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March 2007
The Sugarglades
By Mark Engler

 

Cattails love sugar almost as much as people do. The stalky, marshland plants huddle in dense bunches on uncultivated areas bordering South Florida’s sugar farms. And they are expanding ever southward into the wetlands. Technically, it’s not the sweet crop itself they adore, but the phosphorus-laden fertilizers that run off the sugar fields. Thriving on the chemicals, cattails suck oxygen from the swamp and crowd out native plants, destroying the established biological order.

In Florida, the swamp they are destroying is known as the Everglades.

It is impossible to understand the fate of this world-renowned ecosystem without knowing the history of companies like U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals. Florida growers took the lead in domestic sugar production through a combination of public subsidy and private malfeasance. They heaped dual abuse on migrant farmworkers and Everglades wetlands. They have relied on handouts and trade protections, passed down for decades by politicians who are otherwise likely to praise the goodness of “free markets.”

Today, an expanded environmentalist campaign struggles to save the endangered Everglades. But its adversary, Big Sugar, is as potent as ever.

In the Beginning
For decades, the hand-cut harvesting of sugar cane in Florida remained among America’s greatest domestic disgraces. In the 1930s and early 1940s the then-infant industry lured African American workers in southern states with promises of free transportation and payment of six dollars a day. This of course was a lie. According to one recruit, he learned when he arrived that he actually owed eight dollars for the ride, plus another 90 cents for his cane knife and sharpener, plus money for room and board. He also learned that he would be receiving only $1.80 for a day of labor. Gun-wielding overseers, who also happened to be deputized sheriffs for the county, apprehended those who tried to escape.

With too few U.S. citizens willing to endure such treatment, programs to bring seasonal workers from places like Jamaica, Barbados, and Haiti began in the 1940s and expanded vastly in the wake of the Cuban Revolution, when the embargo of a foreign competitor allowed Florida sugar production to expand ten-fold. Growers paid the migrant workers a brutal piece rate, demanding that one ton of sugar be cut per hour. Those who complained vocally or organized to go on strike—as 300 did in 1982 at Atlantic Sugar Growers—swiftly found themselves in Miami’s international airport, awaiting deportation.

In his 1989 book, Big Sugar, author Alec Wilkinson writes of a public relations film screened in the 1980s by the Florida Sugar Cane League. Discussing the cane cutters, the film’s narrator describes the workers’ plight as an ancient vocation. “To watch a West Indian wield a cane knife,” the voice says, “is to see a centuries-old art.” In fact, Wilkinson explains, the statement—something akin to celebrating African Americans’ historic love of picking cotton—was flatly untrue. “Very few West Indian men... ever held a cane knife before arriving in Florida.”

“You mash your back from the never-ending turning and bending,” a Jamaican migrant told Wilkinson. “Your hand becomes like part of a machine; look at my palm; the [cane knife] rest here; it make a channel for its shape. When you go home, that one hand you have been cutting with you can’t use. It’s no good for anything else; you got to use the other one until it heal.” He concluded, “Our lives are one day shorter for each day we cut cane.”

In the mid-90s, workers who, for years had been paid less than the legal minimum wage joined class action lawsuits to sue cane growers, sometimes successfully, for millions of dollars in back wages. The victory, however, prompted more industrial maneuvering than lasting justice. In 1997, the U.S. Sugar Corporation switched to 100 percent mechanical harvesting.

By then, the battleground for critics had definitively shifted to the environment. Although the exploitative “guest worker” program became a thing of sugar’s past, the industry faced a high tide of public awareness about its role in permanently crippling the once-pristine Everglades.

A Dying River
Before developers set out to drain, channel, and control the famous wetlands, the bio-region consisted of a unique 6,000 year-old “river of grass” that stretched 100 miles from Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Bay. Today, the Everglades have been all but lost to the demands of a growing population and an emergent sugar industry.

The area now preserved as Everglades National Park is in fact only a dying remnant of the complete ecosystem. Further north, the land closest to Lake Okeechobee is now known as the Everglades Agricultural Area. It is a massive farm, containing 700,000 acres used in the production of sugar cane. Sugar is a dry-land crop that must be constantly irrigated yet never flooded if it is to survive. The fickle water requirements of the farms have gone far in dictating the hydraulic conditions for the rest of the Everglades—often leaving the National Park parched.

Another main impact on the environment comes from the industry’s spread of phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers. While developers imagined the mucky soil pulled from the swamp would be fantastically fertile, sugar growers in fact have needed to spread tons of chemicals over the crops. Run-off from their fields has dramatically altered the chemical balance of the low-nutrient Everglades. Scientists indicate the ecosystem should naturally contain phosphorus at a level of five to seven parts per billion (ppb) and that even a change of a few ppb make a detectable difference and cost millions of dollars to eliminate through filtration. Swamplands catching run-off from the sugar farms have contained levels of phosphorus measuring between 200 and 500 ppb.

In a November 1999 essay in Harper’s magazine, writer Paul Roberts explains that, “as concentrations rise even slightly, native plants, such as saw grass, react—first by growing to monstrously unnatural sizes, then by dying off and giving way to phosphorus-loving species, such as cattails.” The dense cattails prevent wading birds from landing, and kill off the algae that feed Everglades fish.

It is uncertain whether the damage from the industry’s chemicals, and from the sugar-friendly regime, will prove irreparable. But it is clear these developments must be reversed for the Everglades to recover.

Sugar in the Wrong
Over the years, the Fanjul family has grown accustomed to high levels of political servicing. As owners of the Florida Crystals Corporation, Cuban-born Alfonso “Alfie” Fanjul, Jr. and his brother Jose, or “Pepe,” have the largest sugar cane holdings in the country. Their personal fortune is estimated conservatively at $500 million. Between 1990 and 2003, the sugar industry, led by the Fanjul brothers, sent $19.3 million in political contributions to Washington, according to the Center For Responsive Politics. For the Fanjuls, the American two-party political system entails a simple division of labor: Alfie is a Democrat, Pepe a Republican. Leaders from each party eagerly seek the Fanjuls’ assistance as “Pioneer” class donors and campaign committee chairmen.

Historically, Big Sugar’s political clout has been needed to keep massive federal protections intact for the industry, which cost consumers an estimated $1.4 billion per year. In recent times, government supports and trade protections maintained a price of 18 cents per pound for domestic sugar, twice the global market rate.

Increasingly over the past decade, growers have also used political access to thwart Everglades restoration. In 1998, at the same time cane cutters were pursuing lawsuits that would result in the mechanization of sugar harvesting, environmentalists took legal action. The U.S. Attorney in Miami sued Florida for failure to enforce clean water regulations. Big Sugar held up the challenge in court for years. Furthermore, growers began lobbying aggressively to control the legislative settlement that would ultimately emerge from the battle.

They won. Under the 1994 Everglades Forever Act the federal government and taxpayers of Florida will ultimately put out $8 billion to clean up the wetlands, while polluters will pay a pittance. The law caps sugar industry payments towards water filtration systems at $320 million. As the Environmental News Network reported, the elder conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, then 103 years-old, demanded that her name be removed from the title of the legislation, which she considered a betrayal.

Subsequently, growers succeeded in defeating a variety of proposals to have polluters pay more.

Florida Governor, Jeb Bush even signed a state law that pushes back the deadline for reducing pollution levels to 2016. Under the new law, the state will wait 13 years before fully enforcing a 10 ppb phosphorus standard that was established in the late 1990s. The Palm Beach Post described the bill as “of, by, and for the sugar growers.”

Land of Cattails
Political influence has earned Florida growers a place of infamy in American popular culture. The Washington Post notes that on The Simpsons, “Marge led a campaign against the villainous Mother-Loving Sugar Corp.” Fictional White House staffers on The West Wing demanded that Everglades money come “from the same place the pollution does—the sugar industry!” Given such portrayals, the industry complains it is a scapegoat. Growers point to the fact their phosphorus pollution has decreased by 56 percent in the past decade. And they claim other factors—like surging population growth and its attendant development—have even worse environmental impacts in South Florida.

It is true that America’s appetite for strip malls, golf courses, and superhighways may ultimately be as destructive as its taste for sugar. However, the improvements that have taken place in the sugar industry are the product not of growers’ benevolence, but rather public pressure. Today, corporate officials tout their “well-paid” workforce as reason to keep government subsidies, never mentioning how they fought determinedly into the new century to prevent migrant cane workers from winning their back wages in court. Similarly, the industry’s newly green press releases conveniently leave out its stalwart opposition to strong restoration measures.

Real environmental protection will come only with more public scrutiny of Big Sugar, not less. Until this pressure comes, political contributions will continue flowing north from Florida. And, in the Everglades, the cattails will continue sprawling south.

Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, can be reached via the website www.DemocracyUprising.com. This article is an edited reprint of “Cattail Country” from the December 2003 issue of New Internationalist (www.newint.org). Reprinted with kind permission.




 

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