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New York State can protect tropical forests

New York State’s policies can have an outsized national, and sometimes global, impact. The economy of the State of New York is reflected in its gross state product in 2022 of over $2 trillion, ranking third biggest behind the larger states of California and Texas. If the state were a separate country, it would be the world’s 12th largest economy. Its Gross Domestic Product is comparable to that of neighboring Canada and slightly smaller than Brazil.

When it comes to state budgets, New York’s ranks second to California in spending. So, when New York acts it can drive important policies. Sometimes just what it chooses to buy – or not buy – can have an impact. An example: Legislation to ban state agencies from purchasing tropical hardwoods is heating up in Albany and would have a dramatic impact worldwide.

Trees and other forms of vegetation are critical tools in fighting the climate crisis – they serve as natural carbon sinks, reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and help keep the planet cool. However, deforestation of tropical forests is worsening the global climate crisis. It has been estimated that global loss of tropical forests contributes approximately 20% of global carbon emissions annually.

An area of 18 million acres, more than half the size of New York State, is lost every year due to deforestation. Not only is this contributing to global warming, but it also contributes to violations of indigenous land rights in many countries and loss of habitat for hundreds of animal species.

The loss of trees and other vegetation can cause climate change, desertification, soil erosion, reduction in crops, flooding, increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and a host of problems for Indigenous people.

When an area is completely deforested for farming, the farmer typically burns the trees and vegetation to create a fertilizing layer of ash. After this slash-and-burn deforestation, the nutrient reservoir is lost, flooding and erosion rates are high, and soil often becomes unable to support crops in just a few years. If the area is then turned into cattle pasture, the ground may become compacted as well, slowing down or preventing forest recovery.

Tropical forests are home to millions of native (indigenous) people who make their livings through subsistence agriculture, hunting and gathering, or through low impact harvesting of forest products like rubber or nuts. Deforestation in indigenous territories by loggers, colonizers, and refugees has sometimes triggered violent conflict.

Deforestation occurs for a number of reasons. The most common reason is agriculture, with 80% of deforestation resulting from extensive cattle ranching, and logging for materials and development. It has been happening for thousands of years, arguably since people began converting from hunter/gatherer to agricultural-based societies, and over time required larger, unobstructed tracks of land to accommodate cattle, crops, and housing. However, after the onset of the modern era, it became an epidemic.

Here is where New York can play an important role. New York has been taking significant action to address climate change within the state’s borders, but it can further those actions by taking on the issue of tropical deforestation. Current law has a prohibition on a limited number of types of tropical hardwoods that the state can purchase but does not ban them all.

Legislation has been advanced that would make a tangible contribution to battling the loss of tropical forests by dramatically expanding the types of tropical hardwoods that the state cannot purchase. It would also add new measures to ensure that goods derived from tropical forest-risk commodities and sold to a state agency or authority, are not contributing to tropical primary forest degradation or tropical deforestation. Essentially, the legislation, if approved, ensures that companies contracting with the state are not contributing to tropical primary forest degradation or tropical deforestation directly or through their supply chains.

New York State is expected to spend nearly $230 billion this fiscal year. Ensuring that state purchases of wood products are not contributing to the devastation of tropical rain forests is an important goal. Lawmakers are heading into the final 14 days of the 2023 legislative session. A good use of some of that time would be acting to ensure that New York is doing all it can to protect tropical forests.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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