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Plans are afoot to make 2006 the International Year of Planet Earth, in a bid to raise the international profile of earth sciences.

The proposal received broad support from a meeting of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Paris this week.

The initiative is being spearheaded by the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) and UNESCO's Earth Sciences Division. It aims to highlight the role of the earth sciences in building sustainable communities, and to boost research in the field.

China is taking a lead in the project, and will soon send an official proposal to the UN General Assembly. Russia, Brazil and Iran have also expressed their support.

"This will be of great importance for developing countries," says Richard Sinding-Larsen, chair of IUGS national committee for Norway, where the union has its permanent secretariat.

"The project will highlight important problems such as earthquakes, landslides and polluted groundwater. These are all issues that receive too little attention, especially in poor countries. This way, geosciences and development will be put higher on the political agenda."

The initiative aims to create a 'global map' of geoscience research to identify and fill gaps in knowledge. It will seek a total of US$20 million from national science foundations and industrial and commercial organisations to fund a variety of educational projects.

If everything goes according to plan, the International Year for Planet Earth will be proclaimed at the UN General Assembly later this year. The United Nations has proclaimed several international years, including the International Year of Freshwater (2003) and the International Year of Rice (2004).