The first Earth Day, organized in 1970 in the United States, launched the modern environmental movement. Some 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to decry trends toward increased pollution and deterioration, and to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment.
Rising environmental awareness during that period led the U.S. government to establish the Environmental Protection Agency in late 1970, and to enact ground-breaking legislation, the Clean Air Act of 1970 and Clean Water Act of 1972.
Under President Obama, the U.S. has done more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than ever before, setting domestic policies that advance clean energy and climate security and vigorously engaging in climate change negotiations.
Last December in Copenhagen, world leaders agreed on the Copenhagen Accord, which requires actions by all major economies to mitigate climate change; transparency to see that those actions are taken; and financing and technology support for the poorest and most vulnerable nations.
The U.S. will join a global effort to mobilize by financing to help countries adapt to climate change, including preventing deforestation in regions with tropical forests, such as in Central and South America, Central Africa and Southeast Asia.
Similarly, the U.S. is dedicated to improving access to clean water. Inv2005, our Congress passed the Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act, which makes access to safe water and sanitation for developing countries a specific policy objective of our foreign assistance programs.
As Secretary Clinton stated on World Water Day exactly one month ago, “It’s not every day you find an issue where effective diplomacy and development will allow you to save millions of lives, feed the hungry, empower women, advance our national security interests, protect the environment, and demonstrate to billions of people that the United States cares, cares about you and your welfare.
Water is that issue.” To advance this goal, the United States will strengthen developing country capacity, engage diplomatically, invest in infrastructure, increase the role of science and technology, and leverage partnerships.
This year the world is commemorating the International Year of Biodiversity. The United States is no stranger to the risk of biodiversity loss. In the 1960s, our national symbol -- the American bald eagle – was on the brink of extinction. In 2007, it was taken off the endangered species list as a result of conservation efforts mandated by the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and efforts to restrict harmful pesticides.
More than 27 % of the land area in the United States is afforded some form of federal protection, through a variety of programs, such as the National Park System, the National Wildlife Refuge System, the National Marine Sanctuaries Program, and the National Forest System.
The Lacey Act, originally passed in 1900, stands as the oldest conservation law in the United States and is testimony to our success in conserving wildlife resources including illegally harvested plants and trees.
Since 2006, the United States has supported Rwanda’s efforts to protect and conserve Nyungwe National Park, a critical watershed for the country.
USAID has worked with communities around the park to increase the income they derive from sustainable sources, as opposed to sources that involve forest degradation, and recent investments have enhanced the park’s attractiveness as an international eco-tourism destination.
In Kigali, the U.S. Embassy will celebrate Earth Day by visiting the GAKO Organic Farming Training Center to learn about composting and organic farming, and the Ambassador and Embassy staff will plant and dedicate a tree on our Embassy grounds.
The Embassy continues to donate recycled magazines to Gahaya Links, which turns them into jewelry, and recycled paper to ‘Cards from Africa’, which creates greeting cards.
Today, our planet needs international dedication and commitment to preserve and protect the earth’s resources—be it air, water, plant, or animal.
While we take time to recognize our achievements, we should not lose sight of the challenges that remain, and continue to build upon the legacy of the modern environmental movement started forty years ago.
Stuart Symington is the US Ambassador to Rwanda