Ending cane cultivation could save this environmental jewel
US Sugar buyout -- sweet deal for the Everglades?
Could sugar planters raise cane profitably if we collected payments of rent plus upfront an Ecology Security Deposit and required Restoration Insurance and emission permits for runoff of fertilizers and pesticides? Maybe not. Certainly not, if we ended the embargo against Cuba -- where sugar grows far more bountifully -- a near half-century old violation of free trade, at the behest, in part, of US sugar-land owners. Barring basic justice, this 2008 article by The Christian Science Monitor of August 20, which we trim and amend, covers the next best thing.
by Patrik Jonsson, Staff writerBanged out in secret meetings, a $1.75 billion taxpayer-funded plan to buy 187,000 acres of US Sugar's cane fields in the Lake Okeechobee basin marks one of the largest conservation buyouts of a major industry in the US, promising to break a major chokehold on the slowly dying Everglades.
In a state usually more generous toward land-speculators than swamp falcons, the buyout suggests a major change of political direction on behalf of the state's fragile backwaters -- or a backroom deal among political and industrial interests.
The main players include a powerful sugar corporation looking for financial liquidity in a tight global sugar market -- perhaps to finance entry into new businesses; Governor Crist, who is aiming for an environmental legacy that could help his GOP vice-presidential bid; powerful environmental groups with growing clout in the capitol, Tallahassee; and a necklace of poor farm communities with few new opportunities.
Taking huge chunks of cane country out of agricultural use would not only reduce the amount of damaging fertilizers, but could also provide up to 1 million acre feet of water needed to manage in- and out-flows to the dying fringes of the “River of Grass”.
The Everglades needs at least 5 million more acre feet of water capacity in order to thrive.
If finalized, the buyout would culminate the effort to restore the Everglades that was sparked by a 1988 lawsuit against the state by former US Attorney Dexter Lehtinen.
Damaging as growing sugar may be, it’s the only employment for many rural poor. As many as 11,000 of them could lose their present farm-related jobs. "This is unprecedented in terms of a state buyout of a private company for the purposes of conservation," says University of Florida economist Alan Hodges.
To many farm families, the purchase is a sellout of a patch of Old Florida, an attack on the state's poorest, least politically powerful counties. "They removed the mangroves, filled in the swamplands, and inhabited the barrier islands," says Butch Jones, a Glades County commissioner. "If you want to put Florida back like it used to be, those areas should also" be reverted, he says.
Farmers say they're unfairly being held out as scapegoats for a statewide, even national, issue: water management. The influx of 16 million new residents to Florida since 1960 has consumed and polluted far more water.
Last week, Federal District Judge Federico Moreno handed Gov. Crist's plan a victory when he rejected a motion by the Everglades-dwelling Miccosukee tribe of Indians to restart construction of a $750 million reservoir. According to court testimony and local news reports, the state stalled construction on the reservoir in part because it needs the cash to finance the buyout.
The Miccosukee say the reservoir would provide more rapid relief than the 10 years it likely would take for the US Sugar buyout to restore their water resource.
Eventually, evicting cane growers could lead to reducing -- in Big Sugar's case -- $2 billion in annual subsidies from Uncle Sam.
JJS: Rural folk could forget anti-nature jobs if they, and everyone else, were to receive a Citizens Dividend, an equitable share of the value of all the land and resources in society. To recover those rents, we could shift taxes off wages, off business and sales, off buildings, and instead charge for holding land, extracting resources, and polluting the environment. This green tax shift would rearrange incentives, make our economies and land use efficient, so that we all could both prosper and conserve.
Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.
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