by Katherine Stapp
(IPS) NEW YORK -- Black farmers who say their livelihoods were ruined by "racist" U.S. government farm aid practices are asking Congress to intervene after a legal settlement failed to bring compensation to the vast majority of those who filed suit.
Five years ago, facing a class-action lawsuit, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) conceded it had given unequal treatment to black farmers seeking assistance and promised to pay up to $2.3 billion in restitution.
But a new analysis by the Environmental Working Group and the National Black Farmers Association found the agency ultimately denied the claims of 86 percent, or 81,000 of 94,000, African American farmers who sought payments.
The USDA says it bears no responsibility for the outcome of the claims because they were handled by a third-party arbitrator.
However, the agency hired lawyers from the Justice Department to fight individual claims, at a cost of $12 million and 56,000 staff hours, according to the report, 'Obstruction of Justice'.
So far, the government has paid some $657 million to 13,151 claimants.
"A lot of the settlement was based on good faith," said Arianne Callender, an attorney for Environmental Working Group and lead author of the report. "USDA took advantage of the shortcomings of the agreement to deny the farmers' claims."
"They've also filed hundreds of challenges to favorable rulings, basically treating the farmers as adversaries. And the farmers just don't have the resources to challenge a big agency like USDA."
"The implications of this are tremendous," Callender told IPS. "If it's allowed to continue, the black farmer will be a thing of the past."
Linwood Brown, one of those who never received full compensation, describes the treatment routinely given to black farmers seeking USDA help in a section of the report that presents personal testimonials.
"I'd apply for assistance around the first of the year, but wouldn't receive the money until June or July," says Brown, who owned a 33-hectare (80 acre) plot in Virginia where he grew corn, soybeans and tobacco. "That wasn't enough time to plant the seeds, put the fertiliser and chemicals on at the right time, do all the things you needed to do."
"So then your yields would suffer, and you'd only get, say, 80 percent of your crop. Then they'd use that against you in future years saying your yields were low so you can't get the money you need to farm the land."
Black farmers in Brown's county were also required to meet with a white supervisor to pick up their checks, and to justify each expense, while white farmers were paid in a lump sum, he says in the report.
Although Brown received a partial settlement, he was denied money for each of the 14 years, from 1980 through 1994, that he faced unequal treatment.
"This same situation has happened to a lot of farmers. They find discrimination but they won't pay. They'll fight each one to the end. They'll use taxpayer money to fight against you. The good ol' boy system is still in place, and working well," he adds.
The 1999 settlement stemmed from a class action lawsuit known as Pigford v. Veneman, in which black farmers charged the USDA had deliberately denied them access to essential crop loans and other aid that was readily available to "similarly situated" white farmers.
Most of the farmers who were turned away for restitution following settlement of the lawsuit had filed late claims because their attorneys gave them the wrong deadline. Others were told they had insufficient documentation.
Even some 9,000 farmers who met the criteria for "automatic" 50,000-dollar payments -- that they had applied for a USDA loan between 1981 and 1996, that the agency's response was racially discriminatory, and that they had filed a complaint arising from USDA's treatment -- were given nothing, a 40 percent denial rate.
The report also charges the USDA made it as difficult as possible for farmers to prove that they were discriminated against, by suppressing information it had already compiled on loan approval disparities between white and black applicants. As a result, black farmers had to try to reconstruct, on their own, records that were readily available at the agency.
In many cases, Callender said, farmers were forced to return to the very offices that had denied them loans to ask for records showing they had been discriminated against.
"Thousands of us are losing our land because USDA has shut out African American farmers from crop loan programs for decades," said John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, in a statement. "This settlement was supposed to pay us back for unfairly denying us the same opportunities as everyone else. Instead, they have thrown up roadblock after roadblock."
EWG and Boyd's group now plan to lobby Congress to order USDA to fully compensate the nearly 9,000 farmers who qualified for automatic relief, and to re-evaluate the nearly 64,000 claims that missed the filing deadline.
They also want the USDA to be held more accountable for monitoring and upholding civil rights standards throughout the agency, and to fully implement financial aid programs that benefit minority farmers.
The situation is dire because so many black farmers have been forced off their land and left virtually penniless. From 1982 to 2002, the report notes, the number of farms run by African Americans fell from 54,367 to just 29,090.
Overall, African Americans have lost their farms at a rate three times that of whites.
"The saddest days of my life I spent watching USDA selling these people's farms," Linwood recalls. "To see that, it was unexplainable. I went and saw some of the sales, when they auction off the black farms."
"USDA would literally sell the farm and leave the family sitting there under the tree, watching somebody move onto their farms they've been living and working on for generations, some since slavery. Now they don't have a place to call home."
July 22, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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