The sugar industry has just rammed Senate Bill 88 (SB88) through the Florida State Legislature and they are now finishing their dirty work with the House version (HB1601).
Every year, the Sugar industry sets its cane fields on fire as a quick way to burn off the leaves and speed up the harvest. Once again, walls of fire rise from 30 to 40 feet in the air, creating smoke plumes a half-mile high. They bombard the largely Black and Latino towns of Belle Glade, Pahokee, South Bay and Canal Point with Black Rain.” The greasy, sticky, toxic ash covers everything during the burning season for 26 miles.
Once again, residents in the afflicted areas are fighting the corporate behemoths. A grassroots organization called Stop the Burn has worked since 2015 with Sierra Club Organizing Representative Patrick Ferguson to stop the ravages, demanding that State of Florida expand the “buffer zone” separating the cane fields from local communities, and that they replace the burning with a safe method known as “green harvesting.” The Berman Law Group is pursuing a suit on behalf of area residents, charging that nine Defendant corporations have been negligent and/or reckless in carrying out their burning.
Now, with SB88 and HB1601, the industry and its paid-for minions in Tallahassee are striking back. Their legislation would prohibit what they call “nuisance lawsuits’ from being filed by anyone owning property that is not within one-half mile of the alleged violations. It would limit damages to what could be awarded to the market value of any property damaged. It would also require people who file lawsuits to show by “clear and convincing evidence” that individual farms had not complied with state and federal environmental laws.
One Republican Representative claimed, “if we make it too expensive and too difficult to farm, we aren’t going to have farms in Florida.” Another said they had to “narrow the focus” to individuals affected by a particular farm.
But Deb Foote, acting chapter director for Sierra Club Florida, testifying on March 30 before the Florida House Judiciary Committee, noted that “Forest Service maps show that particles can travel up to 25 to 30 miles outside of where the actual burn is happening. This bill will silence any future claims.”
Other community residents added their voices in opposition to the legislation. “I’ve known families that have had to relocate from the Glades,” explained Sister Laura Cavanaugh, testifying for Stop the Burn.
“Kids walk back and forth from their homes to school and are breathing in the smoke and the soot.”
“We are asking the Committee to protect us from the immoral practices of that industry,” stated Colin Walkes, former mayor of Pahokee. “We citizens who are directly affected are asking that the redress or recourse we can take if we are harmed by the industry must not be taken away from us.”
Ironically, there is no real need for the growers to continue this barbaric practice. “Green harvesting” is economically sound. It would create jobs by requiring workers to gather the stripped off leaves for use with other products. It would allow our communities to breathe.
In fact, Florida Big Sugar’s practices have become an anomaly in the industry. Brazil, the world leader in sugar cane production, has almost totally converted to green harvesting. 85% of Australia’s crop is harvested green. Thailand, the world’s 4th largest producer, will abolish burning in the next two years. And even Louisiana green harvests 65% of its crop. Can Florida do no better?