Oligarchs In Florida: How An "Arab Spring" Could Make Big Sugar Even Wealthier But Save The State

Social media sites including Facebook, Instagram, and the blogs, have triggered an unprecedented event in Florida: people are linking up to express outrage and to organize for the purchase and conversion of massive acreage in sugar cane production south of Lake Okeechobee for water treatment marshes.

Big Sugar's chokehold on public opinion is slipping, in defiance of the fact that the Everglades Agricultural Area -- some 450,000 acres smack dab in the middle of the southern portion of the Florida peninsula -- always served as an effective barrier isolating communities on both Florida coasts.

One indication of Florida's Arab Spring: the unexpected and overwhelming defeat of Marco Rubio in the GOP presidential primary. Although Rubio has long been identified as a staunch defender of Big Sugar, he carried only one of Florida's 67 counties. Republican voters -- thanks in no small part to social media -- got the message that traditional sources of media have been disinclined to broadcast: how Big Sugar's sticky embrace of Marco Rubio harmed Florida.

The EAA plus surrounding public lands including Everglades National Park comprise a total of about 2 million acres -- historically, natural wetlands -- but Big Sugar's hammerlock on water management infrastructure and flood control practices ensure that the entire state dances to its tune.

Big Sugar gets what it wants, when it wants it. This turns into a problem during times of drought and flood; more the norm than the exception in a rapidly changing world where the state's population growth collides with the impacts of climate change.

The chorus is rising: buy Big Sugar lands, send clean, fresh water south. What this means is taking about 100,000 acres out of sugarcane production to the purpose of storage and cleansing marshes so that Lake Okeechobee stormwater runoff doesn't destroy property values, tourism-dependent businesses, and natural resources around the southern rim of the state.

The refusals from Big Sugar ("We are just ordinary people and good citizens who care" and "we've already done our fair share") cannot stand up to fact and science.

Big Sugar is about as far from "ordinary people" as Joe the Plumber from Charles Koch. The sugar industry's political influence is locked down by corporate welfare at its most toxic efflorescence. The sugar subsidy in the Farm Bill mainly accrues to the net worth of two billionaire families: the Fanjuls -- of the Flo-Sun and Florida Crystals' empire -- and the descents of Charles Stuart Mott who control US Sugar Corporation. By artificially elevating the price of American sugar above free market prices, hundreds of millions per year in excess profits is guaranteed before a blade of new crop is planted.

Big Sugar's command of the US Farm Bill is exceedingly simple in a very American Way: make the Fanjul and Mott descendants rich as possible. Doing so during times of heavy rainfall and storm water runoff doesn't similarly trouble Congress. Those US Senators and Representatives are thousands of miles away when Lake Okeechobee, a virtual toilet bowl serving the needs of agriculture and dairy farms upstream, turns other people's property and businesses into downstream sacrifice zones.

Ultimately, the Fanjuls and Mott descendants have one objective: for the public to value their hundreds of thousands of acres based on an imaginary value as subdivisions and not agricultural land.

Every move of the Sugar PR juggernaut, including fawning local economic councils, Chambers of Commerce and trade groups, is to make that value less hypothetical, as though there were a thousand homes per acre and not a crop -- sugarcane -- that, in excess, poisons people and is more addictive than cocaine. Sugar's armies of lobbyists, "environmental" land use lawyers, and elected officials have spent decades inching the Everglades Agricultural Area toward its valuation as strip malls and zero lot line subdivisions.

The difference between Big Sugar's imaginary value and a realistic appraisal is a function of political outcomes. There has been no reason at all for Big Sugar to move from its high throne so long as those outcomes remained predictable. That is why Big Sugar spends millions of dollars to influence elections from dog-catcher to the White House. In this light, Marco Rubio's loss requires a reassessment.

For any "unwilling" property owner in the Everglades watershed, the hint of eminent domain proceedings is like winning the Powerball lottery. This would not be the case for Big Sugar that not only has won the Powerball Lottery, but wins it reliably with every growing season.

Consider the case of another Big Sugar mouthpiece: Florida Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam. In lieu of a lengthy and costly eminent domain court case, his family farm was purchased by the state for $25 million only a year after being appraised at $5 million. Putnam is expected to run as the Republican candidate for governor in 2018.

For Big Sugar, eminent domain is like the chicken and the egg: which comes first -- its subdivisions with zero lot line housing or a massive taxpayer buyout? This is not a complicated story, but it is an end-game and one that Big Sugar has successfully blocked from telling for decades.

Decades of delays in fixing what is wrong with Florida's capitulation to Big Sugar require the intervention of Florida voters.

The incrementalism that passes for Everglades restoration or stopping toxic releases to Florida's rivers and estuaries can only be stopped by voters insisting on a change to Big Sugar's "most favored nation status". Marco Rubio didn't pass the litmus test, nor should any other elected official in Florida.

It will take millions of voters to bring the day, closer, when the state's waterways, property and jobs tied to Florida Bay, Sanibel, Fort Myers and Stuart are no longer treated as Big Sugar's collateral damage on the way to a billion dollar taxpayer buyout.

You see: one way or another, Big Sugar will get its price. Florida voters must push that day, closer, because taxpayers and the American public have really run out of time.

Buy the land. Send clean, fresh water south.