This Day in History

June 19, 2015: Stop Sugar Field Burning Campaign Begins

Time Periods: 21st Century
Themes: Environment, Climate Justice, Labor
Sugarcane during a controlled burn in South Florida.

Sugarcane field burning in South Florida. Source: Sierra Club Florida Chapter

Each year between October and May, in the counties just inland from West Palm Beach, Florida, residents suffer smoke inhalation from the controlled burning of sugarcane fields. Corporate sugar companies continue to tout the safety of their harvesting methods, while locals — predominantly people of color, with one third of the population living below the poverty level — continue to suffer respiratory problems and other health issues.

According to a 2021 exposé in ProPublica,

Nearly every day during the winter and spring, sugar companies set fire to dozens of cane fields across western Palm Beach County. These burns are a harvesting method that rids the plant of its outer leaves but releases harmful smoke. Locals call the resulting ash that blankets their community “black snow.” Read more online.

On June 19, 2015, after years of grassroots organizing and public protest, the Sierra Club launched the Stop Sugar Field Burning Campaign to bring an end to this environmentally harmful practice. A 2019 class-action lawsuit against corporations engaging in these burning practices — with locals claiming that burns reduce property values and compromise air quality with toxic carcinogens — was dismissed with prejudice in early 2022.

As Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades, told New Times,

Sugarcane burning is one of the most egregious environmental injustices in the state of Florida. Nothing about this news regarding the lawsuit changes that. In fact, it only makes us more concerned.

Additional Resources

The Smoke Comes Every Year. Sugar Companies Say the Air Is Safe. By Lulu Ramadan, The Palm Beach Post, and Ash Ngu and Maya Miller, ProPublica. July 8, 2021

Sugar Field Burning, the Sierra Club Florida Chapter. Learn more about the Stop the Burn Campaign and sign the petition to help spread the word.  A grassroots environmental justice campaign to replace pre-harvest sugar field burning with modern, sustainable, burn-free green harvesting.