Notebook: Exiles battle for a home in Everglades

An $8bn plan to restore the natural flow of Florida's `river of grass' would displace Cuban refugees who have nowhere else to go

This is Miami? There are no skyscrapers, no beaches and no beautiful bodies on roller-blades. Here there are avocado and mango trees, burly cowboys riding horses and rough roads without lights. Yes, Miami. But this is the forgotten edge of the city, where there are no public services, like sewage or rubbish collection, and where the only noise comes from the birds and the occasional roar of a rancher's pick-up.

Except that suddenly the section of rural land they call the Eight-and- a-Half Square Mile Area isn't forgotten any more. Instead, it and its 1,600-odd residents, almost all refugees from Cuba, are at the epicentre of a mighty political fight. And that fight is threatening to derail one of the largest environmental improvement projects ever undertaken: the restoration of the Everglades.

The Area is at once enchanted and blighted. It is a place where Julio Concepcion and his wife, Noemi, tend to a million honey bees. Where Wenceslao Aguilera herds cattle and breeds horses, partly for money but mostly for love. And where Jorge Rodriguez owns a stables for riding enthusiasts from the city.

They and others are in the Area for a shared reason: because land they used to own was taken from them by a man called Castro; and because they fled Castro and came to America, most of them in open boats. Julio made the journey twice - after crossing the straits once in 1962 he did it again to fetch his mother. Jorge was a former anti-Castro guerrilla, who was freed after 15 years in prison in 1980.

But the Area is blighted, because it shouldn't exist. Or, at least, people should not be living in it. It is just on the western side, the wrong side, of the levee that separates Miami from the marshes of the Everglades. And now, as Congress considers a plan submitted by President Clinton this month to spend $8bn returning the natural water flows to the Everglades, they are being asked to leave. In other words, to bow to government and relinquish their homes and their land for a second time.

All agree that the project is important. The Everglades have been choking for decades, largely because of mistakes committed more than half a century ago when the US Corps of Engineers built a web of canals and levees in the so-called "River of Grass" that was meant to regulate its flow and protect Miami and the surrounding settlements from flooding. Under the new 20-year plan, which requires congressional approval, many of those levees and canals would be dismantled to allow the Everglades to flourish again.

And to achieve that, the Eight-and-a-Half Square Mile Area must be depopulated and flooded again. Or so say environmentalists and the people of the National Park itself. Thus, last November, the commissioners of the local water management district voted in secret to launch a mandatory buy-out of all who live in the area. And that was when the arguments began. The residents of the Area insist that there is no need for the flooding. On their side they have some powerful arguments and supporters.

"If this was really necessary for the Everglades then I would accept it," says 52-year-old Wenceslao, known to everyone as Lao. "But everything shows that it isn't necessary. We are going to fight because we know we are in the right." His sister-in-law, Ibel Aguilera, heads an alliance of local residents who are waging war on the commissioners. "I think they're going to have to send in the National Guard to get us out of here," she warns.

The Cubans have this on their side: in 1992, the US Congress approved an earlier, less ambitious, restoration plan that specifically stated that instead of flooding the Area, the government should build a new levee around it as protection from newly rising waters. But work on the levee was never even begun.

The stakes are huge for the Cubans and for the Everglades. Until the matter is resolved, most of the restoration project will remain stymied. "This is the most ambitious environmental restoration in human history," remarked Joette Lorian, who was president of the Friends of the Everglades until she resigned last year because of the dispute over the Area. "We cannot get fixated on things that are going to stop us from moving forward. It is an obsession with a tiny area in a system covering 18,000 square miles."

Lending his voice to the Area's cause is Lt Terry Rice, a hydrologist and commander of the Corps of Engineers until 1997. "There is no reason that these people should be moved out. In fact, moving them out may make things worse." He, too, is concerned that the fight over the Area is threatening the entire restoration effort. "Since 1992 we have absolutely moved nowhere".

Last month, the Water District was forced to shelve the buy-out decision in the face of a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Cubans by an unlikely ally, the tiny Miccosukee Indian tribe, whose reservation is on the north edge of the Everglades. The Miccosukee believe that nothing will be done to save the River of Grass, their sacred land, until the issue of the Eight-and-a-Half Square Mile Area is resolved. And the fastest way to do that, they concluded, would be to build the levee that was promised in 1992.

Their victory may be a brief one. With the park and the environmental community leaning on them, the water commissioners may soon resurrect the buy-out proposal. But the prospect of eviction is more than most here can contemplate.

"We have a tranquillity that you will find nowhere else," argues Lao as he takes me on a tour of the Area in his roofless Ford pick-up. "Look," he says. "Look how beautiful it is." Noemi, who is collecting honey from rows of brightly painted hives, is clear: "My husband doesn't leave the bees. Never, no way". Would Jorge, a tall and handsome man with a right hand contorted from a bullet wound suffered in prison, abandon his stables? He replies fiercely, stretching his command of English to the limit: "Hell, no."

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