Sugar Cane Burning

by lphawaii

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Growing up on the Big Island of Hawaii, I remember stories of how the sugar cane industry died so long ago, and how the Big Island economy died along with it.  So when I first moved to Maui, I was in awe.  Out the window of the airplane, I saw beautiful green fields of sugar cane like a carpet over the windy valley isle.  “What a miracle!” I thought.  It was like stepping back into Hawaii’s golden age of sugar.

Then, one day, I noticed a giant black pillar of smoke stretching miles into the air.  It looked like someone had dropped an atom bomb.  The mushroom cloud engulfed half of Maui, with twisting bits of carbon falling from the sky onto people’s lawns. Somehow, the picture didn’t match with the beautiful fields of green I remember from before.

Was it a disaster?  Had something gone horribly wrong?  No, the sugar company was just burning cane again.  Apparently, it’s common practice for HC&S to burn down the cane before they haul it to the factory to be processed.

What is to stop a company from polluting the air?

The obvious solution is the government.  We should make a law!  Perhaps communities should organize and sign petitions.  Maybe we can put pressure on the government to make the company stop.  Everybody knows that it’s the government’s job to protect the environment. 

The problem is — it doesn’t work.  For decades, the Maui Clean Air Coalition has tried and failed.  They sent around petitions and got thousands of signatures in just a couple of days.  They spoke to politicians and business and gained overwhelming support.  They sat in countless meetings with government officials and sugar cane representatives, listening to long explanations about the problem.  But after decades of hard work, they finally just gave up.

Of course, libertarians say, “If a company is polluting onto your property, you have the right to sue them.”  It’s a nice principal, but the problem is – in practice, nobody ever sues.  The Maui Clean Air Coalition has threatened to sue them many times, but they’ve never gotten serious and taken the sugar company to court.

Now, why would this be?  People sue each other all the time, for the most ridiculous things, and yet nobody wants to sue HC&S for polluting the air?

The reason is because of a law called the “Hawaii Right to Farm Act”, which makes it impossible to win a case against a farmer who pollutes.  The law states: “No court, official, public servant, or public employee shall declare any farming operation a nuisance for any reason . . .”

According to Hawaii Agriculture Magazine, in 1982 the legislature was worried that people would begin suing sugar companies for polluting the air.  So they made this law to protect the sugar industry.

What’s more, if anyone even tries to sue the sugar company, they have to pay for all the sugar companies’ attorney fees.

Imagine trying to sue a company, and the law specifically stated that it was impossible for you to ever win your case, and in addition, you had to pay for all the court fees of the person that you were suing.  No wonder nobody ever tries to sue them!

If this law were abandoned, it would probably be quite profitable to sue sugar companies that polluted onto your property.  Maybe we’d begin seeing commercials on TV, “Have you been the victim of air pollution?  Our team of lawyers will help you get what you deserve!”

But what about the sugar companies?  Free-market defenders will run to the aid of the sugar company, and exclaim, “We can’t let our sugar industry die in Hawaii.  The lives of 800 workers depend on it!”

But it may be time to admit that the sugar industry in Hawaii is dying, and one day, it may be completely dead.  But that’s not a bad thing.  Sugar used to be a giant industry on the Big Island, but it died, and life still goes on.  Most of the laid off workers just created other jobs, or they retired.  Today, business in Hilo is steady, with more people living and working on the Big Island than ever.

Of course, the sugar company could think creatively about ways to remain in business without polluting.  Perhaps they could do what other countries do, and harvest the cane first, rather than just burning it all over the island.  Maybe they could find a different crop to grow, or think of a new technology.  They often protest, “It can’t be done!”, but miracles happen all the time, especially when there is an incentive for those miracles to happen.

At any rate, if 800 workers’ jobs depend on being able to make Maui look like it was attacked by an atomic bomb, raining down black ash onto everyone’s property, then that hurts the jobs of many other people who depend on Maui looking pristine and beautiful.

It is sad that the free-market often gets blamed for things like air pollution.  Libertarians are constantly attacked with air pollution gotcha questions, like “Without the government, who would stop all those greedy corporations from polluting our air?”  But, in case after case, it’s the government that allows and encourages pollution.  In that sense, it might very well be that the free-market is the best protector of the environment.

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