"Working Together for Wetlands" - 25th Anniversary Celebration for the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Washington, D.C., April 25, 1996

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Welcoming Address by the Honorable Timothy E. Wirth, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, the United States of America

Thank you all very much for coming, and welcome to the State Department. We are very pleased that you are here with us today and look forward to a productive conference that will, as promised, get us "Working Together for Wetlands." I want to begin by recognizing the Deputy Secretary of the Department, Strobe Talbott, who has joined us this morning - Mr Secretary, we are pleased that you are here.

All of us at the Department of State are deeply honored to be hosting today's conference. Increasingly, international environmental action is a force driving our diplomatic missions around the world. Two weeks ago, Secretary [Warren] Christopher delivered a major address in which he articulated in a superb way the case for placing global environmental concerns in the mainstream of American foreign policy and international affairs around the world. The Secretary's speech clearly defined the intersection between American interests and environmental health. More broadly, the Secretary's speech reflected the heightened recognition of the world's growing interdependence and the corresponding need for nations around the world to forge common cause on behalf of our children and grandchildren and the environment upon which they will depend.

Fortunately, over the past thirty years, a remarkable set of environmental challenges have been tackled, and an impressive framework for the future is in place. At home, in response to Rachel Carson's warning of a Silent Spring and the sight of rivers on fire, a comprehensive and essential foundation for national environmental law has been established and a host of environmental challenges are being met. Similarly, all around the world alarms have been set and promising global resolve has been forged.

Few issues or institutional structures highlight as well the promise of the kind of global cooperation Secretary Christopher talked about in his recent speech, or our capability to make progress through partnership, than the Ramsar Convention, whose 25th anniversary we celebrate this year.

Recognizing the critical importance of wetlands and the services they provide, the Ramsar Convention emerged 25 years ago as one of the first modern environmental agreements. It presaged a period of remarkable international progress by establishing a promising framework for global ecological cooperation. Since 1971, Ramsar has been responsible for the designation of more than 750 significant wetlands in 92 nations. These sites - totalling more than 50,000 square kilometers - are critical not only to the nations in which they reside, but the world at large. And while they are not yet completely free from threat of ecological degradation, many of these sites would not exist without this agreement.

The Ramsar Convention accomplishes its goals through the novel power of recognition and cooperation. This is not an agreement that establishes international regulatory regimes or national mandates on signatory countries. Instead, Ramsar is a framework for action and a necessary encouragement for member states to create their own management plans for the most important wetlands. Ramsar provides a rationale for taking action, and offers the necessary technical assistance to help get the job done. As a consequence, this Convention has endured for 25 years, and only three weeks ago was updated in preparation for the 21st century.

I cite these successes, and emphasize this momentum, not to be a Pollyanna, nor to suggest that the hard work is done and that we can now relax.

I cite them because these successes are important, very important:

  • they prove that partnerships between the public and private sectors, between science and government, can work.
  • they prove that public dollars, wisely invested, can bring a significant return;
  • and they form the foundation for the great confidence and momentum that must be summoned to face today's challenges.

And these challenges are great - and grave. As we review these last 25 years, we have now come to realize that we have plucked the easy fruit. While we have accomplished a great deal, it turns out that we have conquered the easy targets. The unhappy fact, now increasingly well known, is that all our environmental successes have not reversed the most basic, potentially life-threatening trends:

  • around the world, 50 percent of the world's wetlands have already been lost;
  • the planet's forest cover, essential to so many natural systems, is shrinking with alarming speed;
  • nearly 25 percent of the world's topsoil has been lost, this at a time of sharply increasing global demand for food;
  • underground water tables are falling all over the world
  • even in our own backyard on the Great Plains
  • and water wars are a possibility in many parts of the world;
  • human activity has unquestionably spawned the fifth period of mass extinction in the planet's history;
  • and compounding the increased consumption of resources is the fact that last year the world's population grew more than ever before in a single year - by 100 million people, the equivalent of a New York City each month, a Mexico each year, a China each decade.

But if the challenges are daunting, so too is the importance of what we are discussing here at this conference. Far from being wastelands, as they had been characterized (or mischaracterized) for decades, wetlands comprise one of our richest and most vital ecosystems. Rich not only in life forms and products of value to our local economies, but also in the important ecological functions that wetlands carry out to the benefit of our biosphere and to humankind. Wetlands are important for the critical services they provide

  • the food and clean water they help to yield;
  • the recreation and tourism they help to foster;
  • the wildlife habitat they help harbor;
  • the essential ecological services they provide for the planet.

These critical interrelationships were recently brought home to me during meetings last month in Brazil. Traveling in the Pantanal, one of the Earth's largest and richest wetlands, I saw vast numbers of waterbirds. I was fascinated to learn that many of these birds breed in Canada, during the Arctic summer. The same birds migrate to the continental United States in the fall months, when they rely on our wetlands as a way station on the trip south. Finally, thousands of miles and months removed from the Arctic, they arrive in South America for the Austral summer.

The destruction of any single breeding, staging or wintering site along what is analogous to an "archipelago" of natural refuges would be a serious threat to the survival of a range of migratory species. In this way, the survival of these migratory birds, traveling virtually from one end of the globe to another, speaks both to the importance of wetland preservation and the imperative of international cooperation.

The purpose of this conference over the next several days is to explore the range of initiatives and principles that underlie wetland protection at home and abroad and to forge new strategies for the future. We are hoping that you as a group will be able to share your expertise in a way that ensures that everyone leaves this meeting a little better prepared to address the challenges of their own programs and their local ecosystems. We also hope that some of the sparks that are produced by bringing together such a motivated and focused group as this will help shine a light on new strategies for the future.

As part of this process, I want to let you know about a modest initiative that the [State] Department has launched to help leverage international partnerships on behalf of wetland preservation and management. "Wetlands for the Future," as we call it, is a $500,000 small grants program that will support the training of wetland managers in Latin America and the Caribbean. This Spring, the Department of State, in conjunction with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Ramsar officials, and NGO partners made its first grants under this innovative new program. We look forward to working with all of you and our counterparts throughout the Hemisphere in making this program a success.

Before I introduce our guest keynote speaker, I want to thank our partners in this enterprise: the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Agency for International Development, Ducks Unlimited, Terrene Institute, Sierra Club, The International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the National Wetlands Conservation Alliance, World Wildlife Fund, the Florida Center for Environmental Studies and IUCN-U.S. This group has worked hard and long to make this event a success, and we extend our appreciation to their cooperation.

At this time it is my great pleasure to introduce a friend of wetlands and a friend of mine. Don Henley is both an artist and a performer. His artistic talents and accomplishments in the field of music are very well known. And increasingly, we are coming to understand that he is one of the most impressive performers in the environmental field as well. Most recently, Don has been deeply engaged as founder of the Caddo Lake Institute, which seeks to preserve, through Ramsar designation, a premier example of a cypress swamp ecosystem common to the Deep South, Caddo Lake, the largest naturally formed lake in Texas. He also founded and has been a tireless advocate for the Walden Woods Project, which has preserved and restored the natural environment of the historic pond and woods in Massachusetts made famous by the writings of the philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau. These are only two of the many environmental causes he has embraced and supported with vigor. He has compiled a remarkable record of accomplishment in all his work, and we are delighted to have him with us. I could sing his praises for some time - but his voice is better than mine. Please join me in welcoming Mr. Don Henley.

This address was delivered by Mr Wirth on 25 April 1996 at the "Working Together for Wetlands" conference sponsored by the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. The text was scanned in from hard copy and posted here on 15 May 1996. For further information about the Ramsar Convention, contact the Ramsar Bureau, Rue Mauverney 28, CH-1196 Gland, Switzerland (tel +41 22 999 0170, fax +41 22 999 0169, e-mail ramsar@hq.iucn.org).

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