Residents of the Glades region near Lake Okeechobee are divided over health concerns of sugarcane harvesting. This ongoing tug-of-war is punctuated by a growing body of research that spells out the implications for people living near sugarcane fields. What do these efforts mean for South Florida and the future of its long-time sugar industry?
Residents of the Glades region near Lake Okeechobee are divided over health concerns of sugarcane harvesting. This ongoing tug-of-war is punctuated by a growing body of research that spells out the implications for people living near sugarcane fields.
Local environmental groups are organizing to stop pre-harvest burns in an effort to protect communities living near canefields, many of which are low-income and minority households.
What do these efforts mean for South Florida and the future of its long-time sugar industry?
This is Part Two of A Sugarcane Boiling Point, a three-part series about Florida’s sugarcane industry, harvesting practices and the rich heritage at stake.
Florida’s Forgotten Communities
Patrick Ferguson has received angry phone calls, addressed conspiracy theories and has struggled to find a rental space for his office.
Ferguson is the Organizing Representative for the Sierra Club’s “Stop Sugar Field Burning Now” campaign. The Sierra Club, an environmental group, has experienced significant pushback from the sugar industry for their role in organizing against pre-harvest burns.
“The number one barrier is the historical stigma propagated by the industry of not just the Sierra Club, but the larger environmental movement itself,” Ferguson said.
In Ferguson’s experience, the Sierra Club’s support for green harvesting has left many from the sugar industry filled with an existential fear for their livelihoods. For some, the suggestion of a shift in the industry signals the chance of a total collapse. But to Ferguson, the opportunity to transition to green harvesting—a farming practice that involves producing sugarcane without the use of fire—is a chance to revitalize the industry and move toward a future that is more sustainable.
“While the industry has erroneously claimed that the Stop the Burn Campaign is anti-farmer and directed at shutting down sugar production, the opposite is actually true,” Ferguson said. “A switch to green harvesting would actually make sugar production even more profitable and can create jobs and new economic opportunities in the communities surrounding the sugar fields.”
Ferguson points to examples of green harvesting in other countries like Brazil, Australia and Zimbabwe, and to nearby states like Louisiana. A range of options exist for the vegetative matter that Ferguson says is now “sent up in smoke in Florida” such as biofuels, tree-free products, biochar, compost and mulch.
“That’s why we’ve been really trying to educate the community on green harvesting and the fact that the industry is already green harvesting,” he said. “We let people know that a successful transition is certainly an investment for the industry in order to make it work.”
Ferguson has a legal background and a history of championing social justice causes. Before he joined the Sierra Club, he graduated with a law degree from Nova Southeastern University Law School.
“Far too often the Glades communities and the issues they face are unfortunately overlooked by the rest of the state. They are Florida’s forgotten communities.”
As a teenager, he attended Cardinal Gibbons High School in Ft. Lauderdale, where he played football in the same district as Glades Central Community High School in Belle Glade. From an early age, Ferguson was charmed by the hospitality of people from the Glades area.
“One thing that always stood out to me was they are very good team and they kicked our butts, but they always cooked for us afterwards,” he said.
When he accepted the position to organize against pre-harvest burns, he knew he would be fighting for the Glades communities, for those same people who he had respected since his youth. People who he believed were disproportionately bearing the negative health impacts that resulted from pre-harvest burning.
And there is data to back up Ferguson’s belief. The Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice screening and mapping tool measures a population’s vulnerability to environmental factors such as air quality, cancer risk and lead paint exposure, based on the population’s percentage of low-income and minority residents.
In the map below, the EPA findings show that compared to the rest of the state, the Glades region is in the 80th to 100th percentile of risk in terms of respiratory hazards.
“Far too often the Glades communities and the issues they face are unfortunately overlooked by the rest of the state. They are Florida’s forgotten communities,” Ferguson said. “You’re talking 40 miles east is West Palm, Mar-a-Lago. It’s a world away.”
And, in his opinion, the Glades’ children are some of the area’s most at-risk residents.
“It’s pretty disgusting and can get frustrating when you hear the same stories from parents and residents time and time again,” Ferguson said. “Doctors often tell people the best long-term solution is to move away from the community into an area with better year-long air quality, which is not something everybody can afford, nor want to do, and they shouldn’t have to.”
Kina Phillips, a South Bay resident who believes pre-harvest burns are negatively impacting her community’s health, is especially motivated by the effects on nearby schools. Her grandchildren still attend local schools—many of which have open layouts that easily let smoke in.
“The kids are still dealing with asthma in elementary schools,” she said.
She remembers her daughter coming home terrified when she was in fourth grade after a pre-harvest burn came so close to the school that the students thought the building was going to catch on fire.
“It’s right up to the gate,” she said of the cane proximity. “The kids were screaming. They were ready to go home. They were crying because they thought they were going to get burnt up.”
Phillips insists that she doesn’t expect the industry to change over night. She understands that the transition is likely to take some time and that some areas may be more conducive to green harvesting than others.
“We ain’t saying to just stop it altogether,” she said. “We’re willing to go through the process, but start around our schools and our homes. You know you got all the thousands of acres of sugarcane, and you are telling me you can’t at least green harvest around our community?”
From Hawaii to the Glades
In Christina Mnatzaganian’s research on the health impacts of pre-harvest sugarcane burns, she found that children and elderly populations are the most likely to experience health effects from smoke and particulate matter. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed this finding, and a wide body of research shows that negative health impacts are correlated with pre-harvest burns in many different countries, though no such studies have taken place in South Florida.
Mnatzaganian, an assistant clinical professor and program director at the University of California San Diego, studied the influence of cane burning on the health of Maui residents in areas exposed to burns.
What she found was that the more acres sugar farmers burned, the more prescriptions local residents picked up for issues related to respiratory health.
“This would be things like inhalers. It could be things like eye drops for allergic rhinitis. It could be nasal sprays,” Mnatzaganian said. “It could be anything related to any sort of respiratory flare or exacerbation.”
She found that when more than 108 acres were burned in a day, there was nearly a two and half fold increase in the number of prescriptions.
While the major impacts of the burns are related to respiratory issues, Mnatzaganian said previous research has shown a clear influence on the cardiovascular system as well, resulting in symptoms such as heart attack and stroke.
“It’s not disputed,” Mnatzaganian said of the health impacts of pre-harvest sugarcane burns. “The only thing that is disputed is: is it happening in your community? And I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be happening in [the Glades] community.”
Mnatzaganian’s research was published in 2015, and by late 2016, sugarcane was no longer grown in Maui. Though her research may have pushed cane farming to leave the island, a civil suit brought by Maui citizens against the local sugarcane company was underway around the same time and could have impacted the industry’s departure as well. Maui was formerly producing around 200,000 tons of cane annually.
Mnatzaganian pursued the project during a postgraduate residency training at the University of Hawaii School of Pharmacy. It was intended to be a one-year program, but ended up taking her four years because the project was so contentious.
“I always felt like why can’t there be compromise? No one would say that people have to go away, it’s how they harvest and the pre-harvest period that should change.”
One of the hospitals who had agreed to provide information for the project refused to do so again later.
“There were rumblings that someone high up in the hospital was intimately related to someone at the cane company, and so, of course, there was a conflict of interest,” she said.
The dean of her college also received a call insisting that Mnatzaganian end her research.
“There were many times when I was just like, ‘maybe we should give up; it’s impossible. We can’t get the data,’” Mnatzaganian said.
She also witnessed resistance from Maui residents who considered sugarcane farming part of their heritage.
“There is this strong sense of family, of ‘ohana, of respecting your elders, and for many families in Hawaii that brings back memories of their grandparents working there as cane workers,” Mnatzaganian said.
These cultural ties as well as the resistance to investigating health impacts mirror the dynamics of the Glades area in many ways. And just as Glades area farmers fear that a shifting industry means an eventual collapse, so did cane farmers in Hawaii. In Maui, the sugar fields have indeed disappeared, which begs the question: where does the future lie for South Florida sugarcane?
“I always felt like why can’t there be compromise?” Mnatzaganian said of the Maui sugar industry. “No one would say that people have to go away, it’s how they harvest and the pre-harvest period that should change.”
Photos provided by Patrick Ferguson and Christina Mnatzaganian. Graphic from the EPA Environmental Justice screening tool.