This week, due to the inspiration of small book my mother handed me, I have been exploring the history, and political change encompassing the sugar industry. Monday, I wrote about Cuba; Tuesday, I wrote about the Calusa Indians, pioneers, and workers; and yesterday, I wrote about the pond apple forest that used to border the southern rim of Lake Okeechobee.
Today, based on chapter 29 of Lawrence E. Will’s 1968 book, “Swamp to Sugar Bowl, Pioneer Days in Belle Glade,” I will briefly write about the evolution of labor practices in Florida’s sugar industry and how public pressure led to the mechanization of the industry. For me, the mechanization of the sugar Industry is a metaphor for change for our St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon.
The point of this journey is to learn our history and to remind ourselves that even the “worst of circumstances” can be improved. I believe, that one day, we too, will see improvement of the government sponsored destruction of the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon from Lake Okeechobee. Our relation to the sugar industry? For those who may not know.. .Their location blocks the flow of Lake Okeechobee’s waters flowing south to the Everglades.
Before I start, I must say that “everyone has a history,” and the history of the world is mostly “not a pretty one.” This goes for me as well. Parts of my family have been here before the American Revolution, and a few of my ancestors owned slaves. I have read the wills these relatives handing down their slaves from one generation to the next like these souls were pieces of furniture. It is retched. It is uncomfortable. It is immoral. But to forget, is not the answer. It is important to know our own history and the history of businesses in our state no matter how difficult. As is said, we must “Never Forget…” Slavery and the extermination of Florida’s native peoples “is the ground we sit on,” and our job today is to continue to make this world, and our living waters a “better place.”
So, let’s begin.
The history of sugarcane has “roots” all over the world, but in our area it is connected to the Caribbean. I recommend a book entitled: “History of the Caribbean,” by Frank Moya Pons.
The basis of this book is the extermination of the Arawak Indians due to colonization and the bloody wars on both sides of the Atlantic over control of the region’s lucrative sugar market . The Arawaks were native to the Caribbean. When they were unwilling slaves for the Europeans, and died as a race due to european-brought diseases, African slaves were brought in to replace them.
After centuries involving world political struggles for “sugar dominance,” and with the rise of the United States and the horrible world wars, sugar came to be seen as “national security issue,” not just a food source as it can be used for the making of explosives/weapons. As we know, over the centuries, through political strategy, the United States rose as a power in sugar production, as Cuban dominance declined.
The apex of this shift in our area was around 1960. For reference, my husband, Ed, came to this county when he was four, with his family from Argentina, in 1960, the Perons had been in power; and I was born in California, at Travis Air Force Base in 1964. It was the Vietnam Era.
The Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee where the sugar industry resides expanded the most it ever has around this time. To quote Mr Lawrence E. Wills:
“when Fidel Castro took over Cuba, (1958) the Everglades reaped the benefit. For a short time our government permitted the unrestricted planting of sugar cane …and before that time, under the U.S government’s regulations, the state of Florida was permitted to produce only nine-tenths of one percent of the nation’s needs.”
The US government helped the sugar industry grow and for “a reason:” Power. Influence. National Security. Food Source. Weapons. This is heavy currency in world politics and it is achieved at any expense….here in south Florida, it was achieved at the expense of the uneducated and poor worker.
Chapter 29 of Mr Will’s book is entitled, “Harvest of Shame.”
Mr Wills writes about a television documentary that was released on Thanksgiving Day in 1960. Mr Wills says the piece is “sensationalized.” It was produced by the Columbia Broadcasting System, presented by Edgar R. Murrow and sponsored by Philip Morris Cigarette Company. Certainly the piece was “sensationalized,” but undoubtedly there was also truth regarding the difficult conditions for migrant workers.
What is important here, is that the explosive public reaction to the documentary pressured the sugar industry to move towards mechanization, which they achieved just over thirty years later around 1992.
As the industry moved towards this goal, other problems ensued, such as H-2 program changes. With claims that the local labor force “could not,” or “would not” do the back-breaking work of cutting the sugar cane with machete, the H-2 program allowed the sugar industry to hire foreign workers, mostly from the Caribbean, especially Jamaica, who as we already know had a history with this difficult work.
The rub for labor activists was that these workers could be deported if they did not “produce.” They could be shipped out and replaced. Some called this a form of modern slavery. An award-winning documentary, on this subject, H-2 Worker, was produced by Stephanie Black in 1990. She points out that although the sugar industry had basically achieved mechanization by this time, others had not. (http://www.docurama.com/docurama/h-2-worker/)
The sugar industry moved to mechanization because of public outcry. Of course it is more complicated than that and is driven by economics, nonetheless, it was a huge factor. With more outcry regarding our St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon, the same thing could happen. Change. More water flowing south. A flow way. A reservoir. Lands to clean, store and convey water south….fewer, or no more polluted/toxic releases into the St Lucie River/IRL…
To deviate just a bit before I close, we may ask ourselves, how could this happen? Slavery? Mistreatment of workers? Destruction of the environment?
Well, the answer is the same today as it was in 1500; it happens because government allows, supports, and encourages it. The U.S. Department of Labor, the United States Department of Agriculture and others. Some right under our nose.
Remember, today’s state and federal agencies are made up of people; people are hired by government entities; government entities are directed by politicians, and politicians are voted for by the people. It all starts with us.
Make sure your voice is heard, and vote accordingly.
History is in the making, and somewhere out there, there is a better water future for the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon!
Another source for this post and excellent reading is “Raising Cane in the ‘Glades, The Global Sugar Trade and the Transformation of Florida,” by Gail M. Hollander. (http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/R/bo5704198.html)
Labor Cost and Sugarcane Mechanization in Florida: NPV and Real Options Approach (http://migrationfiles.ucdavis.edu/uploads/cf/files/conference_may_2008/iwai_emerson-labor_cost_and_sugarcane_mechanization_in_florida-npv_and_real_options_approach.pdf)
Public Information on H-2 Lawsuit: (http://www.leagle.com/decision/19951403660So2d743_11274.xml/OKEELANTA%20CORP.%20v.%20BYGRAVE)