Belle Glade (1995 - 1997)
Florida is an enigma.
Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.
My earliest memory of Belle Glade is as a child. My family would go fishing at Lake Okeechobee, and Belle Glade, just west of the lake, was a good place to stop off for worms, ice, and soda. At that time, Belle Glade was a small town with no identifying landmarks. My strongest memory of the surrounding scenery is of a huge, roiling black cloud of smoke in the distance that had me wondering what was burning. The massive black smoke cloud seemed foreign and ominous to me; it contrasted sharply with the rest of the scenery, which was lush, green, and beautiful.
I became interested in Belle Glade as a subject for my work in 1995. I had been awarded an MAA-NEA grant in 1994, and one of the stipulations of the grant was that it be used, in part, to do something which would increase my recognition as an artist at the national level. For some time, it had been a personal goal to choose a town or community and create an investigative, visual documentary about it. My first choice was Belle Glade. Even as a child, the town piqued my interest, evoking feelings of both fear and compassion. Dirty streets and sidewalks so hot you couldn't walk on them in bare feet; skinny dogs panting in the shade; children playing without supervision; old men dealing cards under shade trees that provided scant relief from the heat and humidity. The crickets were so loud you couldn't concentrate. We were always "just passing through" to Lake Okeechobee, but driving through the town even then, I was aware of such heartbreaking human need that I felt guilty about my comfortable middle-class life.
Belle Glade hasn't changed much in the ensuing years; people still shuffle through the streets, sleepy from the heat, humidity, and hard labor. What saves Belle Glade is her soil-rich, black muck. "Her soil is her fortune," has been the town's slogan since the early part of this century. In the 1920's, when nearly 700,000 acres of swampland, which accounted for nearly one-fifth of the Everglades, were drained to make room for agriculture, a rich, fertile soil called "muck" was revealed. Eventually this muck was found to be the perfect soil for growing sugar cane, a crop which not only withstands the hot Florida sun, but thrives in it. Today, Belle Glade is sugar, and sugar is big business. The southern region of Florida, including Belle Glade, supports a highly developed agribusiness, producing 1.7 million tons of sugar each year and employing some 40,000 people. Contributing substantial taxes to the state of Florida, the sugar industry is a power to be reckoned with.
In spite of the revenue it generates, the Florida sugar industry is steeped in controversy over the growing of sugar in this region at the expense of the natural, ecological treasure that is the Everglades. The Everglades is a "river of grass." Water flows from Lake Okeechobee to the edge of the state and Florida Bay via a variety of ecosystems which include sawgrass marshes, rivers, lakes, open ponds, and an underground aquifer. The Everglades supports alligators, panthers, dolphins, manatee, bald eagles, and such water birds as egrets, herons, ibis, pelicans, and spoonbills, and is also the primary source of fresh water in south Florida. It is an enormous underground river, flowing gently southward toward the edge of the Florida mainland and literally preventing south Florida from drying up. One hundred fifty million gallons of water rain on the Everglades each day. One hundred million of these gallons return to the sky, while the other fifty million are used daily by South Floridians for their water supply. The Everglades is a marriage of land, water, and sky, and as such should be considered a "vertical" environment.
Sugar farming has dealt two blows to the fragile and complex Everglades ecosystem. The first stems from sugar farming's requirement for large quantities of water, which until this century flowed freely into the Everglades from Lake Okeechobee. The second comes from agricultural runoff. The runoff, rich in nutrients, has caused an explosion in the growth rate of exotic plants like cattails. In certain areas of the Everglades, cattails are spreading at a rate of four acres per day, clogging open waterways and crowding out animal life. In essence, the Everglades is dying, and agriculture is primarily to blame.
There is also controversy surrounding the methods for harvesting and producing the cane. Sugar cane is a fairly maintenance-free crop. It grows from the same planting for five years. Occasionally, cane fields are torched before being harvested. Through torching of the cane, the serrated leaves are burned off, making the manual harvesting, as well as the milling, of the cane easier. One hundred acres are burned at a time. Fields are lit afire on three sides and allowed to burn to one side in order to let the wildlife escape. Once ignited, the cane burns rapidly. The fire rages from one corner of the field to the other, and wide irrigation strips prevent adjacent fields from igniting. The downside of this convenient method of harvesting is that despite efforts to prevent it, the diverse wildlife population indigent to the fields-rabbits, lizards, snakes, turtles, mice, raccoons, possums, and insects-is to a large extent destroyed. There is also substantial evidence that the air pollutants discharged from these fires are highly damaging to the surrounding soil once they hit the ground.
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The two methods used to harvest sugar are mechanical harvesting and manual harvesting. Only one-quarter of the sugar is harvested by the massive machine reapers that move through the fields cutting down cane. The rest must be cut by hand. The manual method requires that men comb the fields on foot, felling cane with machetes. Cutting sugar cane has been described as one of the most dangerous jobs in America. The labor is so intense that finding domestic workers to perform the job is difficult; therefore, most of the cutters come from foreign countries. These cutters are allowed into the country to work under a federal program entitled "H-2A." This program allows farmers to temporarily employ foreign agricultural workers if they cannot find domestic workers to perform the job. These cane-cutters come mostly from the West Indies (particularly Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic), Mexico, and Australia to work under brutal conditions for a wage of $6.00 an hour. They are expected to cut a ton of cane per hour, and if they do not reach this goal, they suffer a deduction in their hourly wage. Typically, a laborer cuts eight tons of cane a day.
Cutters live in camps owned by the growers and are charged by the growers for their meals and some equipment. They typically endure these difficult living conditions for nine months out of the year, returning to their homelands only for the remaining three. The windowless barracks-style housing rooms 150 - 200 workers at a time and is off-limits to non-laborers. Cane cutting in the United States rarely pays enough to buy the cutter a ticket out of his circumstances and into a better life. Some of the most pronounced poverty, stress, and decay in Florida exists in Belle Glade. Crime and racial tensions run rampant throughout the community, which has one of the highest rates of AIDS in the country, due largely to prostitution, intravenous drug use, and ignorance. Substandard housing predominates. As noted, cutters generally live in camps owned by the sugar growers. Ten percent of Belle Glade's housing lacks plumbing and kitchen facilities, and thirty percent of all residents live below the poverty line. Sanitation conditions are deplorable. Sixty percent of the licensed dwellings do not meet basic health and safety standards. Housing for migrant workers is not regulated, and workers teeter between field work and unemployment without much in the way of a social safety net. In spite of the controversy that surrounds the growing of sugar in Florida, it should be noted that the sugar industry has affected the Florida economy positively. As a billion dollar industry run primarily by eleven large growers, it is a major employer in the state and accounts for much of the revenue in the Florida economy. Fourteen packing plants; nine sugar mills; two railroads; numerous citrus, sod, and cattle farms; and three co-generation plants are all located in south central Florida to support the industry. Florida sugar accounts for forty percent of all the sugar used in the United States, with 21,000 tons being harvested daily.
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Florida sugar growers have also become more efficient, producing 2.77 percent more sugar this season than last. The company Flo-Sun has built two co-generation plants that burn sugar cane by-products to run its mill and generate electricity. Because the industry cannot acquire more land to increase its output, there is a genuine push to maximize how much can be produced from the existing land mass.
And in an attempt to restore the Everglades, in 1994 the Everglades Forever Act was passed by the Florida legislature. This bill requires farmers and south Florida residents to pay $768 million to build 40,000 acres of marshes that will cleanse farm runoff as it flows south. Over the next twenty years, sugar growers have agreed to pay $233 - $322 million toward the restoration project.
Carol Carter is an established St. Louis painter working primarily in large-scale watercolors and acrylics. She has exhibited extensively over the past sixteen years both regionally and nationally, including fifteen one-person exhibitions and numerous invitational and group exhibitions. In 1994 she received an MAA/NEA Fellowship in Painting and Works on Paper. Her work is represented in many public and private art collections, including those of Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Boatmen's National Bank, Citicorp, Leonard Slatkin, Price University, and Utah State University, among others. She has been featured in numerous publications, including the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Kansas City Star, American Artist, and New Art Examiner.