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The solution for how to fix this mess of a wasteland seemed easy: Dam up Lake Okeechobee so it would quit overflowing, and build canals to shunt its waters west and east to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.
There's a long list of famous men who went broke or died trying to make this "easy solution" work. Hamilton Disston, heir to a saw-making fortune, dredged the first ditches in the late 1800s before he lost thousands of dollars and died of a heart attack before reaping any real profit. Henry Flagler, oil magnate and father of South Florida, ultimately declared even his massive fortune was insufficient to battle the Glades. And Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, the fiery, floppy-mustached governor, had gallstones that killed him before his dream was realized.
"Yes, the Everglades is a swamp. So was Chicago 60 years ago," Broward once said, laying out all the American hubris toward the Glades.
They all failed. But Americans are persistent. Eventually, the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the lake, dredged miles of channels, and reclaimed hundreds of thousands of acres of swampland.
Eventually the plan succeeded — but it came at cost, including killer fires, dust bowls, and saltwater-infested groundwater from Boca to Miami.
However, one industry benefited tremendously from man's victory over the Everglades: Big Sugar.
Florida's sugar industry has thrived thanks to the millions of dollars poured into drying out the swamp south of Lake Okeechobee. Once the Corps figured out how to keep the land wet and fertile enough, the thousands of acres known as the "Everglades Agricultural Area" became America's sugar breadbasket.
Have a cappuccino this morning? Some yogurt or granola for breakfast? Chewing on some gum? Pretty much anything sweet in your diet probably includes sugar cane grown here in the heart of the Everglades by U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals, or a smaller co-op.
For anyone who cares about Glades restoration — or anyone interested in where people fit into the future of the River of Grass — the sugar companies are key. In fact, Tom Van Lent, chief scientist for the Everglades Foundation, says, "We're all at the mercy of the sugar growers."
Why? Because if the Everglades is ever to return anything close to its original flow, clean water will have to course south through these flatlands bristling with sugar cane.
After almost 50 miles, I finally see something. A 20-story smokestack shimmers in the heat to the east. I turn left past the Florida Crystals/Domino sign and meet Gaston Cantens, a slick politician with wide, watery brown eyes. Cantens spent a decade representing Miami in the Florida House. Since he left politics in 2006, he's been shilling for Florida Crystals, a giant that churns out 4 million tons of sugar a year.
To show me why the company so highly values its land here in Okeelanta, Cantens guides me by the arm through the company's complex.
The sheer size is amazing. Florida Crystals has more than 150,000 acres, its own road system, and its own power plant that burns waste from the sugar harvest. There's a 185,000-square-foot warehouse manned by sleek robots that fill and stack sacks of cane so quickly they're difficult to follow, and two mills and a refinery just as large.
Cantens mentions the company's efforts to grow more organic sugar. He talks about the millions spent cleaning the farm's runoff, and all the energy produced by the sugar cane-burning power plant (enough to power 20,000 homes).
As he drones on with a friendly smile, I almost forget all the terrible things Florida Crystals have done over the years.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, dozens of former employees brought suit against the company, accusing it of abusing the poor laborers imported every year from the West Indies to hack down the cane crop. In the most famous case, the company settled with hundreds of workers it deported in 1986 after an impromptu strike.
In those same decades, Florida Crystals and its competitor U.S. Sugar flooded the Everglades with incredible amounts of pollution. Florida Crystals' owners — the Fanjul family, the richest Cuban-Americans alive — are notorious for their wide-reaching political influence, from the Clinton White House to every administration in Tallahassee. Patriarch Alfy Fanjul once interrupted Bill Clinton as he tried to break off his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and harangued him on the phone for 22 minutes about Al Gore's proposed sugar tax to fund restoration projects. Kenneth Starr detailed the call in his report on Clinton's scandal.
So it's not surprising that Florida Crystals is usually cast as the heavy in restoration stories. It's no different with the latest great hope for the Everglades, a plan so ambitious that Gov. Charlie Crist essentially threw $8 billion and a decade's worth of projects out the window to make it happen.
Until last summer, the Everglades' salvation depended on a plan drafted by Bill Clinton in 1996 and ceremonially signed into law four years later. The plan had three key steps: Dams and ditches would be removed, restoring some natural flow. Lake Okeechobee would be cleaned. And enormous reservoirs would be built to hold the lake's runoff in the summer and pour water south in the dry months.