Florida made national headlines this summer when thick, green algae showed up on its southeastern waterways and coastlines. Once the algae cleared, fingers were immediately pointed inland to the rural parts of South Florida known as the Glades communities, an area with a significantly large African-American population. Environmentalist activists from mostly wealthy coastal communities tried to capitalize on the crisis by calling for the purchase of land south of Lake Okeechobee, attempting to link our farming communities to the algae. Within weeks, these activists found an ally in Florida’s Senate President Joe Negron.
This year, Negron is attempting to win over these vocal activists by proposing a plan to take 60,000 acres from the Glades for the purpose of building a water storage reservoir. Unfortunately for the Senate President, he may have failed to realize that his plan would devastate proud African-American communities such as Pahokee, which lies in his own Senate district.
Negron’s local newspaper, the Stuart News, is a strong ally of his plan and yet a recent report from it cites discontent among some of his constituents, including African-Americans. They make the case for focusing efforts on where water enters the lake from north and developing the land the state already owns to the south. According to one local pastor that has joined forces with other black citizens to oppose the land-buying plan, “We are responding to the fact that so many people are pushing to put this land out of production…It’s going to have an impact on our community.” It’s known that farmers have already given up 120,000 acres to aid in Everglades restoration, much of which can still be used to build a reservoir just like the one Negron is pushing.
Florida’s most powerful man in the Senate needs to listen to all corners of his district when searching for solutions to fix the country’s second-largest freshwater lake. Not just the wealthy, coastal ones.
Following through with Negron’s plan would take prime agricultural land out of production and dramatically hurt the area’s communities that rely on farming to fuel their economies. Faced with less land to harvest, one sugarcane mill would be forced to close, leaving hundreds out of work, many of them African-Americans. Everything from local businesses to schools and churches would suffer.
Having one of these communities in his own district is an unfortunate reality for Mr. Negron. Up until a few months ago, folks in Pahokee and other areas on the southwest edge of the lake were a distant distraction. He may have heard their objections, but they weren’t as amplified because the voices weren’t coming from his voting district.
But then his district was changed through a court-mandated redrawing of the Senate maps. Like it or not, those “distractions” now see his name on the ballot come Election Day.
Take away the opposition from Mr. Negron’s rural constituents, and his plan still seems like a stretch. Asking the state and federal government to split a $2.4 billion project isn’t a small request that can be taken out of petty cash. It’s monster-sized, especially when hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded, science-backed water projects are already under way in the region.
This type of environmental elitism has no place in politics today. Trying to fix one community’s water issues at the expense of another community demonstrates arrogance at best. But when it has an adverse impact on minorities in your own district, it shows a tremendous level of incivility and economic tone deafness at worst.
Janet Taylor is a former Hendry County commissioner in southwest Florida. She is the President of Glades Lives Matter, a Clewiston-based civil rights advocacy organization. #GladesLivesMatter. twitter.com/GLMatter