This town’s motto is "Her Soil is Her Fortune." The soil, called "muck," is the moist, dark earth where sugarcane thrives. Also called "black gold," the soil does indeed provide a financial fortune for the growers who have powerful influence on lawmakers and other important leaders.
The bittersweet irony is Big Sugar uses a process called "pre-harvest burning" to make its fortune. From October to April or May, the companies ignite huge fires in their fields to burn off so-called "trash," the outer leaves of the cane stalks, before harvesting.
The fires send billows of smoke and stench into the air. Ash rains down over four counties.
Impoverished residents of the western Everglades Agricultural Area, mostly low-income African-Americans and foreign temporary laborers, call the falling ash "black snow."
A small group of activists began meeting to find ways to encourage sugar growers to switch to "green harvesting," the use of machines and human labor rather than fire.
Hardly anyone listened to them or took them seriously.
Steve Messam, 35, one of the activists and an associate pastor at Glades Covenant Community Church in South Bay, was born in Belle Glade. He grew up taking his heavy breathing and allergy flare-ups for granted. Many neighbors and schoolmates had the same symptoms.
When he went to college in Michigan, his respiratory ailments disappeared. But when he returned for Christmas each year, his ailments also returned. Today, his wife and 4-year-old son have similar problems. His son uses a breathing machine during the burn season.
Messam said that in addition to causing medical problems, the emissions negatively impact residents’ quality of life. Homeowners are especially plagued by inconveniences and unnecessary expenses.
"There’s nothing like opening your door and being greeted by ash rushing into your home and over your body or going outside and seeing your car covered with it," he said. "I have to pressure clean my doors and porch at least once a year."
His home air conditioner filters should last three months or more, but he changes them monthly during the burn season.
"Pre-harvest burning is like having a bad next door neighbor who takes all his trash from his yard and throws it across the fence into your yard," he said. "We’re paying to clean up someone else’s trash."
Former South Bay Mayor Shanique Scott said she sees relatives and friends suffering from asthma, migraines and sinus and respiratory problems that worsen during burn season.
"When I walk out my front door, I see the black snow and smell the pollution," she said. "I’m appalled to see clouds of billowing smoke, not knowing if a neighbor’s home is on fire or if it’s just another day of sugarcane burning. I have difficulty breathing during the burning season."
Teachers such as Mariya Feldman share Scott’s experiences and outrage. Feldman, who has a master’s degree in environmental science, taught for two years in Pahokee, which is surrounded by cane fields and has a sugar refinery nearby.
She said most of her students showed symptoms of asthma during burn season.
"I had two students who would wear garbage bags over their heads to get to the school bus because of the burnings," she said. "I have spoken to parents who are angry that their children aren’t getting help from the exposure to the smoke. I spoke off-the-record to scientists and even with officials who told me these burnings are archaic. Ash falls in the school parking lot. Some days, it was unbearable for me to go from my car to the school because the smell from the burning would give me cramps in my lungs."
Feldman visited the U. S. Department of Agriculture in Palm Beach County on two consecutive days for answers, but no one was available to speak with her. She emailed sugarcane officials, but no one granted her an interview. She complained to the fire department. An official promised to "look into it." She called the Sheriff’s Office and was dismissed as being "naïve" for accusing Big Sugar of harming the environment, she said.
Local community activists, seeking attention for their cause, became hopeful after learning about a press conference in which the possible link between sugarcane burning and human health was a topic. Shortly afterward, the grassroots Stop the Burn campaign was initiated.
Sugar growers have accused the Sierra Club and the Stop the Burn campaign of trying to end agriculture south of Lake Okeechobee. They point out that they receive burn permits from the Florida Forest Service, and that air quality is good in counties such as Glades, Hendry and Palm Beach.
"Neither the Sierra Club nor local activists involved in the campaign want to destroy the sugar industry," said Patrick Ferguson of the Sierra Club. "A shift to green harvesting would benefit the industry in the long-term rather than put them out of business. Investing in the infrastructure to utilize the trash, instead of wasting it, would create more local jobs and provide new sources of revenue for sugar growers. Green harvesting is a win-win-win."