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


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. 

As a whole, Palm Beach County consists of approximately 20% black residents, 23% Hispanic, and 57% white residents [1]. Pahokee, South Bay, and Belle Glade, the three towns that represent the western side of the county on Lake Okeechobee, consist of approximately 60% black residents, 27% Hispanic residents, and 13% white residents [1]. Additionally, as a whole Palm Beach County has under 10% of its total residents living in poverty, while 40% of Belle Glade residents, the largest western town, live below the poverty line [1,3].   

Pre-harvest burning is not a new process; in fact, it is outdated and there are other, greener practices to harvest sugarcane. However, it still is the preferred method by the sugar industry because it reduces transportation costs and makes the harvest process quicker and easier (removes excess biomass, reduces insect and snake intrusion, causes water evaporation which increases sugar content) [4]. The sugarcane stalks are heavy because they’re water-rich.  When the plant is burned the leaves fall off and just the stalks remain, which greatly reduces the plant’s weight. The burning also releases harmful byproducts of smoke, soot, and ash into the air [5]. In one year, the sugarcane burning process can emit over 2,800 tons of hazardous air pollutants [6]. Some of these pollutants include particulate matter (including PM 2.5 and PM 10), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) (such as Benzene), Carbonyls (specifically Formaldehyde), Green House Gases (Carbon Dioxide, Carbon Monoxide, and Nitrogen Oxide), and various Dioxins [1]. Despite the environmental and health consequences of these pollutants, the companies still choose to burn sugarcane [5]. Compared to the rest of the United States, Florida has the most crop burning residue emissions. They emit “17% of the total national CO2, CO and PM2.51 emissions, 12% of all annual PM10 emissions, and 9.5% of all CH4 emissions from crop residue burning” [4].   

The soot and ash released into the air vary in size. The EPA defines inhalable coarse particles as particles ranging from 2.5-10 micrometers in diameters and fine particles usually found in haze and smoke range in diameters up to 2.5 micrometers [7]. Both of which are released during pre-harvest burning. Particulate matter is one of the deadliest forms of air pollution because of its ability to penetrate the lungs and bloodstream of the human body [7]. Some of the health effects include asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, premature delivery, birth defects, premature death, vascular inflammation, atherosclerosis, radiation exposure [7]. All of these effects are health problems faced by residents from Pahokee, Belle Glade, and South Bay. For every 100,000 residents in Palm Beach County, there were 700 asthma-related hospitalizations. This is almost five times the state average [8]. For almost 8 months of every year the residents watch “black snow,” a term for the ash and smoke pollution, fall from the sky. It invasively coats the community members' cars, homes, and clothes [8]. The black snow lowers property value and causes property damage. It also generates a lot of costs towards the clean-up process and pollution. This creates a huge disincentive for investors and new businesses to open in western Palm Beach County [1]. The particulate matter also has negative effects on the Earth’s climate and precipitation levels [7].   

The preharvest burning has been going on for decades. In February 2008, the smoke found its way into the vents of South Bay’s Rosenwald Elementary School. The school debated whether it was more dangerous to stay in the school or evacuate the building and risk greater exposure [3]. Six students were hospitalized and nine were treated by paramedics on-site. This occurrence shined a light on the school’s relationship with the school district and the sugar industry. Six years earlier Rosenwald partnered with both groups to collect revenue on the burns and the fields around their school. Just a month before the incident, the school board was questioning whether or not to renew the lease[3]. Joseph Moore, the district’s chief operating officer at the time, recommended the renewal, as the partnership would profit up to $7,000 per year over the next 5 years [3]. Ultimately disregarding the students' health and safety as the lease renewal took effect just 3 weeks after the evacuation. The director of communications for the School District of Palm Beach County, Claudia Shea, did not respond to any complaints or questions from families, students, and employees that were sent over the subsequent months regarding health questions, health concerns, and allegations that teachers were “discouraged from speaking against the cane burning at school” [3]. Shea eventually made a statement explaining that agriculture is the mainland use so there is not much the schools can do to not be in the immediate proximity of the sugar industry’s operations. Shea also included the school board has no authority over the regulation of where the agricultural activities occurred. Which does not align with the school’s involvement with the sugar industry and the lease surrounding Rosenwald [3]. Initially, the lease agreement included an educational program, Sharing Our Agricultural Roots (SOAR), that intended to immerse students in gardening and plant vegetables. However, the program description did not include the time students could work outside was decreased, to reduce exposure to the smoke and ash from the burns [3]. The air pollution impacts a typical school day as students are prohibited from outdoor play most days of the year. In more recent years the school has updated the design of buildings, so they are all connected, and the students do not have to walk outside between classes [3].

Teachers have come forward on the issue. One admitted they tried to bring awareness to the burning, and they were reprimanded by their supervisor [3]. Another shared an observation on the number of students they would pass sitting in the office because their asthmatic conditions made it difficult for them to partake in P.E. class [3]. Rosenwald’s latest lease with the sugar industry, which was signed in 2017, expires in 2022. It did not include the SOAR gardening program, instead, they justified that Rosenwald students benefit from the partnership by having the “opportunity to be involved in agricultural events sponsored by U.S. Sugar” [3].  

In an October interview for Radar 2020, a weekly news show addressing current issues, Lourdes Hurtado covers a story on the impact of sugar burning on the black and Latinx residents in Palm Beach County. One of these residents being Hernando Salvidar, a Latinx sugarcane worker, in charge of the burning. He explains how the wind directions are checked before burning so the workers know where to start and they can try to control where the ashes go. They are only instructed to NOT burn if the wind is blowing towards the East, or if President Trump is in the area. When asked about his opinion of this matter, Hurtado responded by saying “It’s wrong, you know. I mean like I said he’s just a human like us. Why does his life matter more than ours?” [2]. The lives of the western Palm Beach County and the Glades community members are valued less than the surrounding, more affluent communities.

The residents recognize the injustices they face, but many rely on the sugar industry for work so they cannot do much about it [2]. Their lives are put even more at risk with COVID-19. Despite the correlation between air quality and an increased chance of contracting the virus, the 2020-2021 harvesting season took place. In April of 2020, two letters were sent to the Commissioner of Agriculture, Nikki Fried, calling on her to take action. One letter was sent by businesses, non-profits, and religious institutions around the Glades area, the Florida Council of Churches, Florida Clinicians for Climate Action, and the Miami Climate Alliance [9]. In their letter, they expressed their disgust in the discriminatory nature of the burn regulations and explained that Fried has the authority and responsibility to protect Floridians from outdated agricultural practices that threaten the health and economy of many around the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). The organizations call out Fried on her statement in a 2019 press conference where she said “Keeping Florida’s residents, communities, and the environment is my number one priority” [9]. The letter proposes that Fried should use COVID-19 as an opportunity to institute the first phase of ending pre-harvest sugar field burning by implementing a 27-30 mile buffer around the schools, homes, streets, and churches. Creating a buffer zone will prioritize the health and safety of the residents [9].   

While many environmental groups are trying to get the Glade communities justice, there are also initiatives downplaying the true hazards of sugar burning. The Sustainable Agriculture Fire Education (S.A.F.E.) Communities Initiative is a group of business, agricultural, community, and faith leaders, and sugarcane farmers [10]. Their mission is to educate residents that pre-harvest burns are not linked to negative health conditions, and are necessary for South Florida’s humid climate. One of these members includes the director of corporate communications for U.S. Sugar. Their website states that the “Glades communities enjoy some of the best air quality in the state of Florida, with Palm Beach...ranking among the top of all of Florida’s 67 counties” [10]. However, the EPA’s environmental justice mapping tool, which looks at demographic and environmental indicators, ranks the Glades communities within the 80th to 90th percentile in the most hazardous areas for respiratory health in the United States. Parts of South Bay and Bella Glade fall under the 95th to 100th percentile of the respiratory hazard index which is compared at the national level. This indicates that the communities in western Palm Beach County do not have good air quality [3]. The Stop the Burn Campaign has called out S.AF.E. Communities for their counter-campaign. Instead of addressing the suffering and injustice of these minority communities that are predominately impacted by the pre-harvest burns, S.A.F.E. Communities has tried to frame Stop the Burn for wanting to put the sugar industry out of business and denied burning is related to any negative health impacts [1]. Additionally, S.A.F.E. the front group for Big Sugar, opposes green harvesting, an alternative harvesting process, because they claim burning helps “workers see where they are going. Makes it safer for truck traffic. Eliminates the messy cleanup of leaves and dry materials”. Ultimately, they prioritize saving money over the poisoning of minority, low-income communities [11]. However, the Sierra Club argues that S.A.F.E.’s excuses explaining how the sugarcane leaves can be used for additional sources of income and expand sugar-related jobs. On top of the economic benefits, the climate is less impacted, water pollution is reduced, and the soil can regenerate, which reduces the number of fertilizers needed. All around, the benefits of Green harvesting outweigh the negatives and provide a practice that is much safer than burning, for both humans and the environment [11].    

There is a class-action lawsuit against Big Sugar currently underway. The lawsuit breaks down the plaintiffs into three classes: Property Owner, Medical Monitoring, and Battery. The “Property Owner Class” is defined as:   

“All persons and legal entities (past or present) who own or have owned real property located within the Hazard Zone during the applicable statute of limitations period, including the period following the filing date of this action.” [l2] 

The “Medical Monitoring Class” is defined as:  

“All persons (past or present) over the age of 40, or who will attain the age of 40, who have resided in the Hazard Zone for at least one pre-harvest sugarcane burn season during the applicable statute of limitations period, including the period following the filing date of this action.” [12] 

And the “Battery Class: is defined as:  

“All persons (past or present) who have resided or currently reside in the Hazard Zone during the applicable statute of limitations period, including the period following the filing date of this action.” [12] 

Ultimately, both the class action lawsuit and other environmental campaigns want Big Sugar and the FDACs to make the shift to green harvesting. This method involves repurposing the leaves, also called “trash”, on the soil or for alternative materials, such as tree-free paper [1, 12]. Green harvesting has also been shown to benefit soil health, decrease herbicide use, improve fertility, and over time increase net profits and crop yields [12]. As the Belle Glade Activist, Catherine Martinez, says, “We’re not asking them to do something that will destroy their business. We’re asking them to move up into the 21st century” [2].  

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].

The most common harvest practice of sugarcane in Florida involves burning the sugarcane to remove the outer leaves from the cane stalks. The harvest season starts in October and usually goes on until April. For 6-8-month periods sugar cane is being burned and releasing many harmful chemicals into the air. The process accounts for 86% of Palm Beach County’s emissions of formaldehyde, a probable carcinogen, and 69% of toxic acenaphthylene emissions, a pollutant linked to genetic mutations and cancer [6]. As of October 2019, the agricultural burn permits are required and issued per the FL statute section 590.02(10) The Florida Forest Service (FFS) under the control of the Department of Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) [1]. During the harvest season over 5,000 acres, impacting areas up to 1,500 square miles, can be approved with 70+ burn permits in a single day. In the 2018-2019 harvest season, more than 11,334 burns took place. The burns covered a total of 442,409 acres. Only 3% of all sugarcane permits submitted in this season were denied [1].

Since 1984 the recoverable sugar in Florida’s sugar cane industry has risen from under 10 percent in 1984 to 11.6 percent in 2000-2001. In 2008, the raw sugar crop was valued at approximately $450 million. The fibrous portion of the stalks, also known as bagasse, is burned and used for fuels for the mills. Which saves the sugar producers an estimated 113 million gallons of fuel or 2.1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity [14]. In Palm Beach County research for sugar variety development, sugarcane nutrition and physiology, pest control, water use, and economic problems are carried out by the University of Florida Everglades Research and Education Center (EREC) at Belle Glade. The EREC also cooperates with the USDA-ARS at Canal Point. The major sugarcane companies (United States Sugar Corporation, Florida Crystals, and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida) conduct their own studies and research programs at the University of Florida and USDA [14].

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

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

[3] Di Carli, Gilda. (August 19, 2020). Fire Drill. Type Investigations. Retrieved November 15, 2020.'s%20clear%20evidence%20that%20sugar,smoke%20much%20of%20the%20year.

[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.

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

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

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

[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.

[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.

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

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

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

[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.

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.

Meta information

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



Kil’mari Phillips stands outside her home in South Bay, Florida — a few hundred feet away from Rosenwald Elementary School and the acres of sugarcane adjacent to it.

A sugarcane field set ablaze for pre-harvest burning

Sugar cane ash, "black snow", covers car dashboard.

Belle Glade's city motto.

Residents of western Palm Beach County who help lead the Stop the Burn Campaign.