New York City Is One of the Biggest Destroyers of the Amazon Rainforest

If you're riding the "L" in Chicago or taking a stroll down the boardwalks of Greenport, Long Island, or Santa Monica, Calif., you are connected to an international movement away from the most destructive use of the world's remaining rainforests -- industrial timber extraction. Almost two decades of environmental advocacy has shown significant gains: the park benches in Los Angeles are made from locally sourced wood, the subway ties under Chicago's "L" train and the boardwalks at the Saw Mill River Audubon wetlands preserves are made from recycled plastic lumber. Millions of acres of pristine rain forests are no longer being felled so Americans can park our asses or wipe our feet on the world's trees.

But for New Yorkers, many pleasant experiences the city has to offer bring us unwittingly closer to the obliteration of the most ecologically dynamic part of the world -- the Amazonian rain forest.

Where do those miles and miles of wooden boardwalks, benches and handrails on Coney Island and Hudson River Park come from? What about the bench you lounge on, sipping coffee in a quiet corner of Central Park? According to environmental scientist Tim Keating, New York City's Department of Parks and Recreation is the biggest destroyer of rain forests in America and has been for years. So much for Mayor Michael Bloomberg's new "green" persona.

Biologists and climate scientists describe tropical rainforests as the lungs of the earth, a cooling band along the equator that converts carbon dioxide into oxygen, thereby preserving the world's delicate climate balance. These miracles of millions of years of evolution contain the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world.

More than 100,000 different species can be found on just one acre of Western Amazonian rainforest. An estimated 50 percent of the world's 14 million species inhabit these forests along with dozens of indigenous cultures, and all are at risk of succumbing to what Harvard etymologist and conservation biologist E.O. Wilson has described as "the sixth great extinction."

This time, instead of cosmic or geological events, human avarice and short-sighted consumption are causing the despoliation of habitat that is leading to the destruction of life on earth.

According to former World Bank economist Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern Report on the economics of climate change, halting deforestation is the world's "single largest opportunity for cost-effective and immediate reductions of carbon emissions." Commissioned by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2005 to determine the relative costs and benefits of shifting to a low-carbon economy, this report was a startling warning against further deforestation, declaring that the carbon locked up in the biomass of the world's forests is double that already in the atmosphere. Stern's research team concluded that the need to preserve the world's remaining natural forests was "urgent" and that "inaction now risks great damage to the prospects of future generations."

If deforestation continues at its present rate, within four years it will be the single-greatest contributor to climate change, pumping a staggering amount of CO2 into the atmosphere -- more than all the flights in the history of aviation. The Forests Now Declaration, launched last month and signed by leading climate scientists, is more to the point and equally sobering: "If we lose forests, we lose the fight against climate change."

Last week, primatologist and U.N. Messenger of Peace Dr. Jane Goodall signed the declaration during New York City's "Climate Week." But ironically, the wood of choice for Bloomberg's Parks Department is a Brazilian hardwood called "Ipé," the logging of which is a nightmare of illegality, violent conflict and Amazonian rain forest destruction.

Despite dire warnings, the Amazonian rain forest continues to be industrially logged to meet growing worldwide demand for its hardwoods. Such logging operations open up new roads into pristine jungle to reach the select trees. Selective logging for export of high-value species leads to total deforestation: Once these roads are opened, the remaining trees are burned by cattle ranchers, mining operations, and large-scale plantations (for the creation of "eco-friendly" biofuels), releasing huge amounts of carbon. These secondary forms of exploitation would not be affordable without the roads built by industrial logging operations.

According to Simon Counsell, director of the Rainforest Foundation, "what we see happening in the Amazon right now (logging, forest fragmentation, increased susceptibility to fire, deforestation) causes both local [and global] changes in weather patterns." Counsell and others have warned of a massive "dieback" -- damaged or razed forest can no longer trap the moisture necessary to create the rain, which sustains the entire ecosystem. As a result, rainfall tends to decrease, leading to droughts, forest desiccation and greater susceptibility to fire. This in turn leads to greater warming, with the potential (some say within as little as the next decade) to turn large swathes of the rainforest into deserts, unleashing climate disasters.

A history of destruction and NYC's complicity

Since the early 1990s, as Asia's rainforests became logged out -- 80 percent of Thailand's rainforests destroyed; 85 percent of the Philippines'; and the once massive forests of Indonesian Borneo heading for collapse by 2010 -- biologists and climate scientists have grown concerned about the shift of operations to South America by giant Asian logging firms.

Pressure from environmentalists resulted in an increasing number of cities and states in the United States and abroad passing ordinances to ban the use of tropical wood in government projects. San Francisco banned the use of tropical hardwoods for municipal projects in 1990. Five years later, Los Angeles passed a purchasing policy restricting the use of tropical hardwoods by city government.

Numerous other visionary city and state governments have followed suit. Long Beach passed an ordinance declaring they would use only wood harvested from well-managed forests, certified as environmentally and socially-sustainably felled by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Private and nonprofit landholders have also recognized the importance of old growth rainforests and are turning to ecofriendly alternatives. Large orders of uncertified tropical hardwood have been replaced with hardwoods from second- and third-growth forests in the United States or abroad, some by recycled plastic lumber, which is composed of millions of plastic containers which would otherwise be carted to far-off landfills in diesel trucks.

But the market for Ipé wood drives much of the industrial logging of the entire Amazon, and has increased dramatically in the past 20 years. An emergent flowering tree, which peppers the canopy of the Amazonian rainforest in hues of pink, magenta, yellow and white, Ipé grows in the rainforests at densities of only one or two trees an acre. This means that vast areas of the forests are razed to the ground to feed the market for a single tree. It is estimated that, for every Ipé tree cut, 28 other trees must be cut and are thrown away. For New York City's 10 miles of boardwalk alone, over 110,500 acres (130 square miles) of old growth Amazon rainforest were logged.

Even more shocking, most of this logging is illegal. According to Scott Paul, Greenpeace forest issues specialist, in 2006 90 percent of Brazilian deforestation was the result of illegal logging operations. Many logging businesses are run by criminal syndicates and compliant government officials. This fact is hardly a secret: In 2000, the Brazilian government's own estimates indicated that 80 percent of the hardwood exported from that country was illegally harvested. Briefing papers prepared by Rainforest Relief about the criminality and environmental impact of the city's wood procurement policies were provided to the Bloomberg administration.

But despite rampant illegality, climate change and mass extinction, Bloomberg's administration persists in procuring wood from tropical rainforests. And it is not just the Parks Department, but a number of city agencies which have largely ignored proposals for existing economically and environmentally sound alternatives.

The Department of Transportation uses tropical hardwoods from West Africa for the terminals of the Staten Island Ferry as well as the decking and benches of the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian promenade. In marked contrast to the city of Chicago, the New York City Transit Authority continues to use tropical wood for its subway ties, despite the fact that, as Chicago recognized, "plastic ties ... last at least twice as long as wood ties ... better resist decay, insects, water absorption and are free of chemical preservatives," according to Chicago's transit board president. While Conrail and other major railroad companies have tested recycled plastic lumber as an alternative to tropical hardwood, and found such alternatives superior in every way, including longevity, the NYCTA has yet to announce even an interest in alternatives to tropical hardwood.

Keating, director of Rainforest Relief, a metro-based nonprofit, calls ending New York City's use of rainforest woods the "low hanging fruit" of cutting carbon emissions by the city. And Bloomberg, touting himself as an ecofriendly mayor with a practical long-term vision, is facing mounting pressure to address this increasingly incongruous fact.

Since his election in 2002, Bloomberg has signed a number of green initiatives and laws and has launched as many public relations events, culminating in the "Large Cities Climate Summit" this past May co-hosted with former President Bill Clinton. The conspicuous absence of any mention of rain forest woods from these major "green" initiatives, including the much-heralded Plan NYC, has raised serious concerns among environmentalists in New York City.

Over the past five years, Rainforest Relief has met numerous times with the city to discuss alternatives to tropical rainforest destruction. So far, the organization has been unable to convince the "green" mayor's team of what is widely advocated by climate scientists, biologists and world-renown economists like Sir Nicholas Stern: the urgent need to end deforestation.

In collaboration with New York City Climate Action Group, which focuses on practical campaigns to pre-empt the worst of climate change's projected effects, Rainforest Relief has launched a campaign to change the Department of Parks and Recreation's destructive purchases, demanding that Bloomberg "end the use of tropical hardwoods." Hundreds of letters have been sent to the city.

So why has a popular mayor, described by many as a creative thinker bringing fresh business perspectives and efficiency to government, shied away from taking on the greatest contributor to climate change? AlterNet caught up with Bloomberg's parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, at a forum on city parks and Robert Moses in May. We asked whether future generations won't look back at the city's contribution toward the destruction of the Amazon and say, to paraphrase a Roman historian, "They created a desert and called it parks?" Benepe responded that the department was looking into alternatives to rain forest wood. But Keating, in attendance to expose the Park Department's record, had heard that before.

In September the Parks Department answered Rainforest Relief's campaign: "Our park benches use harvested, not old growth wood. We have also been installing synthetic turf athletic fields wherever possible." If you can make sense of this response, please contact AlterNet. We requested specific information about the city's timber procurement, sending the Parks Department into spin mode: "Sustainability is a priority of the Parks Department which is why we are taking many measures to engage in 'green' practices, particularly for our capital projects."

Meanwhile governments around the world are grappling with the threat posed by tropical deforestation with serious action. In June, Eduardo Braga, the governor of Brazil's Amazonas state, initiated the first climate change law to provide incentives to farmers not to deforest. That same month, the government of Norway, finding that there is no international or national certification -- not even that of the Forest Stewardship Council -- that can guarantee that imported wood is legally and sustainably logged, decided to stop all trade with tropical forest products. And in Ecuador, President Rafael Correa proposed forgoing an estimated $9.2 billion in oil revenues from extraction of nearly a billion barrels in the heart of the Amazonian basin, in favor of tackling climate change. In exchange for leaving the largest untapped oil reserves in the country and the forests above it unexploited, Ecuador is asking that the international community financially match its contribution through a variety of mechanisms, including debt relief, bilateral aid, and direct financial commitment.

Counsell thinks taxpayer-funded agencies, like the Parks Department and the Department of Transportation, should be accountable to the public at large and should therefore be supporting practices, such as community forests, conservation concessions, and protected areas, to ensure the Amazon and other tropical rainforests remain forested for generations to come. In all its public relations-fueled pronouncements about climate change and the city's efforts, the Bloomberg administration has not addressed the "elephant in the room": the destruction of the world's carbon sink for New Yorkers to wipe our shoes on.

In a lesson which could well be learned by the "green" mayor, President Correa is underscoring the principle of "shared responsibility" for climate change between developed and developing nations while democratizing the global response to the climate crisis. Will the billionaire mayor end the misuse of New Yorkers' tax dollars currently dooming rain forests and the world's climate? Will the ecoconscious mayor do his part to protect old-growth rainforests? Or will the remaining biodiverse regions of the world and our single greatest defense against climate change go the way of the dodo?


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