How Big Sugar sours the Everglades: Business is under fire from environmentalists over Florida's polluted 'River of Grass', reports David Usborne in Loxahatchee

IT LOOKS an unlikely battleground. As we skim in our noisy airboat across the brackish waters and myriad lily pads, all but running down the occasional dozing alligator, no evidence of humankind seems visible. We are in the heart of the Florida Everglades, one of the largest and most precious wetland areas on the globe. As ever, appearances can be deceptive.

The Everglades, environmental scientists attest, is in a mess, and humans are responsible. The murky swathe of water and sawgrass that once covered most of the southern tip of Florida - the fabled 'River of Grass' - has been nibbled away by urban spread, starved of fresh water and poisoned by agricultural run-off. Today, only about half of the original 4 million acres of wetland remains and 56 animal species are endangered, including the almost extinct Florida panther and the American crocodile.

Now calls are being made to reverse the Everglades' decline. Even in this, however, mankind is hardly distinguishing itself. A ferocious squabble has broken out between the environmentalists and America's mighty sugar growers.

The sugar industry, which occupies most of the superbly fertile Everglades Agricultural Area, a collar of 550,000 acres of drained land that separates the Everglades from Lake Okeechobee to the north, has been identified as a principal sinner in the affair, because of leeching of high levels of phosphorus from its farms.

Into the melee has waded the Clinton administration, determined to broker a solution to the 'sugar war' as a symbol of its avowed commitment to correcting environmental wrongs. At an Everglades conference two weeks ago, the US Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbit, said that saving the area from destruction constituted the 'ultimate test case' of whether human economic activity and the needs of neighbouring ecosystems could be reconciled.

'This is a remarkable coincidence of history, geology, biology and natural systems,' he argued. 'All of these issues come together here in an intense, compressed way that provides no avenue of escape except by directly confronting the issue of how we live in balance with that system.'

In truth, the US government historically must bear the blame for the Everglades' sickness. In the late 1940s, it financed the digging by the Army Corps of Engineers of a network of canals to control and direct the water flows. While the work succeeded in averting flooding and assisting irrigation, it plugged the traditional flows into and through the Everglades.

This has contributed to the gradual degradation of Florida Bay between the mainland peninsula and the Florida Keys. As the salinity of the bay has risen, so in recent years huge algae blooms have grown and fishing stocks have begun to vanish. America's only living coral reef, on the ocean side of the Keys, may also be in peril.

But nothing may be done until peace is made with the three sugar combines, which dominate the Agricultural Area. Last year, the government tried to negotiate an agreement, under which the three would pay dollars 100m ( pounds 66m) each towards a 20-year restoration programme. This would include re-establishing some of the natural water flows and creating huge marshes, partially on the growers' own land, to filter out the phosphorus which washes naturally from the tilled soil and from artificial fertilisers.

The talks foundered before Christmas, but this month one of the trio, Flo-Sun, struck a deal of its own and agreed to pay its share. But the other two, including the biggest of them all, United States Sugar, are holding out.

On our airboat, a sort of flat-bottomed dinghy with an aeroplane propeller mounted on the back, Mark Maffei, my pilot and a senior biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, points to the most striking evidence of the pollution: large expanses of cat-tails, a water grass much taller and more dense than the indigenous sawgrass, which destroys the habitats of most of the natural plant and animal life. The cat-tail, which thrives on phosphorus fertilisation, is invading close to one-tenth of the entire Everglades system.

'We're watching it get poisoned,' laments Mr Maffei, who advised the government in last year's negotiations. 'We know how to stop the flow of poison, but people are arguing about it being too expensive.'

The environmentalists despair of the sugar growers. Even the Flo-Sun deal, in their view, falls far short of what the growers should do to compensate for the damage. 'Nothing the government has tried to negotiate so far has come close to making them pay their fair share,' complains Tom Martin, director of the National Audubon Society's Everglades campaign. He has launched a petition to impose a 'penny-per-pound' state tax on the sugar growers, which could raise dollars 34m a year.

Targeting 'Big Sugar', as the three companies are collectively known, is politically almost risk-free. The industry is widely considered arrogant and unduly protected. Mr Martin contends that of the 535 members of the House of Representatives, 435 have at some time received money from the sugar industry. The government- maintained import quotas have the effect of subsidising sugar production to the tune of 10-15 cents a pound. Mr Martin believes the three can 'well afford' the penny-per-pound tax.

US Sugar's senior vice- president, Bob Buker, begs to differ. Seated in the company headquarters in Clewiston - 'the Sweetest Town in America' - Mr Buker disputes every point. The agenda, he believes, is to drive the growers from the land entirely. The proposed tax alonewould achieve that. 'It would put us out of business, and it is designed to.'

In fact, the company is already experimenting with limiting phosphorus levels, and Mr Buker hints that it may follow Flo-Sun into a deal. 'We would very much like to resolve the issues, but we have to resolve them in a long-term way, in a way that we feel we can survive,' he says.

Settling with Big Sugar in itself will not save the Everglades. But it may at least allow the rescue operation to begin.

(Photograph omitted)

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Danish director Lars von Trier
tvEnglish-language series with 'huge' international cast set for 2016
Life and Style
tech
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 3 Teacher Cornwall

£23500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 3 Primary Teacher...

HR Generalist (standalone) - Tunbridge Wells - £32,000

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Generalist (standalone) - Tunbrid...

Year 3 Teacher Plymouth

£23500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 3 Primary Teacher...

Junior Software Developer - Newcastle, Tyne & Wear - £30,000

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Junior Web Developer / J...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering