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