Page last updated at 10:51 GMT, Wednesday, 25 June 2008 11:51 UK

Landmark Florida Everglades deal

Everglades - file photo
The Everglades is network of swamps and rivers covering 6,000sq km

One of America's key ecosystems, the Everglades in Florida, is to be greatly expanded after a landmark deal between the state and a major sugar company.

The US Sugar Corp has tentatively agreed to sell its 800sq km (300sq miles) of land in the Everglades to state authorities for $1.75bn (890m).

The land, currently used for growing sugar cane, will be turned back into its natural state of swampy marshland.

However, sugar producers are concerned the move will cost up to 2,000 jobs.

'Missing link'

The deal proposes that after six more years of production, US Sugar will close down and its plantations will be turned over to the state in Florida's biggest ever land acquisition.

Environmentalists have welcomed the news, calling it the largest ecological restoration project in the history of the United States.

Map of the Everglades
Announcing the plan, Florida's governor, Charlie Crist, said it was an important step towards protecting the environment for future generations.

"I can envision no better gift to the Everglades, the people of Florida, and the people of America - as well as our planet - than to place in public ownership this missing link that represents the key to true restoration," he said.

The Everglades runs from Lake Okeechobee in central Florida down through the southern tip of the state.

Conservationists have struggled for years to preserve its waters, blaming sugar cane production as one of the industries responsible for its pollution.

What a very noble effort on the state of Florida's part. The Everglades is a vital ecosystem that needs to be restored, and protected
Ken, Dunwoody, USA

However, people in the sugar cane industry has expressed grave concerns over what the deal will mean to them: US Sugar Corp is America's largest producer of sugar cane, and cheap imports have already led to the closure of dozens of mills.

"This is our life, our livelihood," Ardis Hammock, one of the owners of the sugar cane-growing Frierson Farm, told the BBC.

"My husband has worked here 35 years, our 25-year-old son Robert just started working here, and our daughter Sarah was supposed to be opening a branch bank next week... our whole economy is tied to the sugar industry.

"It's just kind of puzzling to work out what's going to happen."

For the last eight years the state of Florida has poured billions of dollars into cleaning up the Everglades, but the progress has been slow.

It is hoped the agreement will officially be signed by September.

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