Christine Louis-Jeune knew she was home when she saw ash falling from the sky and onto her windshield.
She hadn’t been back to her central Florida hometown of Belle Glade in six months. She was both exhausted after a six-plus hour drive from Tallahassee and excited to tell her parents about her first semester at Florida A&M University.
But as she saw the dark clouds of smoke, all she could think about was how to get out of the car without getting ash on her clothes or in her lungs. She looked for extra masks in her glove compartment. She began to worry about her family, and hoped they were safely at home with all the windows shut.
Her homecoming had been darkened by what Belle Glade residents call “black snow” —ash and soot that fall on the low-income communities south of Lake Okeechobee (also known as the Glades) during the six-month sugarcane burning season.
Every year from October to March, farmers in South Florida set fire to over 400,000 acres of sugarcane fields in preparation for their harvest. Residents of the surrounding, predominantly Black towns have long complained of the accompanying smoke, and research has indicated adverse impacts on health. Community organizers and environmental experts propose green harvesting as an alternative to this widespread and controversial practice.
For Louis-Jeune, 21, an organizer for the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club’s Stop the Burn campaign, the black snow that welcomed her home was a reminder of why she had moved to Tallahassee to pursue an environmental science degree. Through organizing and advocacy, she hopes to mobilize young people against sugar crop burning.
“These are my people. This is my home. I can’t let someone drive me out,” Louis-Jeune said. She recalled how she felt as she parked her car that evening amid the falling ash: “Once you start trying to advocate for an issue, you can’t just stop.”
Built on Sugar
Louis-Jeune’s parents immigrated from Haiti over 40 years ago and settled in Belle Glade, Florida’s heartland for jobs in agriculture. She would spend large portions of her childhood under the cloud of black snow.
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The sugar industry is the town’s major economic engine. More than half of the country’s sugarcane is produced in Florida, and Palm Beach County, where Belle Glade is located, contains most of the state’s commercial sugar acreage. The total value of agricultural products sold in Palm Beach is $901 million, higher than any other county in Florida. However, Belle Glade, where over 60 percent of residents are Black and over 26 percent are Hispanic, has continuously been ranked as the poorest town in Florida. The other cities in the county’s Glades—Pahokee and South Bay—share a similar story.
It is this same industry—“Big Sugar”—that brings ash to the Glades through sugarcane burning. In this pre-harvesting practice, farmers set canes on fire for one to four hours a day to strip them of their leaves to make the crops less costly to transport. The industrial revolution of the 20th century brought an increase in population and commercial sugar production in the Glades, and sugarcane burning became a common practice.
The resulting ash also affected communities in the largely white and affluent Wellington and Royal Palm Beach area. Following complaints from residents there in 1991, the Florida Department of Agriculture banned growers from burning sugarcane when winds blow in the direction of those communities. However, for those in the tri-city Glades, sugarcane burning and the thick smoke and haze it brings persists.
“You see [it’s] a prime example where the predominantly Black and brown communities have to disproportionately bear the toxic impacts and are held to a much higher standard of evidence than more wealthy and predominantly white communities are,” said Patrick Ferguson, senior organizing representative for the Sierra Club.
Louis-Jeune, who joined Sierra Club Florida in 2020, says it has been a struggle to get any government attention on Belle Glade. Organizers consider this inattention, as well as the history and application of sugarcane regulations, a classic case of environmental racism.
“Some communities are designated as worthy of more protection from harmful pollutants rather than others and the color of your skin has a big, big, major impact on the level of pollution protection that you’d be afforded,” Ferguson said.
“If you ain’t got the right complexion, you’re not going to get the protection,” said Environmental Health scientist and University of Maryland Professor Sacoby Wilson, paraphrasing the aphorism first coined by environmental justice advocate Robert Bullard.
Environmental justice experts and organizers also maintain that this pollution is not merely negligence, but purposeful—a result of systemic racism.
“I don’t like to call it structural racism. I like to call it structured racism,” Wilson said. “It ain’t by accident, it’s by design, and so you see that across the country.”
Sugar, once a luxury, became a highly profitable and universal commodity due to chattel slavery in the Americas. The European demand for “white gold” propelled the transatlantic slave trade which provided a continuous supply of enslaved Africans as dispensable labor. Sugar plantations were notoriously grueling and deadly sites with an average life expectancy of seven years for an enslaved person.
After abolition, sharecropping trapped many Black families in a cycle of poverty and debt. Some African-American families in Florida have cultivated the same sugarcane fields for generations. Families immigrating from other parts of the world have joined them. The economic and environmental conditions of these communities is proof suppression by the sugarcane industry remains, some say.
“If it’s one of the largest employers in the area, why are people in poverty? That means they’re not getting living wage jobs, they’re not really getting the benefits,” Wilson said. “You’re using my community to host this operation of the sugarcane burning. I get no real benefit, but I get the externalities. That’s environmental slavery.”
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The Stop the Burn campaign, started in 2015, has pushed for a transition from sugarcane burning to “green harvesting,” an alternative involving mechanical harvesting machines that cut off the leaves and tops of the canes and leave them on the ground. The industry already practices green harvesting in “smoke-sensitive” areas located near schools and hospitals, including in Belle Glade, but it hasn’t adopted the practice fully. Some sugar executives claim such changes in Florida will result in considerable economic impact. Big Sugar is the largest employer in the area, and not all locals support a transition to green harvesting over fears of job losses.
“The environmental justice movement has never been an anti-jobs movement,” Wilson said. “It’s always been an economic justice [movement], about opportunity.”
Despite research showing multiple health risks associated with sugarcane smoke, Florida’s sugar corporations claim it is safe, and the easiest and most efficient form of pre-harvesting.
Last year, residents of Glades, Hendry and Palm Beach counties dropped their class-action lawsuit against several of Florida’s largest sugar companies that claimed the burns lowered property values and emitted carcinogens. In response, U.S. Sugar Corporation spokesperson Judy Sanchez said, “we believed the science, data and regulations that support our work every day would show that the air quality in the Glades is ‘good’ — the highest quality under federal regulations.” Attorneys for the residents did not respond to questions from a reporter about why the lawsuit was dropped.
While sugar companies maintain the air quality of the Glades is in compliance with the Clean Air Act, a 2021 investigation by ProPublica and The Palm Beach Post discovered the single air quality monitor in the area had been malfunctioning for at least eight years. Researchers at the Florida Department of Health recommended a health-risk assessment to study the link between illnesses and air pollutants they found to be released during pre-harvest burning. Seven years later, no such study has been produced by the department.
Big Sugar, which includes Florida companies U.S. Sugar Corporation, Florida Crystals Corporation and Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, forms an influential political force in the state. Company billboards promoting the sugarcane industry are a familiar part of Belle Glade’s landscape.
“Let’s just say it’s taboo locally to speak out negatively against the sugar industry in any way,” Ferguson said. “They spread a lot of money around locally, and fears of being cut off from those sources of funding have definitely made some folks and … organizations that would be natural allies want to maintain their distance, unfortunately.”
Going against the sugar industry does not worry Louis-Jeune. She reminds herself of how different her town and upbringing would be if the practice was banned.
Early Memories of Black Snow
On days when her parents were at work, Louis Jeune would ask neighbors to drive her and her siblings across town to use the closest clothes dryer. Most families in her community didn’t have one of their own. Her home didn’t have air conditioning, either—which meant sweltering heat on black snow days when all the windows had to be closed.
But if all the harvesting had been green, she believes, she could have had a “normal” childhood.
“On the days where they did green harvesting, we were able to play sports … we could walk home after school.” But on days of sugarcane burning Glades Central High would sometimes pack all students in the cafeteria while the black snow was falling. In a state famed for its mild weather, her fondest wish became simply to eat lunch outside.
“On the days when they [burned sugarcane],” she said, “it was bad. It was terrible. It was unbearable.”
So bad, she said, that she and her friends couldn’t have birthday celebrations outside, or hang out after school outdoors.
A New Beginning
Louis-Jeune remembers what drove her to join the Sierra Club campaign in 2020.
She was working as an urgent care facility receptionist, and witnessed parents asking for nebulizers for their children in preparation for the sugarcane burning season. During this early stage of the pandemic, patients would come in unsure if their respiratory difficulties were because of COVID-19 or the lung-inflammatory ash.
“There’s a litany of potential deleterious health effects from exposure from burning of sugarcane fields,” Wilson said.
Burning sugarcane releases tiny particulate matter into the air. Exposure to this particulate matter—called PM 2.5—can cause or worsen asthma, and lead to heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and other complications and diseases, according to a recent study by Florida State University. These pollutants can also impact fertility, increase infant mortality and decrease life expectancy.
Louis-Jeune says she and her family have developed allergies from the ash. That made her realize how black snow affects every aspect of life in her community. She decided to inspire other young people to push for green harvesting.
She began posting on social media, staffing information tables at community events, helping Muck City Black Lives Matter, and asking her friends to share pictures of sugarcane ash on their platforms. At Palm Beach State College — an area where black snow no longer falls — she handed out flyers with information on the Sierra Club Florida campaign.
It wasn’t always comfortable; she initially felt intimidated as a young person in her hometown’s Sierra Club organizing group. But, she said, “Our message to young people is to not be afraid to be like an oddball.”
“It’s easy to get caught up in a sense of defeatism and down spirits,” Ferguson said. “But I can’t think of a better, worthwhile way to devote your time than advocating for the future that we all want and are working to create.”
Louis-Jeune added: “There’s strength in numbers.”
She hopes black smoke will become an issue acknowledged and discussed outside the communities south of Lake Okeechobee. “If we just put differences aside, and focus on the fact that these are people who deserve the bare minimum.’’
Michelle Mairena is a former Youthcast Media Group intern who is a rising junior at Stanford University. Kyndall Hubbard is a multimedia journalist based in the D.C. area and editorial assistant at YMG.