New Internationalist

Cattail Country

Issue 363

Mark Engler describes how Florida sugar barons built their fortunes by abusing migrant farm workers, milking US taxpayers and destroying endangered wetlands.

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 the bunches are expanding ever southward into the wetlands. It’s not the sweet crop itself that they adore but the phosphorus-laden fertilizers that run off the fields. Thriving on the chemicals, cattails suck oxygen from the swamp and crowd out native plants.

The swamp that they are destroying is known as the Everglades.

To understand the fate of this ecosystem you have to know the history of companies like US Sugar and Florida Crystals. They have heaped abuse on both migrant farm workers and Everglades wetlands. They have relied on handouts and trade protections passed down for decades by politicians otherwise wont to praise the rectitude of ‘free markets’. They have been so effective in converting a fraction of their wealth back into political contributions that critics of the sugar monopolies in Washington DC are scarcer than impartial vote recounts in Palm Beach County.

For decades the hand-cut harvest of sugarcane in Florida was among the greatest domestic disgraces in the US. Until the US Sugar Corporation was indicted in 1942 for violating Constitutional prohibitions against slavery, the then-infant industry lured African-American workers in southern states with promises of free transportation and payment of six dollars a day. A typical recruit told an interviewer that when he arrived he learned that he owed eight dollars for the ride, another ninety cents for his cane knife and sharpener, plus room and board. He also learned that he would receive $1.80 for a day of labour. Many who tried to escape were apprehended by gun-wielding overseers who also happened to be deputized sheriffs for the county.

Programmes to bring seasonal workers from places like Jamaica, Barbados and Haiti expanded vastly in the wake of the Cuban Revolution, when the embargo on this foreign competitor allowed Florida sugar production to expand tenfold. Growers paid the migrant workers a brutal piece rate, demanding that one ton of sugar be cut per hour. Those who complained or organized to go on strike – as 300 did in 1982 at Atlantic Sugar Growers – swiftly found themselves at Miami’s international airport awaiting deportation.

Cross action

In the mid-1990s workers, who for years got less than the legal minimum wage, joined class-action lawsuits to sue the cane growers. Sometimes they succeeded, winning millions of dollars in back wages. Yet the victory prompted industrial manoeuvring rather than lasting justice. For the 1997 season the US Sugar Corporation switched to 100-per-cent mechanical harvesting.

While the exploitative ‘guest worker’ programme was thus relegated to sugar’s past, the industry still faced a high tide of public awareness about its role in crippling the Everglades.

This bio-region once consisted of a unique 6,000-year-old ‘river of grass’ that stretched 100 miles from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. By 1920 state and private interests had carved four massive canals to divert water directly into the Atlantic Ocean and create dry farmland. After the federal Army Corps of Engineers took over ‘reclamation’ in the 1940s, they built a complicated system of levees and hydraulics, transforming the impact of wet, flooded summers and trickling winters that once defined the life of the Everglades.

The area now preserved as Everglades National Park is in fact only a dying remnant of the complete ecosystem. To its north is a large swath of land divided into Water Conservation Areas which keep the coastal residents of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach supplied with drinking water and protected from natural flooding.

Further north, the land closest to Lake Okeechobee is now known as the Everglades Agricultural Area. It is a massive farm – 700,000 acres (283,000 hectares) used in the production of sugarcane. Sugar is a dry-land crop that must be constantly irrigated and can never be flooded if it is to survive. The fickle water requirements of the farms often dictate hydraulic conditions for the rest of the Everglades – leaving the National Park parched.

The industry’s other main impact on the environment comes from the spread of phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers. While developers imagined that the mucky soil pulled from the swamp would be fantastically fertile, sugar growers in fact needed to spread tons of chemicals over their crops.

Scientists indicate that the ecosystem would naturally contain phosphorus at a level of 5 to 7 parts per billion (ppb). Even a change of a few ppb can make a detectable difference and cost millions of dollars to eliminate through filtration. In past decades swamplands catching run-off from the sugar farms contained levels of phosphorus measuring between 200 and 500 ppb.

A question of politics

It is uncertain whether the damage from the industry’s chemicals, and from the sugar-friendly water-management regime, will prove irreparable. But it is clear that these two developments must be reversed for the Everglades to recover. If and when that will happen is a question of politics.

Prosecutor Ken Starr’s report detailing the sexual misadventures of President Bill Clinton provides some interesting glimpses into how political power works in the US. During one tryst between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the report explains, the couple was interrupted by a phone call from an irate campaign donor. Lewinsky remembered the name as ‘Fanuli’. In fact it was Alfonso Fanjul, a South Florida sugar baron. Clinton promptly returned the call.

Over the years the Fanjul family has grown accustomed to such high levels of political servicing. As owners of the Florida Crystals Corporation, Cuban-born Alfonso ‘Alfie’ Fanjul Jr and his brother José, or ‘Pepe’, have the largest sugarcane holdings in the country. Their personal fortune is estimated conservatively at $500 million. The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that between 1990 and 2003 the sugar industry, led by the Fanjul brothers, sent $19.3 million in political contributions to Washington. Growers spent tens of millions more on local elections, especially in Florida. For the Fanjuls the American two-party political system entails a simple division of labour: 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 defend a federal subsidy for the industry, worth an estimated $65 million per year. In recent times, government supports and trade protections maintained a price of $0.18 per pound for domestic sugar, twice the global-market rate. ‘Some people win the lottery; other people grow sugar,’ writes libertarian James Bovard.

Over the past decade, growers have also used their political access to thwart Everglades restoration. In 1998, at the same time as the cane cutters were pursuing their lawsuits for back wages, environmentalists started taking legal action. That year the US Attorney in Miami sued Florida for failure to enforce clean-water regulations. Big Sugar delayed the court challenge, lobbying aggressively to control the legislative settlement that would ultimately emerge as a result of the battle.

They won. Under the Everglades Forever Act, the Federal Government and the taxpayers of Florida will put up $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 conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas – then 103 years old – demanded that her name be removed from the title of the legislation. She considered it a betrayal.

Growers then succeeded in defeating a variety of proposals to have polluters pay more. Alfie’s 1996 call to President Clinton happened only hours after Al Gore had publicly promoted a ‘penny tax’ on sugar to fund restoration efforts. Given Florida’s importance in US presidential politics, it’s hardly surprising that the tax died a quick death.

In the most recent chapter of the dispute, Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed a state law in May that pushes back (to 2016) the deadline for reducing pollution levels. 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’.

Although federal officials threatened that Florida could lose national funding, Big Sugar has not checked its political bravado. This summer Florida Crystals and US Sugar filed lawsuits demanding the removal of District Court Judge William Hoeveler, who originally mandated the tough phosphorus standards and who criticized Florida’s Governor for signing the new legislation. Many on the American Right look forward to the day when George W’s younger brother might become the third member of the Bush Dynasty to move into the White House. If Jeb were to ascend, Big Sugar would no doubt be close behind him.

A place of infamy

Their political influence has earned the 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!’ And it’s not hard to imagine on whom the evil sugar barons Joaquin and Wilberto Rojo in the Hollywood movie Strip Tease might be based.

The industry complains that it is being scapegoated. Growers point to the fact that their phosphorus pollution has decreased by 56 per cent in the past decade. And they claim that 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 of public pressure. Today corporate officials tout their ‘well-paid’ workforce as a reason to keep government subsidies. They would have it conveniently forgotten how hard they fought to prevent migrant cane workers from winning their back wages in court. In a similar vein, the industry’s newly green press releases leave out its stalwart opposition to strong restoration measures.

Real environmental protection will come only with more public scrutiny of Big Sugar, not less. Without such pressure, political contributions will continue flowing north from Florida. And, in the Everglades, the cattails will continue sprawling south.

Mark Engler is a writer based in New York City and can be reached at: engler@democracyuprising.com

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