Raising Cane – A History of Big Sugar in South Florida
6,000 years ago, the Everglades were created when a receding ocean revealed a bare limestone plain that covered south Florida. Fed by heavy rainfall, subtropical plants made their home on the low nutrient soil. Rain falling across central Florida made its way to Lake Okeechobee, which frequently overflowed its southern boundaries, creating a slow moving ‘river of grass’ that once covered most of present-day Dade and Broward counties as well as the southern part of the state. As this ‘river’ slowly made its way towards Florida Bay, impurities were flushed from the water and Florida’s aquifers (large, underground limestone caves filled with fresh water) were replenished. Plants and animals thrived in this very unique ecosystem for thousands of years. Then the white man came…
The saga that is the tale of Florida’s sugar industry and its effect on the local environment is one of greed and power, of farmers and politically savvy wealthy foreigners, of bribes and shady deals, all wrapped in the southern pride of the tiny town of Clewiston. It reads like the script to a Hollywood movie with no one, Democrat or Republican, being spared from ensnarement in the decade’s long legacy of abuse. Its rippling effects reach residents of both coasts, from Ft. Myers to Jensen Beach, but is primary victims remain the non-human residents of Lake Okeechobee and the long-suffering Everglades.
Of the four primary sugar-producing states, Florida is number one, accounting for half of all sugarcane acreage and generating between $1.3 and $1.6 billion in total income and over 18,000 full-time jobs. The two primary players, US Sugar and Florida Crystals, each control around 40% of Florida’s industry. But it was not always this way.
In 1920 the US government, pushed by Florida lawmakers, began ‘reclaiming’ the Everglades by dredging and building canals that drained the swamp just south of the lake. This caused Florida’s coastal population to explode and brought former General Motors magnate Charles Stewart Mott, an investor who founded U.S. Sugar in 1931. But sugar cane simply does not grow well in Florida’s climate, even after drainage and massive applications of fertilizers like phosphorus and nitrogen. As one scientist puts it “Paying lavish subsidies to produce sugar in Florida makes as much sense as creating a federal subsidy program to grow bananas in Massachusetts”. But pay the federal government does, beginning with the Sugar Act of 1934, subsidies to the tune of $180 million a year which costs the American consumer some $1.4 billion a year in higher costs for the sweet stuff.
Even with government help, however, Florida’s sugar industry remained tiny until 1959 and the Cuban Revolution. Almost overnight, all Cuban sugar was embargoed and U.S trade officials made up for the loss by offering more incentives. The Army Corps of Engineers drained even more of the Everglades, more cane was planted, and sugar began to take over south Florida, complete with politicians and the town of Clewiston wrapped around its sweet little finger. The Cuban Revolution also brought the Fanjuls.
Alfonso Fanjul was heir to the Gomez-Mena sugar empire in Cuba when Castro took power. Forced to flee, they arrived in Fl orida just as the Corps were draining more land. He and his fellow exiles bought a farm on existing land and began to expand. Today, his sons, Alfy and Pepe are the largest sugar growers in the state, with 180,000 acres. But there’s more. Even with the expansion of Florida’s sugar industry, the country still needed more sugar. The U.S. government, to protect domestic growers, assigns quotas to sugar-producing nations, the largest of which goes to the Dominican Republic. In a move that would make any hard driven capitalist proud, in 1985 the Fanjuls bought up a rival’s holdings there, allowing them to produce sugar on the cheap and making them the largest exporter of Dominican sugar. All of this after complaining about cheap labor being exploited by foreign markets.
Today, the Fanjuls are political masterminds, pouring money into both the Democrats’ and Republicans’ pockets, flying officials around in company jets, even hosting fundraisers for both parties at their posh Dominican resort, Casa de Campo. All this while snubbing everyone else, especially the press and their own workers. Their strategy is so outrageous that they have been targets for everyone from 60 Minutes to Hollywood, who presented them as villains in the 1996 movie, Striptease (based on a book of the same name by Miami born author, Carl Hiassen). But, as based on their some $500 million fortune and rank among the richest Americans (which, technically, they aren’t) it is a strategy that works.
U.S. Sugar – their biggest rivals – meanwhile, take a different approach, virtually wrapping themselves in the American flag with their ‘down-home farmer’ image. They invite the media to every major event and woo them with sticky sweet southern hospitality. Nowhere on earth is this more evident than the town of Clewiston, a village of 6,348 residents on a narrow crescent of drained swampland within sight of Lake Okeechobee’s southern levee. In this deeply religious town, one will find monuments to Florida’s sugar history such as Sugarland Highway, Sugar Industry Appreciation Week, the Sugar Festival, the ‘Miss Sugar’ Beauty Pageant, the Taste of Sugar Country Dessert Contest and, so the black section of town can join the fun, a ‘Miss Brown Sugar’ contest.
All of this farming and fertilizing and draining were having disastrous effects on both Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, however. The huge system of pumps, dikes and levees that the Army Corps of Engineers used to create the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) keeps what was once the northern part of the Everglades dry for farming. Below it, to serve as a water source for the 5 million people living on Florida’s southeast coast, lays the million-acre reservoirs known as Water Conservation Areas (the once middle part of the swamp) which is bordered by a massive north-south levee to keep the coast swamp-free. The only part of the Everglades allowed to remain natural was the southern part, created in 1947 as the Everglades National Park. In the wet summer months, excess water that would have flooded Lake Okeechobee and the EAA is drained away, some to the Water Conservation Areas (still a swamp) where it floods and drowns the wildlife there. The rest is pumped into canals connected to both the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, sending several hundred billion gallons a year of phosphorous laden fresh water to the saltwater estuaries at the mouths of both rivers. This pollution wrecks havoc with the delicate ecosystems there, causing massive algae blooms that kill fish, oysters, crabs and tourism. Meanwhile, the Everglades National Park receives virtually no water except what is dumped there, the polluted runoff from the farms.
For many years, the sugar industry was allowed to dump its excess water wherever it wanted, either by reverse-pumping into Lake Okeechobee or allowing it to runoff into the Everglades. This water is laden with as much as 500 parts per billion of phosphorous which, when mixed into the historically low-nutrient water of the Everglades, causes native plants to die off and cattails (which love phosphorous) to grow so thickly that wading birds have no place to land and nothing to eat. In a process known as ‘eutrophication’, these plants also suck all the oxygen out of the water, killing fish. In Lake O, which is 730 square miles in size but only nine feet deep, as much as three feet of muck now covers the bottom causing one Corps official to declare it a ‘chocolate mess’. A microbiologist from Florida International University claims that a maximum of 10 parts per billion of phosphorous is a natural level.
This went on unchecked until 1988 when a young U.S. Attorney named Dexter Lehtinen, fresh from indicting Manuel Noriega, sued Florida to force it to stop big sugar from polluting the Everglades. The sugar industry responded with both guns blazing. The devil was indeed loose in south Florida.
After failing both to get the suit dismissed and discredit Lehtinen’s star expert, big sugar poured millions of dollars into the 1992 presidential campaigns. The Fanjul brothers, traditionally Republicans, split allegiances with Pepe vice-chairing the Bush-Quayle Finance Committee and Alfy hosting a $120,000 fund-raiser and serving as co-chairman for Bill Clinton’s Florida campaign. When Clinton got elected, Alfy Fanjul met with Clinton’s new interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, and persuaded him to turn the Everglades lawsuit mess back over to the state. Now big sugar began an all-out blitzkrieg on Florida, complete with an all-star lobbying team and big money media campaign to convince voters the phosphorous problem was overblown along with thinly veiled threats that the EAA would be sold to developers if sugar was forced out.
Viola! The Everglades Forever Act, a cleanup bill so slanted in favor of big sugar (who pretty much wrote it) that leading state environmentalists refused to have their names associated with it, was signed into law by Governor Lawton Chiles in 1994. This law capped industry cleanup costs at $320 million and saddled taxpayers with the rest (some $700 million). It also set the cleanup deadline at 2003, at which point state officials, not federal scientists, would determine the allowable phosphorous level. “The Clinton Administration delivers” crowed a jubilant Alfy Fanjul.
Other plans attempting to undo some of what has been done have met with similar fates.In 1995, Republican candidates Richard Luger and Bob Dole, looking to get Florida back for the 1996 election, proposed a grower’s tax to help fund Everglades cleanup. To big sugar’s dismay, the Clinton Administration joined in, sending Al Gore to Florida promising a ‘polluter’s tax’ and, horror of horrors, to convert 100,000 acres of sugar farms back into swamp (to restore water flow from Lake Okeechobee). This led to the infamous phone call made to President Clinton on February 19, 1996 - interrupting an emotional meeting with Monica Lewinsky – in which Alfy Fanjul yelled at a sitting President. Though the White House promptly dropped the plan, thanks to a group called Save Our Everglades the tax appeared on the state ballot in 1996. This group had $13 million in funds which they used to campaign on the common sense notion that a heavily subsidized industry could afford a penny a pound tax to help fix the mess they had created.
With an astonishing $23 million in PAC money, big sugar again went to war, unleashing a $5.2 million media blitz calling the initiative ‘radical environmental extremism’ that would cost taxpayers money and jobs. They brought in Jesse Jackson to convince voters the tax was a ‘showdown between alligators and people’. They gave ‘informational tours’ to seniors, complete with a free lunch and bus ride to the cane fields. But the coup de grace was when they resorted to just plain lying, telling voters this would raise their property taxes (the tax applied only to sugar growers within the EAA). In what a Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel editorial called “a triumph of disinformation” the tax was defeated by a landslide.
There was also the Farm Bill of 1995 that should have, by all accounts, finally put an end to the sugar subsidy. A newly Republican Congress decided to target farm subsidies, which they considered ‘corporate welfare’. Public opinion about big sugar had swayed to anger over the environment. In May of 1995, Republican Dan Miller (from a non-sugar district in Florida) and Democrat Schumer from New York persuaded forty-seven Democrats and seventy-one Republicans to sponsor a phase-out of the sugar program and then added it to the Farm Bill. Big Sugar responded with $2 million and the usual P.R. blitz, complete with bogus reports about the price spikes of 1974 and 1980 and a deluge of scripted calls to lawmakers claiming the ‘voters’ support of the program, even professing support from churches.
Now that God had entered the picture, Congress freaked. Republican House Agricultural Chair Pat Roberts dropped the Miller-Schumer bill from the Farm Bill and forced a separate vote, which lost by five votes. Voting against the bill were its own co-sponsors. A quote from Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho (who received $59,602 from sugar that year) sums it up, “I ain’t no Johnny Cochran, but I can defend the sugar program”.
Big sugar attempted to extract revenge, too: when Miller returned home, he found his office picketed by growers and heard that sugar was offering $500,000 in campaign funding to anyone who would challenge him (he was reelected anyway).
Still, it isn’t all bad. The Everglades Forever Act has enjoyed some success, with phosphorus levels now down to the low 20s in some areas. The feds have joined in too, creating the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), involving multiple state and federal agencies in what is probably the ‘most complex and expensive environmental restoration program in U.S. history’. But CERP is not without controversy, either. The plan involves storing fresh water in reservoirs that will then be released into the Everglades in an attempt to mimic natural flow and the conversion of 50,000 acres of farmland. However, the reservoirs are to be blasted out of the limestone (which no one knows will work) and scientists claim that the project won’t help the park so much as boost water supplies for existing developments. In 2006, they reported that the Everglades were still ‘starved for water’. Also, President and Governor Bush gave this project to the very entity that destroyed the Everglades in the first place, The Army Corps of Engineers.
CERP has other issues, too. Federal governments’ commitment relies on the state to hold up its end of the bargain by adhering to the terms of the settled lawsuit (Everglades Forever) and clean up the pollution. While progress has been made, phosphorus levels still remain high further north in the Everglades and even the lows are not as low as was promised. So in 2003, despite opposition from both parties, Governor Bush signed a bill pushing the deadline back to 2013. Once again, sugar prevailed, and this on an agreement that they wrote themselves. The feds are not impressed and are threatening to pull out of CERP.
And the beat goes on…
Today, the Everglades are still in trouble. Some animal species are near extinction and the area is still in dire need of water. Lake Okeechobee is still clogged with cattails and high levels of phosphorus. While almost everyone agrees that the only way to fix the problem is to restore water flow from Lake Okeechobee, no one seems to know how to accomplish this. Lawmakers from both coasts want to stop the excessive releases from Lake O that is destroying their marine life and tourism by releasing the excess water into the cane fields. At a town meeting attended by residents from both coasts and Clewiston, lawsuits were threatened and no compromise was reached. And Governor Bush in 2004 launched a program called Acceler8, which involves borrowing some $1.8 billion for projects that were supposed to be covered by CERP. But Acceler8 is criticized for focusing more on water storage than restoration. A spokeswoman for the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians (who live in the Everglades and are among the groups trying to save it) describes the frustration: “while everyone’s haggling, the environmental destruction continues”.
Big sugar, meanwhile, continues to thrive. At a recent refinery opening in Clewiston, flags were flying and the air was thick with the smell of money. A former Miss Sugar sang the national anthem as Democrat Congressman Alcee Hastings ($42,250 in contributions) hobnobbed with Republican Mark Foley ($76, 470). As the patriotism flowed under the big tent, out in the swamp sat an old Florida Cracker, tinkering with his airboat and reminiscing about the days when cattle, not sugar, was king.