(This is the third part of the Lake Okeechobee tour. Read the first part here. New here? Start with What’s this, now?)
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “Big Sugar,” a term generally used derisively, the person likely meant US Sugar or Domino Sugar. Sugar is a huge industry in Florida and a big part of the Everglades’ downfall. Without Big Sugar, some say, there would be no need for the Everglades Restoration program.
While I disagree somewhat – greed and avarice are powerful, potent motivators, and businessmen don’t need sugar cane to buy, drain, raze, and sell to the highest bidder – US Sugar’s impact on Florida profoundly saddens me. The company irrevocably altered one of the sweetest, swampiest places on earth.
Clewiston sits at the southwest lake rim. In 1937, it was a company town, owned by US Sugar. The workers – the black workers – who cut the cane and processed the sugar lived south of Clewiston in Harlem.
In the 1930s the US Sugar Corporation essentially owned Clewiston’s water, power, and phone companies as well as the town hotel. Well, not essentially. They actually did own it. Today, US Sugar dominates still. Clewiston is a sugar town; there is no pretending US Sugar doesn’t have a hand in everything. To the south, the Fanjul Brothers run a similar saccharine empire with Domino Sugar and Florida Crystals. Although Florida Crystals, especially, markets itself as “Carbonfree”and prides itself on dredging “nutrient-rich” out of nearby (man-made) canals and re-using it on the fields, make no mistake: sugar is killing the Everglades.
The muck around Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades grows perfect sugar cane. Big Sugar came here, saw, planted, and – with an insane amount of help from government subsidies – grew. They took what water they wanted, and if, during dry spells, they didn’t get enough, they convinced the government to let them divert the massive amounts of water they needed. When they got too much, they flushed it out along the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie Rivers. They dammed it up behind a wall in case they needed it.
The result? Sweet, sweet sugar – fantastic news for US Sugar and the Fanjul Brothers, but not so much for lands south of the sugar cane, which includes the ‘Glades. Because of Big Sugar, the government – through the auspices of a state-run water management board called South Florida Water Management District – can, at the governor’s whim, turn Lake Okeechobee on and off like a big faucet. This, as you may well imagine, does not bode well for unique ecosystems accustomed to getting the same amount of water it has received for the past 5,000 years. Without the seasonal, irregular flow, life in the Glades faltered.
In addition, sugar cane is not impervious to bugs and disease, so farmers use pesticides to keep that sugar coming. As with most plants, fertilizer makes sugar cane grow faster, but once they send those green stalks on a growth spurt, those chemicals don’t disappear – the sneak out into the Everglades. Since the first stalk of sugar cane sprouted from the muck, US Sugar and the Fanjul Brothers have steadily and dramatically increased the levels of nitrogen, phosphorous, chemical cocktails that kill bugs, grow big sugar cane, and decimate the Everglades.
In time, and aided by activists like Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, a writer and activist whose father happened to own the Miami Herald and thus gave her a far-reaching platform, people began to understand the significance of the Everglades. Hey, we may not like its razor-sharp sedge, its venomous snakes, or its larger-than-life collection of saurian green predators, but we like even less knowing that we, as a species, drove anything to extinction. With Ms. Douglas’ help – and others – people saw all-too-clearly that was indeed where the ‘Glades were headed. Work began on a “restoration program” to try and keep the Everglades from drying out and dying.
Except, of course, that Big Sugar remains. Death of a one-of-a-kind ecosystem or not, they have to worry about that bottom line, and they will do anything to ensure state and federal laws stay in their favor. While US Sugar has the support of most of Clewiston – without Big Sugar, the best chance a kid has for a future involves the NFL – most everyone else in Florida clucks their tongue and shakes their head when you talk about sugar and the Everglades.
After years of strife between Big Sugar and pretty much anyone else who read a paper in Florida, Governor Charlie Crist came upon a seemingly perfect solution: why not just buy out the company? For under $2 billion, the state could buy 187,000 acres of Big Sugar land, close the refinery, and restore the flow of the Everglades, no easy task after years of soil erosion and degradation courtesy of, of course, Big Sugar.
It sounded like a great, workable solution, so of course it failed in quick stages. The Governor announced the plan in June 2008. By November the plan changed: for $1.34 billion the state could have 181,000 acres but not any of the processing facilities, including the refinery. To make a long story somewhat shorter, the numbers kept shrinking and as of February 2012, US Sugar is still alive and well in Clewiston, much to the relief of its 1,700 employees who depend on America’s sweet tooth to feed their families.
Clewiston’s slogan? “America’s Sweetest City.”