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Pollution from sugar farming burns area residents

Controlled burning of a sugar cane field before cutting. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)
Controlled burning of a sugar cane field before cutting. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

One of the world’s biggest sugar companies has been barred from selling in the United States for the past three months.

The U.S. imposed the ban on the Central Romana Corporation around Thanksgiving. News reports showed abusive conditions for its workers in the Dominican Republic, and a Customs and Border Protection investigation found indications the company used forced labor.

Journalist Sandy Tolan and his reporting partner Euclides Cordero Nuel exposed the abusive conditions for the sugar farm workers in stories funded by the Pulitzer Center for Reveal, Mother Jones and The Intercept. Tolan’s U.S. coverage of sugar farming for Living on Earth built on findings that farming practices in Florida sugar fields make nearby residents sick.

A family of billionaire sugar barons — the Fanjul family — owns nearly 200,000 acres of sugar fields in South Florida. They’re one owner of Central Romana Corporation. Those fields are less than an hour’s drive west of Mar-a-Lago and the glitzy Palm Beach area. But they feel like a world away.

The community surrounding the sugar crop is known as Muck City —  it’s like a company town where sugar is king. The Fanjul family’s sugar companies, including Florida Crystals, provide jobs and fund sports teams and scholarship programs. But one of the farming practices includes pre-harvest burning in the sugar fields. The burning expedites the harvesting process, but wreaks havov on the surrounding environment.

“It sends these giant clouds of ash up into the air and literally tons and tons of it drifts over Muck City,” Tolan says.

Area residents call it black snow. It settles down “onto the people, their houses, their cars and into their lungs,” Tolan says. And it is toxic. “It has residues of formaldehyde and benzene, which are both carcinogenic.”

Tolan’s reporting for Living on Earth includes the voices of area residents talking about the effects of the pre-harvest burning. They describe it getting on their clothes and in their hair, food and drinks. They say the black snow blocks the sun at times.

“There have been so many people talking about more nebulizers for kids, COPD machines, terrible headaches, strange rashes,” Tolan says.

Tolan says this underscores environmental injustice in the area. Permits for the burning are not allowed when the wind is blowing toward the affluent communities. It is allowed when the wind is blowing to the mostly Black Muck City.

“Of all the stunning things about this story, that one probably struck me the most,” Tolan says.

Environmental activists, community organizers and Black Lives Matter protesters have teamed up to form a Stop the Burn Coalition in Muck City.

Florida Crystals declined repeated requests for a recorded interview. They did offer a written statement describing how the company has provided jobs, founded two charter schools and contributed philanthropically to the Glades communities for years.

The company’s statement says air quality monitors show “the area where sugarcane is farmed has some of the best air quality in the State of Florida.” And it says “Florida Crystals’ vision is to be the most sustainable sugarcane company in the world.”

In an attempt to get someone in the sugar industry to agree to recorded interview, Tolan caught up with a Florida state lawmaker who is also a sugar grower.

“We’ve been doing cane burning ever since the industry got going in the early 1960s. Burning is not dangerous to your health unless you’re standing out in it and trying to breathe it,” Republican State Rep. Rick Roth says. “It’s not an air quality issue. I don’t think it’s a health issue.”

Then Tolan asked about the issue of environmental inequality in burning permits and the pollution of Muck City.

“The regulations are done to do the least amount of harm possible,” Roth says.


Shirley Jahad produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Jahad also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.