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)

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