Not So Sweet in Sugar Land
FLORIDA GROWERS VS. THE MYTH OF THE EVERGLADES
Alligators, airboats, endless acres of saw grass swaying gently in the breeze: these are the images of Florida’s Everglades. The reality is very different. Diversion of water for farms and cities has left parts of the 2.2 million-acre wetland high and dry. On the east, Miami’s urban sprawl is pushing back the marsh. And from the north march invading columns of greenish brown cattails, a symptom of the water pollution that has made Everglades National Park among the nation’s most endangered. Last Friday a federal judge in Miami opened hearings over who should pay to fix it–a battle that could threaten the future of Florida’s influential sugar industry.
Sugar cane is a big, if controversial, business in south Florida. Since 1930, when the U.S. Sugar Corp. opened its first plantation near Lake Okeechobee, more than 500,000 acres have come under cane. Sixty years of state and federal programs to build dikes and. drain swamps left a nutrient-rich muck ideally suited to the crop. Profits are almost guaranteed: a federal support program props up the domestic price of sugar, while quotas hold down imports from Latin America, the Caribbean and the Philippines. Labor is cheap, too: U.S. immigration law lets cane growers bring in low-paid Jamaicans for the backbreaking seasonal work of cane cutting–and keeps the workers from changing jobs once they arrive. Astute networking helps the growers keep those privileges. U.S. Sugar Corp., the largest grower, plays up its ties to the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, a high-profile charity. The Cuban-born Fanjul brothers, Spanish citizens who control 190,000 acres of Florida cane land, are prominent in the Florida business community and hobnob with prominent politicians in Washington.
But as south Florida grows, Big Sugar’s clout is waning. The proof came in July, when state officials outraged the industry by admitting federal civil charges that Florida had failed to protect the Everglades against phosphate runoff from cane fields. Their solution-reclaiming 3,500 acres of marshland to filter used farm water-will cost $300 million. The growers would pay part of that bill and would have to eliminate almost all phosphate runoff by 2002.
The industry wants the court to block the agreement, arguing that phosphate is only a small contributor to the Everglades’ ills. Sugar growers use little fertilizer, they point out; most of the phosphate washing into the marshes occurs naturally in the south Florida soil. Says George Wedgeworth, president of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative in Belle Glade, “There’s not one piece of scientific work that shows that what we are doing is detrimental to the Everglades.” The real problem, sugar lobbyists argue, is the state’s mismanagement of water supplies throughout southern and central Florida. Environmentalists counter that the industry is trying to postpone the day of reckoning. “The sugar industry gets a financial reward for delaying implementation of the cleanup process,” asserts Michael Soukup, a biologist at Everglades National Park.
In the end, the sugar industry will have to bend to keep from forfeiting its support in Congress. “If you are a recipient of federal subsidies, there is some responsibility that goes along with them,” says Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Interior Committee. But the final price will likely be one the growers can afford. State officials know full well that if cane is pushed out, many sugar plantations will be turned into subdivisions-and that would be even worse for the Everglades.