About the INFOTERRA Mailing List

UNEP The Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, convened by the United Nations in 1972 to consider the condition of the environment, called for an international mechanism for the exchange of environmental information. The result was The International Referral System (IRS), later renamed INFOTERRA, The Global Environmental Information Exchange Network, established in 1975 by a decision of the third session of the Governing Council of UNEP. The main direction given to INFOTERRA was to develop a mechanism to "facilitate the exchange of environmental information within and among nations".

Together with IRPTC, the Global Environmental Monitoring System (GEMS) and the Global Resource Information Database (GRID), INFOTERRA is a complement of UNEP's Earthwatch Programme and therefore plays an important part in fulfilling UNEP's global mandate of monitoring, assessment and dissemination of information on the environment, catalysing and spurring others to action at international, regional and national levels.

INFOTERRA is guided by and receives its mandate directly from the UNEP Governing Council. Periodically, however, meetings are convened where representatives of NFPs from all partner nations in the network gather to compare experiences and to map out strategies for improving and strengthening network links and operations, with particular emphasis on technical co-operation between countries.

INFOTERRA began its operations in 1977 with a dozen partner countries. It was, from the start, designed as a decentralized information system operating through a worldwide network of national environmental institutions designated and supported by their governments as national focal points and co-ordinated by a programme activity centre at UNEP Headquarters in Nairobi. Today, this linking structure consists of 170 national focal points, 11 regional service centres, and 34 special sectoral sources.

In the early years INFOTERRA operated only as a referral system. However, following the recommendations of an idependent assessment of the system done in 1981, INFOTERRA evolved and expanded its services to include substantive information and document delivery.

The direction for INFOTERRA over the next decade has been further defined by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro last year. Chapter 40 of UNCED's global plan of action, Agenda 21, addresses the importance of information for decision making. Part A of that chapter is mostly concerned with data collection, but Part B entitled "Improving information availability" specifically cites expansion of the Infoterra system as a world mandate. However, it is not only in Chapter 40 of Agenda 21 that scientific and technical information exchange is highlighted. Every chapter of the Agenda dealing with an environmental subject area urges the improvement of methods of dissemination of scientific and technical information. The mandate from the world community is clearly there for INFOTERRA to develop a strategy which will make it a more effective network with a leadership role in the reliable, effective, and timely dissemination of the world's scientific and technical environmental information.

The INFOTERRA national focal points are usually situated in the information and documentation sections of environment ministries, and national environmental protection agencies which are often also the focal points for national information networks. They act as the primary access points through which queries from users are channelled to INFOTERRA sources and through which users receive their replies.

Each national focal point compiles a "Who's Who" of environmental expertise in their country, and selects the best sources for inclusion in INFOTERRA's main publication the International Directory of Sources, which is compiled by the Programme Activity Centre in Nairobi. Sources are constantly monitored and updated, and new ones are being added all the time.

The International Directory of Sources exists as both printed 'hardcopy' and as a database. For this reason the International Directory is often referred to as the INFOTERRA Database. It does not contain all the world's environmental information in itself, but is the means of access to more than 7,000 sources of information on over 1,000 environmental subjects. The sources are located in government ministries and documentation centres, research institutes, universities, non-governmental and international organisations, United Nations agencies and private consultancies. The sources can be accessed by country, by name of organization and by environmental subject-area.

In addition to the International Directory in database and printed form, the Programme Activity Centre periodically publishes specialized directories and sourcebooks like this actual one; the Thesaurus of Environmental Terms; Operations Manual; and the quarterly INFOTERRA Bulletin. All these publications are provided free of charge to NFPs in the appropriate working language. Other publications include the technical Exchange of Environmental Experiences Series, brochures, posters and leaflets for promotional purposes, and on videotape a short programme about INFOTERRA.

The regional service centres have been set up, within key national focal points, to act as centres for regional co-operation. Geographic regions face common environmental problems, as well as having common languages and cultural aspects. The regional service centres act as focal points for the exchange of information and experience at regional level and for the development of sub-networks to facilitate this exchange.

The development of companion relationships between network partners, especially between developed and developing countries, has emerged as a further means of strengthening network links. The first such companionship has established the Southern African Sub-regional INFOTERRA network. With generous assistance from the national focal points of the USA and Ireland, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries have been provided with equipment and training and are developing a common bibliographic system for organizing their environmental collections, a system of document exchange, sharing of promotional materials and regional identification of environmental information sources.

As environmental problems increase in complexity and specialized scientific knowledge proliferates, there is an ever increasing need by network users for substantive information tailored to particular needs in specialized areas of concern. Certain organisations and institutions are generally recognized as being leaders in particular fields of expertise, and INFOTERRA has identified environmental priority areas within which 34 such centres of excellence; these so called special sectoral sources, provide highly specialized scientific response to users' queries.

As a component part of a United Nations programme, the INFOTERRA network has access to specialized databases and information sources on environment related subjects located in UNEP such as IRPTC; other UN agencies especially UNESCO, FAO, WHO, ILO, UNIDO; and major international organisations including IUCN, WWF and CABI. Many of these organisations are also special sectoral sources contracted to provide information to the INFOTERRA network.

INFOTERRA network partners use four working languages to communicate: English, French, Russian and Spanish. Substantive information can usually be located or, if necessary, translated into most of the world languages.

The INFOTERRA network as a whole handles more than 30,000 queries per year on every aspect of the human and physical environment, including the control of lead pollution or acid rain to sustainable management of national parks and conservation of fragile ecosystems. Over 85% of enquiries are responded to with substantive information, sometimes in the form of existing publications or research data, and sometimes tailor-made to a specific enquiry in a specialized area of concern. There is no membership fee and no charge for most INFOTERRA services. Users merely submit their query to their NFP by mail, telephone, telex, fax, e-mail or personal visit. Answers are usually provided free of charge. If a commercial database is used, or costly on-line searches are made, the user will be charged at cost. If the enquiry comes from an official of a developing country, they may qualify for a totally free service.

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For information on INFOTERRA see also: http://www.unep.org/