Food

The Sugar Industry's Assault on the Environment and Florida's Politics

A recent move by Florida Governor Charlie Crist to take land out of sugar production to help save the Everglades is monumental on so many levels.

Put it down, etched in granite: Florida Governor Charlie Crist took land out of sugar production to help save the Everglades. There is one exceptional fact to this achievement, memorialized on Oct. 12. Crist engineered this critical initiative for the environment despite the opposition of Florida Crystals or New Hope Sugar, owned by the Fanjul family. Nothing like that has ever happened before in Florida. Why this political event deserves a monument illuminates the dark politics engulfing the nation.

Sugar is grown on about 700,000 acres around the southern rim of Lake Okeechobee. Originally, it was all Everglades. Any hope of realizing the nation's keystone environmental initiative depends on hugely expensive application of technology and science to vast new cleansing marshes built from lands owned by sugar billionaires. Although there are small sugar farmers who are politically active, it is really the Big Two who provide the energy and funding for the industry in the halls of power: US Sugar and sugar companies owned by the Fanjuls, including Domino Sugar. The Fanjuls are US Sugar's only similarly scaled competitor. That said, the nation's biggest sugar producers are 99 percent of the time on the same side of politics and positions opposed to environmental regulation.

The water supply requirements of sugar production -- flood control in the wet season and supply during the dry -- is out of sync with the natural Everglades. Keeping it that way enhances sugar profits. At the same time, fertilizer runoff and chemicals released by the exposure of wetlands to extensive drying have massively polluted the Everglades. These factors converted the Everglades from a multi-billion dollar economic engine including fisheries, estuaries, and natural habitats valued by the nation into a resiliant if flickering shadow. At the same time, Big Sugar has used its profits to become the main obstacle to restoring America's River of Grass.

Crist's accomplishment was historic, albeit on a much reduced scale from his original plan; 187,000 acres at a cost of $1.75 billion. Crist appointees at the water management district -- mostly Republicans -- saw the moment through, despite the chaos organized by the Fanjuls. For doing the right thing -- Crist's own words, why he conceived the deal -- GOP insiders hounded him from the party. Fanjul interests were early and big contributors to Marco Rubio; the Republican candidate for US Senate. In July, Pepe Fanjul hosted a fundraiser for Rubio, at $42,500 per ticket.

For many decades, the public purpose of converting sugar lands from production in order to remove pollution has been like trench warfare. Fanjul lobbyists, lawyers and experts have been armed to the gills; all pointing in one direction; delay, delay and more delay. Even after selling property to government, they pushed to the final dotted 'i', working behind the scenes to hobble environmental agencies from within, whether threatening funding cuts, cajoling, intimidating and applying pressure at any point of weakness.

Lately, in the case of the US Sugar purchase, regular meetings of the water district governing board have been disrupted by anti-tax zealots, funded by the Fanjuls, dressed as the Tea Party with only the vaguest idea who their talking points benefit. As well documented in radical publications like the Wall Street Journal, the wealth of the sugar billionaires exists as a function of corporate welfare; import quotas, price supports, and other subsidies that occur through a malleable Congress and the Florida legislature. The Fanjuls protect their prerogatives with campaign contributions. For example, in the US Senate race one Fanjul patriarch supports Kendrick Meek and the other, Marco Rubio. Recently, Pepe Fanjul was tagged by national news for employing as executive assistant for thirty five years a woman married to a prominent leader of KKK and of the American Nazi Party.

The Fanjuls say the Crist deal is a collossal waste of taxpayer money. But in the scientific community, there is unanimous agreement that the highest priority for the Everglades is to add vast acres of new treatment marshes. These cleansing areas, funded by the public, will clean sugar's pollution because the Florida legislature will not make the polluters pay. As to waste of taxpayer money, that has the Tea Partier's charging to District meetings with their hair on fire, no one has the guts to explain to them how the Farm Bill is what keeps the billions flowing into the pockets of special interests to commandeer our representative democracy.

For the most part, environmental insiders have been silent on the influence of the Fanjuls because the family owns lands that, hopefully, in the future will join to lands acquired through the US Sugar purchase. In other words, unless the Fanjuls fundamentally change their strategy -- squeezing the last dime from their private property and selling only when the peat soil is too exhausted to produce -- Everglades restoration will be hobbled.

Whether or not it was the best deal -- Charlie Crist did something that no national politician, either Democrat or Republican has ever done. He did the right thing for Florida and for the Everglades. Bill Clinton who is Alfie Fanjul's golfing partner, wouldn't do it. Nor would Bob Graham whose willingness to do the Fanjuls' bidding opened a gaping hole in plans to restore the Everglades. Nor Bill Nelson who sticks to bland Everglades talking points neat as Mitch McConnell's hairstyle. It is still the Fanjuls tinkering with dark science. In the press you will read their spin: how the US Sugar purchase takes away from restoration. The backstory is how the Fanjuls funded, in the early 1990's, Wise Use activists to suppress environmental regulations, tying knots in a line straight to today's Tea Party, how the Fanjuls funded African American churches and leaders to oppose the polluter pay referendums and scared off President Clinton in the mid 1990's, how Governor Jeb Bush connived, at urging of Fanjul funded lobbyists, to change water quality standards for the Everglades in 2003 now judged to be violations of federal law, happily using the occasion to divide Florida's environmental community. These are all chapters along the way to Gov. Charlie Crist's acquisition of US Sugar lands.

Does the Tea Party really want to put badges of honor on polluters? Come November 2nd, America will have its answer in Florida.

 

 

Alan Farago lives in Coral Gables, Florida. He is a board member of Friends of the Everglades.
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