On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an Executive Order authorizing the Peace Corps to “promote world peace and friendship” by sharing technical expertise with other nations, and to increase mutual understanding between Americans and peoples of other nations through volunteers working abroad. Peace Corps managers and volunteers, however, were soon confronted with complex environmental problems in many of the regions they sought to aid. In 1970, the Smithsonian—through the Smithsonian Institution-Peace Corps Environmental Program (SI-PCEP)—became directly involved with Peace Corps activities and was contracted to assist in the establishment of an international environmental program.
Through this partnership, the Smithsonian helped to develop biological, conservation, and ecological projects in natural resource regions, focusing on wildlife conservation and national parks. The project director, Robert K. Poole, argued that environmental work was needed since overgrazing, deforestation, pollution, and other ecological changes were triggering devastating consequences on the economies of rural regions.
The Smithsonian helped to recruit volunteers with specialized expertise, trained them, and then provided useful information, as well as technical and scientific support, once they were in the field. Raul I. and Lecita Valdez, a married couple, both recent graduates in biology from Texas A & M University, were the first SI-PCEP volunteers to serve in the program. They established wildlife conservation and management programs in Iran, focusing on the Red Sheep of the Lake Urmiah region. The National Park Service, World Wildlife Fund, and Rockefeller Brothers Fund were also involved in the program. Biologists, for example, could train for one year with the National Park Service, serve in the SI-PCEP for two years, and then return to a job at the Park Service. Smithsonian staff provided Peace Corps volunteers with background information, letters of introduction to local scientists, and shared expertise. They sent copies of relevant publications and field guides, secured necessary equipment, and helped to identify specimens and assist volunteers in getting their articles published in scientific journals. And they answered a myriad of questions from isolated Peace Corps volunteers, creating a support network for them, no matter where they were located.
- cooperative studies with the Galapagos National Park to develop techniques for conservation of endangered species on the Galapagos Islands
- water conservation projects in Honduras
- forest research training in the Philippines
- instruction in range management in Brazil
- environmental and conservation education in Botswana
- development of prawn fisheries in Mauritius
- studies of river contaminants in El Salvador to improve fishing potential, and
- the updating of geological maps in the Dominican Republics, to help identify mineral and economic resources and identify sources of potable water.
From over 9,000 applicants, the SI-PCEP trained 751 young biologists and conservationists in 55 countries. The program ended in September of 1978 but left a legacy of former Peace Corps volunteers with professional training, as well as locals with new scientific skills and projects that aided communities around the globe in their conservation and environment efforts. One Brazil volunteer who had worked to develop a national park and reserve system wrote to express his sadness at the end of the program, noting, “These will be some of the best and most productive years of my life.”*
*M. Borchert to James A. Sherburne, Sept. 8, 1978, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Smithsonian Institution-Peace Corps Environmental Program, Records, Record Unit 264, Box 2, Folder: Borchert.