fox's National Action Party (PAN) appears to have suffered defeats in three state races for governor.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) won Sunday's elections for governor in the northern states of Durango and Chihuahua. The Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) won in Zacatecas.

Analysts say the results suggest President Fox's party has lost strength since ending the PRI's 71-year hold on power in 2000. 

The PRI also made gains against Fox's party in last year's mid-term congressional elections. 

The center left PRD's victory in Zacatecas made Amalia Gutierrez Mexico's first woman governor since the end of one-party rule. 

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