When I was told Chris King, a Democratic candidate for governor, would visit Belle Glade to meet local activists who are trying to persuade sugarcane farmers to change their pre-harvesting method, I wondered why he would invite the ire of the powerful industry.
Belle Glade, south of Lake Okeechobee, is one of Florida's poorest towns. Agricultural and conservative, it has a population of roughly 19,000. Only about 10 percent is white, and the median household income is $26,859.
Running a serious campaign for governor requires millions of dollars. King, a 39-year-old Harvard-educated Democrat and business owner, will not find much money in Belle Glade and in two other nearby towns, South Bay and Pahokee, together nicknamed The Muck.
"I traveled to Belle Glade," King said, "because I wanted to better understand the communities that live there, the challenges they face from sugarcane burning and why few leaders in our state have tried to understand this issue and figure out if there's a better way forward. For seven to eight months a year, and six to seven days a week, this community is on fire. I came away astonished, incredibly concerned and angry."
He is referring to pre-harvest burning, Big Sugar's method of igniting huge fires in their fields to burn off so-called "trash," the outer leaves of the cane stalks, before harvesting. Activists want growers to switch to "green harvesting," using machines and human labor instead of fire.
"Before my visit, I was aware that this was one of Florida's areas of greatest poverty and shameful treatment, but I don't think that prepared me for what I saw there," King said. "I've done charitable work in countries experiencing dire poverty across the world, but I never expected to view similar conditions in Palm Beach County. It unnerved me that in a county with tremendous wealth and resources, that prosperity has not been shared with the people who are helping to generate it."
Most news outlets that cover the area focus on environmental problems such as water levels in Lake Okeechobee and algae blooms in once-pristine waterways flowing east and west.
King said he wanted to know more after hearing about human health problems that are rarely addressed objectively.
"I learned that sugarcane burning has had real public health consequences for the families that live around the lake," King said. "Residents shared with me generations of concerns about respiratory illness, asthma and associated health problems from the air quality. I also learned they live in the one community in Florida where it snows seven months of the year thanks to the ash from sugarcane burning."
From October to April or May, pre-harvest burning sends up billows of toxic smoke and stench that come down over four counties. Local residents call the falling ash from the process "black snow."
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Since King will not grab many voters in The Muck, I asked him to explain what he hoped to gain from the visit.
He said few politicians acknowledge the "extraordinary poverty" in the area, and even fewer have the courage to take on Big Sugar, the industry that has created some of the very conditions residents face.
"What's happening in Belle Glade is at the intersection of race, poverty and environmental neglect and justice, and our state has turned a blind eye to the public health and economic impacts of sugar cane burning," he said. "Since my visit, I've asked myself why, and it's because one industry, sugar, has a vise grip on Florida politics."
If elected, he said he would make "substantial efforts" to get the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to conduct research and publish the findings on the public health effects of sugarcane burning on communities around Lake Okeechobee.
"The issue in Belle Glade and other communities around the lake is that the sugar industry has told us that if we begin using green technologies and innovation on pre-harvest burning, which are proven to be better for people, we will hurt the economy. I reject that premise and false choice."