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Pre-Harvest Sugarcane Burning in western Palm Beach County, Florida, USA

The outdated practice of pre-harvest sugarcane burning in Florida compromises the health and safety of local communities and the environment in Palm Beach County and the Everglades Agricultural Area.


In 1991, the Department of Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) made changes to the state burning regulations, concentrating the negative impacts of burning sugar cane to those living in western Palm Beach County [1]. The new regulations did not allow sugarcane to be burned if the winds blew towards the eastern, more coastal cities but permitted burns if the wind blew towards the western black and brown communities [2]. These changes spare the more affluent citizens in the county while disproportionately impacting the poorer, minority communities. 

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Pre-Harvest Sugarcane Burning in western Palm Beach County, Florida, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Florida
Location of conflict:Western Towns of Palm County- Pahokee, Belle Glade, and South Bay
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Plantation conflicts (incl. Pulp
Specific commodities:Sugar
Project Details and Actors
Project details

The sugarcane industry has a big presence in Florida state. In 2016, the state of Florida was ranked first nationally in the value of sugar produced from sugarcane, accounting for 48% of the total US value of sugar from sugarcane and approximating $561 million. In 2016, over 400,000 acres of sugarcane were harvested in Florida. The harvest produced over 16 million tons of sugarcane and over 2 million tons of sugar [13]. Despite these large numbers, the overall production in the United States does not meet the overall consumption of sugar consumed. Approximately one-fifth of sugar consumed in the United States is imported [14]. In Florida, sugarcane has a very big presence in the agricultural crop economy. It is worth more economically than all the other field crops grown. In Florida’s overall crop economy sugar ranks fourth behind the greenhouse/nursery industry, vegetables, and citrus. The commercial sugarcane industry is located in South Florida by Lake Okeechobee. The organic soils near the lake, also known as muck soils, provides a fertile soil for cane [13]. Additionally, the lake has a warming influence on the soil and environment, so it is infrequent for cold temperatures, which are ideal for sugarcane. This region of south Florida also provides access to water and an abundant amount of sunshine, which also contribute to the ideal growing conditions [14]. The sugarcane is produced in Palm Beach, Hendry, Glades, Highlands, and Martin County. However, Palm Beach County accounts for the majority of Florida’s sugarcane production (75% of the tonnage and 70% of the acreage)[13].

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Level of Investment for the conflictive projectSugar companies earn hundreds of millions USD in annual revenue.
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:35,000-45,000
Start of the conflict:10/12/1991
Company names or state enterprises:Florida Crystals - A top sugarcane producer in Florida.
Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida (SCGC) from United States of America - A top sugarcane producer in Florida.
U.S. Sugar from United States of America - A top sugarcane company in Florida.
Relevant government actors:Nikki Fried- 12th Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Florida Forest Service
Department of Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS)
Claudia Chea- School District Director of Palm Beach County
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Sierra Club Stop the Burn Campaign
Earth Justice
Calusa Waterkeeper
Friends of the Everglades:
Florida Clinicians for Climate Action:
Miami Climate Alliance:
Florida Council of Churches:
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Recreational users
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Fires
Potential: Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming, Soil contamination, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Other Health impacts, Deaths
Potential: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Other Health impactsResearch indicates exposure to sugarcane burning emissions can cause respiratory ailments (asthma, bronchitis, and COPD), cancer, kidney disease, cardiac disease, high rates of preterm births, low birth weights, and infant mortality rates among pregnant mothers [1]. In fact, between 2010 and 2012 children born in Belle Glade fared worse than children in Palm Beach County on all birth indicators of the data collected [12]. In 2010, 13% of infants were low birth weight (compared with 9% in Palm Beach County), 19% of infants were born pre-term (compared with 14% in Palm Beach County), 34% of births were high risk (compared with 15% in Palm Beach County), and 14.4 infants died for every 1,000 live births (compared with 5.5 in Palm Beach County) [12].
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Violations of human rights
Potential: Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Loss of livelihood
Project StatusProposed (exploration phase)
Conflict outcome / response:Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (undecided)
Strengthening of participation
Under negotiation
Proposal and development of alternatives:The biggest alternative being proposed is green harvesting. The Sierra Club's "Stop the Burn Campaign" is a huge advocate of green harvesting replacing pre-harvest burns. Green harvesting has become a predominant practice around the world [1]. Brazil, Australia, Cuba, and Zimbabwe all used to rely on pre-harvest burns to harvest sugarcane but they have successfully switched over to green harvesting. This has created a very profitable market for sugarcane trash [1]. If the US sugar industry continues to use outdated practices they are missing out on profitable opportunities. The demand for organic sugar cane and clean renewable biomass energy (such as sugarcane ethanol, biodiesel, and biochar) will only continue to grow [1]. Green harvesting is presenting Big Sugar to “create new green jobs and contribute to a new era of prosperity for the Glades” [1].
Many other environmental organizations, including the Everglades Coalition, propose a 27-30 mile buffer around the impacted communities, which includes South Bay, Belle Glade, and Pahokee. No pre-harvest burns would be allowed to take place in the buffer [9].
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:Pahokee, Belle Glade, and South Bay continue to suffer from the smoke and ash caused by the pre-harvest burning. Even amid COVID-19, the 2020-2021 harvest season is proceeding, furthering the endangerment of the western Palm Beach residents. While there the class-action lawsuit is in process, this case exemplifies the power a well-established industry has. The sugar industry generously contributes to elected officials and candidates in public office, as well as funding pervasive lobbying operations, making it difficult to hold them responsible and accountable [12]. In October 2019, Commissioner Fried announced what “ she said were the first major changes to sugarcane burning regulations in nearly three decades” [3]. In August 2020, Fried announced the second phase intends to implement a training program for burners and revise the zones set up in the 1990s [3]. The changes are targeted to “reduce [the] potential smoke impact to all communities” and the revisions are planning to take effect in January 2021 [3]. However, the Sierra Club argues the changes do not fully protect the Florida residents living in the Glades [3]. Fried and the FDACS continue to drag their feet about holding the sugar industry accountable and keeping the residents in western Palm Beach County and the surrounding Glades area safe [3]. Re-zoning is a good start but is certainly not sufficient enough to solve this injustice. The next few years will truly dictate whether justice was served.
Sources & Materials
Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

[12] Third Amended Class Action Complaint
[click to view]

[1] Stop the Burn (2020). Retrieved November 10, 2020.
[click to view]

[3] Di Carli, Gilda. (August 19, 2020). Fire Drill. Type Investigations. Retrieved November 15, 2020.
[click to view]

[4] Rizzi, Corrado. (June 5, 2019). ‘Big Sugar’ Facing Class Action Lawsuit Over Alleged Environmental Effects from Pre-Harvest Sugarcane Burning in Florida. Retrieved November 17, 2020.
[click to view]

[5] Irigoyen, Emily. The Bitter Side of Sugar. Rachel Carson Council. Retrieved November 15, 2020.
[click to view]

[6] Guest, David. (December 4, 2015). Sugar Cane Burning Not So Sweet for Florida’s Residents. Retrieved November 16, 2020.
[click to view]

[7] Kukreja, Rinkesh. What is Particulate Matter. Conserve Energy Future. Retrieved November 10, 2020.
[click to view]

[8] Bloch, Sam and The Counter. (June 6, 2019). Florida sugar companies hit with lawsuit to halt the controversial practice of burning sugarcane. Retrieved November 10, 2020.
[click to view]

[9] Sierra Club Florida News. (April 27, 2020). Press Release: 200+ ORGANIZATIONS CALL ON AG COMMISSIONER FRIED TO END PRE-HARVEST SUGAR FIELD BURNING. Retrieved November 18, 2020.
[click to view]

[10] Sustainble Agricultural Fire Education. Florida’s Prescribed Burn Program & Sugarcane Harvesting: What You Need to Know. Retrieved November 18, 2020.
[click to view]

[11] Roby, Rose and Jeff Roby. (November 7, 2020). Sugarcane Nightmare: Our Children must not live in a Hazard Zone!. Retrieved November 18, 2020.
[click to view]

[13] Rott, P. et al. (May 2018). Florida Crop/Pest Profile: Sugarcane. Retrieved November 5, 2020.
[click to view]

[14] Baucum, L. E. and R. W. Rice. An Overview of Florida Sugarcane. Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Retrieved November 5, 2020.
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[2] Radar 2020 is a weekly news show that dives into current issues. On October 28, 2020, Lourdes Hurtado covers a story on the Black and Latinxs residents in Palm Beach, Florida, who are disproportionately affected by sugar cane burning in the region.
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Paige Karl, Skidmore College, [email protected]; Andrew J. Schneller, Skidmore College
Last update01/12/2020
Conflict ID:5226
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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