environmental journal Amy Greene, environmental journalist and author of ‘Moving Water, the Everglades and Big Sugar,’ talks to a book about environmental disaster and potential conservation heroes George and Mary Barley.
What led you to this story?
Back in 2008, Florida Governor Charlie Crist announced a major deal where the state would buy the country’s largest sugar producer and use the land for the restoration of the Everglades.
This was big news at the time because the role of sugar producers in the Everglades has always been very controversial.
At the time, I was working as a freelance journalist and I wrote a story looking at the Everglades Foundation. While reporting, I spoke to Mary Jou, who is a board member at the foundation and whose late husband, George Jau, founded the foundation.
In our phone call, he basically told me the story of his entire life and I knew right away that this was a great story that needed to be told.
What does this book tell about corruption in America?
In the early ’90s, George Barley was a wealthy real estate investor in Central Floria and loved fishing the Florida Bay. Through his fishing, he came to know about the environmental degradation taking place.
He quickly learned that these problems were related to what was happening up the peninsula in the Everglades, and he soon understood that sugar producers had a role in some of these problems – but when they saw their political influence. When he saw the load, he got angry.
George Barley, like many environmentalists of the time, believed that sugar producers were not giving their fair share to clean up the Everglades and so decided to dedicate his life to the Everglades and on a political campaign for a voting initiative. began work, aimed at raising funds for the restoration of the Everglades by taxing sugar producers.
Barley decided to work on a ballot initiative because he believed the government was too corrupt to actually do anything.
So, he decided to take the issue directly to the people of Florida, so that Floridians could vote on it.
The book sheds light on the role of politics in the fight for environmental justice, How important is it?
Barley was an unusual environmentalist, he was able to bring a different perspective and a more business-oriented approach to the table and I think that made him successful.
George Barley was wealthy, he was politically connected and he was really the first person to bring that wealth and those connections to the table on behalf of the Everglades.
What is the situation in the Everglades now?
It’s a very different time now than it was in the 90s.
The governor who is currently in office, Ron DeSantis, ran for governor in 2018, when Florida was facing dire water quality problems and used this narrative to run against sugar producers.
Since Ron DeSantis is in office, he has redesignated the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board, the state agency overseeing Everglades restoration.
They’ve put millions of dollars into the restoration of the Everglades and so I think a lot of environmental groups would say it’s time for a lot of hope for the Everglades.
What lesson do you hope readers take from this story?
Lots of people from the UK come to Florida for vacation, and the story is important to Florida people because the Everglades is our state’s most important water resource, responsible for the drinking water of about 8 million Floridians.
But on a global scale, the ongoing restoration effort in the Everglades is one of the most ambitious efforts for ecological restoration in the world.
It’s unlike anything we’ve seen anywhere else in the world, and it’s really important because it’s a global model. People come from all over the world to learn what we’re doing in Florida to replicate it in their home regions, so it’s so important that we get it right.
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photo credit – Richard Sagrado
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