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A politically connected industry devastates the Everglades

Source:  Copyright 2003, E/The Environmental Magazine
Date:  November 28, 2003
Byline:  Ted Levin, E/The Environmental Magazine
Original URL: Status DEAD


Staining an otherwise cerulean sky, oily black smoke billows a mile high from more than a half-dozen fires south of Lake Okeechobee. You can see the smoke from West Palm Beach, like the exhalations of detonated bombs. It is eerily quiet.

From the highway around the lake, from the outskirts of towns such as Canal Point, Moore Haven, and Harlem, where they hold the Miss Brown Sugar Contest, sugarcane runs to the horizon, a ghostly replacement of what was once sawgrass marshes.

Flames rush through patches of cane, burning off extraneous tassels and blades, leaving only the sucrose-rich stalks. You can hear the fires cackle from the streets of Clewiston, "America’s Sweetest Town." Since 1931, it has been home to the U.S. Sugar Corporation, one of the oldest and largest players in the sugar industry, an industry that survives on humans' insatiable appetite for things sweet and on political largesse. In fact, this industry dictated the direction of the $8 billion Everglades restoration project.

Last spring, in a bravura display of clout, the industry succeeded in ramming a sweetheart deal through the Florida legislature that gives Big Sugar more time to clean up its act. The measure, supported by Governor Jeb Bush, pushes back a looming 2006 water cleanup deadline to 2013 and gives sugar companies until 2017 to pay a cleanup tax.

"Big Sugar is not only raping the resource; it expects breakfast in the morning," wrote Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas.

Sweet Deals

A region larger than the state of Rhode Island, the upper quarter of the original Everglades is more than 700,000 acres of cane fields, winter vegetables, and a few sod farms. It is officially called the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), but it is known simply as Big Sugar, and every fourth teaspoon of sugar consumed in the United States is grown here. "Big" stands for the industry’s political power, which is hard to explain, given the industry’s relative insignificance on a global economic stage that includes steel, automobiles, oil, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals.

Between 1988 and 1994 Big Sugar made more than $5.5 million in campaign contributions, far out of proportion to its size. In 1999 sugar baron Alfonso "Alfy" Fanjul Jr. hosted a $25,000-a-plate dinner to support the Florida Democratic Party; 60 guests attended, including Bill Clinton. In the agricultural sector, only the tobacco industry spends more on campaign contributions and lobbying efforts. During a 1994 Florida statehouse debate on an environmental referendum that would have taxed farmers a penny for every pound of sugar milled in the EAA, more than 30 industry lobbyists convened in Tallahassee.

Alfy and Pepe Fanjul never intended to farm in Florida. After four generations in Cuba, where their family empire included 150,000 acres of cane, 10 sugar mills, and three alcohol distilleries, their businesses were nationalized by Fidel Castro in 1959. Moving from Cuba to Palm Beach in 1960, Alfonso Fanjul Sr. and some fellow exiles bought a 4,000-acre parcel of farmland in the Everglades for $640,000.

Florida offered low taxes for land and water, and at an annual expense of more than $50 million to the American taxpayers, Washington kept the Everglades drained in the wet season and irrigated in the dry.

In 1970 the Fanjuls created Flo-Sun. After the death of their father 10 years later Alfy and Pepe inherited the business. By 1990 the Fanjuls farmed 180,000 acres in the Everglades and 160,000 acres in the Dominican Republic. Today, their farms and four mills produce about a million tons of raw sugar a year; their refinery markets white sugar directly to consumers under the name Florida Crystals.

So pronounced is the Fanjuls' effect on regional politics and Everglades issues that the movie Striptease — in part a satirical account of the sugar industry, based on Carl Hiaasen’s novel — lampoons brothers Joaquin and Wilbur Rojo, whom people acquainted with South Florida politics recognize as Alfy and Pepe. The Fanjuls allegedly were incensed and offended by any comparison to the fictional Rojos, who attempted murder to protect their business empire.

United States tariffs and price controls keep domestic sugar prices around 22 cents a pound. Most of the rest of the world sells sugar for eight cents a pound. In 1998 sugar-grower price supports in effect cost Americans $1.4 billion in higher prices for candy, cookies, soda, ice cream, gum, and a host of other sweet things from cereal to catsup. That same year, the Fanjuls enjoyed more than $60 million in subsidies, which led Time to suggest that they may be the “first family of corporate welfare.”

With so much help, it is no wonder that the Fanjuls are one of the wealthiest families in the United States and that cane farms have spread across marginal land, wetlands better left to alligators and to the preservation of the region’s long-term water regime.

According to James Bovard of the libertarian Cato Institute, "Paying lavish subsidies to produce sugar in Florida makes as much sense as creating a federal subsidy program to grow bananas in Massachusetts." According to Bovard, the only thing that will make Everglades cane farmers competitive would be massive global warming.

Robert Kennedy Jr., whose father and uncle had befriended the Fanjuls, has lambasted the current owners of Flo-Sun on the television show Politically Incorrect.

"Under the current system," Kennedy wrote in a letter, "individuals like yourself can pilfer America’s natural wealth and heritage, destroy publicly owned resources, garner subsidies in the form of below-cost natural resources and artificial price controls, poison our rivers and streams, mistreat workers, and then protect their place at the public trough by sharing their loot with public officials with payoffs disguised as campaign contributions."

Some environmentalists are even in bed with Big Sugar. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, a generous supporter of environmental causes — it spent $800,000 in the 1990s to protect a South American wetland — still has financial and managerial control of U.S. Sugar, which in 1996 spent $3 million to defeat amendments to protect the Everglades. The foundation declined to comment on its involvement with U.S. Sugar.

Cane Politics

Modern sugarcane is a complex hybrid of towering perennial grasses in the genus Saccharum. Of the six known species, four are domesticated and two are wild. Sugarcane was discovered in Southeast Asia about 10,000 years ago, when Florida was a wide, arid Ice Age landscape. It has been boiled for syrup for more than 2,000 years. Florida is a far cry from being prime cane habitat. Restricted by a frostier climate and wetter, nutrient-poor soils, farmers in the Everglades spend $150 more to produce a metric ton of raw sugar than do farmers in Australia.

Shortly after Columbus reached the New World, the commercial growth of cane became extremely important in the Caribbean, where African slaves were brought in 1503 to toil in the fields. In the shameless "triangular trade," raw sugar from the British Caribbean colonies was shipped to England for refining. Then the ships went to Africa to exchange goods for slaves, who were shipped across the Atlantic and sold to Caribbean plantation owners to produce sugar.

The Seminole grew cane on secret hammocks in the Everglades, and pioneer families from Homosassa to Flamingo grew small plots of cane. Florida’s interest in growing sugar in a region that is not suitable without subsidies and tariffs remained a homegrown affair until 1920, though it did not really take off until the Fanjuls arrived. First grown in North America in the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine in 1572, sugarcane failed as a commercial crop in Florida several times in the 18th century. By the early 1900s only 13,000 acres of cane were grown in the entire state, mostly for syrup.

Then came large-scale draining. Big land companies, such as Florida Fruit Lands and Everglades Plantation, bought tracts of undeveloped wetlands and then sold more than 18,000 parcels to unsuspecting buyers, mostly in 10-acre chunks, usually sight unseen. Settlers found that clearing the thick swamp vegetation was an arduous task that involved sawing, chopping, hacking, pulling, rooting, cutting, prying, yanking, splitting, and finally burning. Three-and-a-half months was required to clear a little more than an acre. Plowing, too, was torturous. Draft animals sank into the soft, wet muck.

By 1917, the four large muck-dredged canals that dissected the Everglades, together with the Caloosahatchee River, dropped Okeechobee from about 22 feet above sea level to between 17 and 19. Water receded below the surface of the Everglades along the canals, until finally the land was ready for cultivation by large, politically connected, corporate-scale farms. Sugarcane was one of the first crops grown on large parcels.

Disrupting the Natural Cycle

Sugarcane cultivation is out of sync with South Florida’s natural cycles. Because Big Sugar must remain dry in the wet season, every day more than a billion gallons of water is diverted away from the Everglades. By a year’s end 3 million to 4 million acre-feet — enough to submerge Connecticut beneath a foot of water — have been stolen from the Everglades. Starved for freshwater, Florida Bay has turned dangerously saline, and the central Everglades remains perpetually flooded.

An important point that bears repeating is that the Everglades is a nutrient-poor, though not unproductive, wetland. Sawgrass thrives in the glades because low levels of phosphorous (an important plant nutrient) inhibit the growth of more aggressive species, such as cattails. Ron Jones, a microbiologist at Florida International University who for years has testified against Big Sugar, claims that the Everglades’ natural level of phosphorous is a measly five to seven parts per billion, equivalent to about 50 drops in an Olympic swimming pool.

Spreading phosphorus on the cane fields is a common practice in the Everglades. Phosphorous-rich water from the Everglades was regularly back-pumped into Lake Okeechobee until 1979, exacerbating the lake’s nutrient overload. To reduce the lake’s nutrient level, the South Florida Water Management District began pumping untreated farm runoff into the central Everglades.

The phosphorous infusion at first caused sawgrass to grow rapidly and abnormally large; then it died and gave way to cattails, which usurp 50 acres of sawgrass a day. Today, more than 50,000 acres of cattails have spread across the water conservation areas, filling in portions of the central Everglades, crowding out willow and bay, excluding fish. Wading birds have no place to feed, no place to land. Normally a benign and localized native, cattails were formerly restricted to sites with natural pulses of nutrients: the edges of alligator holes, downstream from heron rookeries, and in recent burns.

But now, said Jones, "Cattails are the grave marker of a dying ecosystem."

Ignoring the Law

In 1988, United States attorney Dexter Leitinen filed a lawsuit against the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation for not enforcing the state’s water-quality standards — for looking the other way as phosphorous poured out of the Everglades.

Two-and-a-half years later, Florida’s newly elected governor, Lawton Chiles, walked into a federal court saying, "I've brought my sword. Whom do I surrender to?" conceding that the state needed to enforce its own laws. By the summer of 1991 Gov. Chiles and Dick Thornburgh, the United States attorney general, began working on a timetable to clean up the Everglades. A new state law gave the South Florida Water Management District the power to impose taxes on sugar farmers to pay for their cleanup costs.

The settlement allowed for future expansion of the artificial marsh, if needed, and set preliminary water standards to be met by 1997, when farmers would be required to cut phosphorous discharge by 10 percent. Long-term goals called for a further reduction of 25 percent. The water-quality lawsuit had cost Florida $6 million.

Sugar fought back, filing more than a dozen lawsuits. During the 1992 presidential campaign, the Fanjuls split their political allegiances: Pepe chaired the Bush-Quayle Finance Committee, and Alfy led Clinton into the heart of the Cuban-American community, a Republican stronghold.

Four months after Clinton’s victory, Alfy Fanjul gave to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt a blueprint for Everglades restoration that had been prepared by Flo-Sun scientists. Two years later, at the urging of Fanjul, Babbitt turned the Everglades cleanup over to the state legislature, where Big Sugar held all the trump cards. The coterie of three dozen lobbyists they employed to represent them in Tallahassee included two former state house speakers and Gov. Chiles’s former campaign manager and chief of staff. Sugar blitzed the media, downplaying the phosphorous problem, claiming disingenuously that rainwater had far more phosphorous than the goal set for Everglades runoff.

In 1994, to the dismay of Florida legislators, the then-103-year-old Marjory Stoneman Douglas, author of The Everglades: River of Grass and a leading force in protecting the wetlands for more than 50 years, publicly demanded that her name be stricken from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Everglades Forever Act of 1994 because she felt that the state had retreated from its commitment to restore the ecosystem.

Later that year, in the company of Bruce Babbitt at an Everglades National Park ceremony, Gov. Chiles signed an amended version of the Everglades Forever Act that suspended state water-quality standards until 2003 and empowered state officials, not federal scientists, to determine allowable phosphorous levels. The act also capped Big Sugar’s cleanup costs at $320 million. Once again taxpayers would pay the difference, estimated at more than $400 million.

Killing the Everglades

In the past 75 years more than 6 feet of peat has disappeared from the Everglades. Farmers may soon strike bedrock. The organic soils of the Everglades were formed underwater, in the absence of oxygen and oxygen-loving microorganisms, whose voracious appetites would have consumed the gathering mess of stems, leaves, roots, and rhizomes. Because periodic and often prolonged flooding held aerobic microbes at bay, peat deposits built up. A positive feedback loop was created: peat, covering the irregular surface of the limestone, built deep, even deposits that were supported, and in turn nourished, by an inland sea of sawgrass, dense enough in the northern glades to keep out alligators.

When canals dropped the water table below the surface and the sawgrass was painstakingly cleared, the peat dried, shrank, and blew away, or burnt like a cigar, smoldering for months and years, filling the sky with black smoke. Worse, the dry soil oxidized, as hungry aerobic bacteria gorged. Already the rate of soil subsidence in the Everglades has reached one inch a year.

According to geologist Garald Parker, to avoid saltwater intrusion, the shallow Biscayne Aquifer had to be kept at least two-and-a-half feet higher than sea level. The path of the surplus water draining from the Everglades is so crucial to its health that then–Vice President Al Gore promised that restoration would include the recovery of at least an additional 100,000 acres of cane fields to be used mostly for water storage. But after one phone call from Alfy Fanjul to the White House, the purchase of more land from the Everglades was dropped from the Everglades restoration plan.

During a meeting at Flo-Sun’s Okeelanta sugar mills, the late Peter Rosendahl, a hydrologist; Raul Perdomo, an agronomist in charge of sugar products; and Flo-Sun spokesperson Jorge Dominicus fielded questions. They unequivocally believe that the Everglades Forever Act was an excellent compromise between farming and environmental concerns. If the state were to lower the limit of phosphorous permitted to flow out of the Everglades, the final cleanup costs would have escalated. And Flo-Sun has already agreed to pay its fair share, they say.

As part of the agreement, Flo-Sun will pay up to $100 million over 20 years to help finance a 4,000-acre farm runoff retention pond.

"Just because the industry is here, we shouldn’t pay for everything," said Rosendahl. "Environmentalists should step back. They have no financial stake in this, even though they are considered stakeholders."

Dominicus added, "Never once has it been proven in a court of law that the industry caused any damage to the adjacent Everglades. The issue with sugar is phosphorous, and we believe the portion that Flo-Sun has agreed to pay reflects the farmers' contribution to the system."

But the sugar giant got off easy, and everyone else will pay the lion's share. Taxpayers sold public land cheaply, financed its drainage, subsidized its land and water taxes, provided cheap loans, and bought its price-controlled product. Now they are being asked to pay for most of the cleanup of Everglades' wastewater.

Rosendahl then points out that the Everglades Forever Act wants the phosphorous level down to 50 parts per billion: "That's two orders of magnitude less than the effluent from a typical treatment plant in New England."

Dominicus added, "We're talking parts per billion. Bottled water you buy in the store has more phosphorous than is allowed by the Everglades Forever Act. You'd have to drink 1,400 gallons of the stuff to get your daily recommended allowance."

Because the Fanjuls began farming in the 1960s, 30 years after the more fertile land closer to Lake Okeechobee had been claimed by other farmers, Flo-Sun's cane fields are at the very edge of the Everglades, where the shallower peat deposits are disappearing quickly. If anyone strikes bedrock, surely it will be Flo-Sun. Then what will be the fate of the lower Everglades? Subdivisions and malls? Racetracks and theme parks? Ecologically speaking, the Everglades Agricultural Area will be beyond repair.

Across Political Lines

Save Our Everglades (SOE) is a group headed by Mary Barley, widow of George Barley, a wealthy and passionate environmentalist who died when his small plane inexplicably went down on the way to an Everglades conservation meeting. Barley calls herself a "conservative Republican."

In 1996 SOE placed three amendments on the Florida ballot. Amendment 4 would have required farmers to pay a penny for each pound of sugar produced in the Everglades Agricultural Area in order to fund an Everglades cleanup; Amendment 5 made polluters responsible for cleaning up their own mess; and Amendment 6 created an Everglades trust fund primarily financed by the penny-a-pound tax.

Fighting back, sugar industry lawyers filed 38 lawsuits challenging everything from misplaced commas to potentially unconstitutional language in the amendments. They spent more than $35 million to defeat Amendment 4, including newspaper, radio, and television ads, many of which promulgated false claims. Industry analysts estimated that the big sugar companies made about 5.2 cents profit on every pound of sugar, a profit furthermore guaranteed by the federal government. Barley claimed that the penny-a-pound tax would generate $30 million a year, $900 million over the life of the program. Big Sugar said the tax would cripple the industry and eliminate 40,000 jobs. It made an extra effort to recruit black leaders around the job issue, and some of them spoke at a company-organized outdoor rally.

On Election Day alone the sugar lobby spent more than $1 million fighting the amendments. The results were mixed: Amendment 4 lost in what a Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel editorial called "a triumph of disinformation." Amendments 5 and 6 won. Polluters would pay to clean up the Everglades, but without the penny-a-pound tax, how was the money going to be raised?

In May 1999, Big Sugar’s fortunes changed drastically. The Miccosukee tribe, citing the Clean Water Act, won federal approval for a 10-parts-per-billion phosphorous limit on their 75 thousand acres of reservation in the Everglades. Six months later scientists at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection advocated limiting the average phosphorous level for Water Conservation Area 2 to eight-and-a-half parts per billion, noting that phosphorous levels in unpolluted stretches of the Everglades were even lower.

Thus far, the water managers who run the cleanup do not have a clue as to how to meet the new state standards. Although environmentalists want to reach the eight-and-a-half parts per billion level as soon as possible, sugar representatives such as Dominicus are opting for inertia.

Flo-Sun shows inquiring reporters a public relations video that describes how well the migrant Jamaican cane cutters are treated, how their dingy gray barracks were repainted an upbeat white.

"They’re better than soldiers' barracks," said Dominicus. The happy-cutters video was made in response to Alec Wilkinson’s book Big Sugar, an exposé of the industry's notoriously poor labor record. In 1942 U.S. Sugar was indicted for peonage in federal court, and until recently, migrant workers were treated like indentured servants on lease from their home countries. Today Flo-Sun no longer needs to worry about the media's portrayal of its workers' conditions because the cutters have been mostly replaced by machines.

The largest of Flo-Sun's three sugar mills is Okeelanta, which is so noisy that visitors have to wear ear protectors and so steamy that everything feels sticky, even the air. Rivers of mud-brown sucrose squirt out as cane is shredded and pressed. Swirling tendrils of sweet steam rise above caldrons of boiling liquid that will be refined and stored as tan sugar crystals called turbinado. Sixty feet overhead, a conveyor transports sugar crystals to feed a mountain of sugar.


Ted Levin is the author of Liquid Land: A Journey Through the Florida Everglades (University of Georgia Press), from which this story was adapted with permission. His next book will be about rattlesnakes.

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