New York Passes Pioneering Deforestation Act. What’s Next?

The first of its kind in the U.S., the New York Tropical Deforestation-Free Procurement Act could serve as a model for protecting wildlife habitat

  • By Rene Ebersole
  • Policy Matters
  • Dec 30, 2023

A red leaf monkey perches on a fig tree in Borneo. The island lost half its forest cover in the last century to fires, illegal logging, and oil palm and pulpwood plantations, according to the United Nations.

Editor’s note: On Dec. 22, 2023, after our Winter 2024 issue of National Wildlife magazine went to press, Governor Kathy Hochul vetoed the New York Tropical Deforestation-Free Procurement Act.

SEPIA SUNSETS, earthshaking thunderstorms, heat waves, flooding and an eerie orange haze from Canadian wildfires colored the summer of 2023 in New York. At times, the air was so thick with smoke, asthma sufferers were forced to stay indoors as #apocolypse trended on social media.

Amid a string of bad-air days in late June, a bipartisan majority in the New York State Assembly took a groundbreaking step to address extreme weather events, and their links to climate change, by passing the New York Tropical Deforestation-Free Procurement Act, following passage by the state Senate in April. The legislation aims to wield government spending power toward fighting global tropical forest destruction—one of the biggest contributors to climate change—and protecting the rights and livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples.

If New York Governor Kathy Hochul signs the bill, the Empire State will become the first in the country to set such ambitious sustainability standards.

“This is one of the most significant climate, wildlife and environmental justice bills to cross the governor’s desk,” says Marcus Sibley, Northeast director of conservation partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation. He says it “doubles down” on New York’s commitment to combat climate change, with a goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions economywide by 2050. He hopes it provides a model across the nation and abroad. “New York is a microcosm of the world,” Sibley says. “If we can get legislation like this passed, the domino effect could be unbelievable.”

Scientific studies show preventing deforestation is one of the most cost-effective measures to mitigate climate change—and protect people and biodiversity—because forests store carbon and scrub carbon dioxide from the air. In 2022 alone, more than 10 million acres of primary tropical forest were destroyed, releasing as much fossil-fuel emissions as India—the world’s third largest annual greenhouse gas emitter after the United States and China.

What’s more, the rate of forest destruction is accelerating. Last year it was 10 percent higher than in 2021, reports the nonprofit World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Review using data derived from satellite imagery.

There are environmental and human consequences. Tropical forests—the world’s most biodiverse terrestrial ecosystems—face threats from extractive industries such as clear-cut logging and large-scale mining. The forests also see hazards closely associated with corruption and criminality, including illegal wildlife trafficking and violence against conservationists and land defenders. In the north, boreal forests—vast wilderness areas known as North America’s “bird nursery” spanning Alaska, Canada and Russia—provide nesting grounds and stopover habitat for hundreds of bird species and billions of individual birds. Advocates say work remains in addressing boreal forests, which also face threats from logging and mining, and they hope the proposed act will serve as a catalyst for further action.

The New York legislation, which comes on the heels of similar policies that went into effect in the European Union in late June, requires state contractors who deal in tropical-forest-risk commodities—such as soy, beef, palm oil, coffee and cocoa, as well as some wood and paper products—to do due diligence in ensuring their goods don’t drive deforestation or abuses of Indigenous Peoples’ rights. If, for example, a food distributor wants to sign a contract with a large state institution, such as a university system, the supplier will need to show it sources its beef and palm oil in accordance with deforestation-free guidelines.

The state will prioritize bids from small and medium-sized businesses, BIPOC- and women-owned companies, and those using New York-sourced products, to create a more ethical supply chain. Domini Impact Investments, a women-led mutual fund, organized a letter signed by 72 global institutional investors—representing nearly $2.5 trillion in assets—to Governor Hochul, urging her to adopt the law. Passage of the bill would give Domini more insight into companies the firm might invest in, including their commitments “to end deforestation, address biodiversity and ensure respect for human rights,” says Mary Beth Gallagher, director of engagement for Domini.

Alfred Brownell, co-founder of Green Advocates International, a nonprofit focused on economic development in Liberia, applauds the bill, saying it will send a clear message to the world that “the taxpayers of New York will not fund [tropical] forest destruction and violence against Indigenous Peoples.” Brownell, a lawyer, says he was forced to flee Liberia after he was nearly killed while trying to protect his home country’s remaining tropical forests from oil palm development. He says there are many other forest defenders like him in danger on the frontlines, from the Congo Basin to the Amazon to Southeast Asia. According to the nonprofit human rights group Global Witness, one person is killed every two days on average around the world while trying to protect their land and environment from logging, mining and other extractive industries.

“Climate change, food insecurity, environmental injustice, human rights violations and the presence of extreme weather in New York: These are reasons to push forward, to do the right thing,” Sibley says. “If we can get this legislation signed, it will be tremendous momentum for other states, such as California, which has been a leader on this issue. It can be the impact heard around the world.”

New York journalist Rene Ebersole also writes for The Washington Post, The Marshall Project, Undark and other outlets.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Can Forests Save Us? »
Lifelines of the Planet »
Blog: You’ll Never Look at the Grocery Store the Same Again »

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