Wednesday, October 20, 2010

USDA to pay American Indian farmers

American Indian farmers who experienced discrimination in federal farm programs will share up to $680 million under a legal settlement announced Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture
The settlement will end an 11-year-old class-action lawsuit brought by American Indian farmers contending they didn't get the same consideration for low-interest farm loans as white farmers. A former USDA economist estimated that American Indians suffered actual losses of $776 million between 1981 and 2007 because of the unequal treatment.

One of the lead plaintiffs in the case is Porter Holder, an Oklahoma member of the Choctaw Nation; the other lead plaintiffs are from North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. The settlement is expected to reach thousands of American Indians nationwide, though it isn't known how many Oklahomans may ultimately qualify.

In addition to the $680 million in damages, USDA will forgive $80 million in outstanding farm loan debt for members of the class and create new initiatives to improve the department's services for American Indians.

Unlike other recent large settlements involving American Indian trust accounts and black farmer discrimination, the settlement will not have to be approved by Congress.

Marilyn Keepseagle, one of the North Dakota farmers for whom the lawsuit came to be named, said Tuesday that the settlement "will help thousands of Native Americans who are still farming and ranching. But more important, through this settlement we will leave to our children and grandchildren a farm loan system far more responsive to our community than the system we inherited from our parents."
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, "Today's settlement can never undo wrongs that Native Americans may have experienced in past decades, but combined with the actions we at USDA are taking to address such wrongs, the settlement will provide some measure of relief to those alleging discrimination.”
U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, a Chickasaw who urged the Agriculture Department in March to settle the case, said Tuesday, "The Native American farmers and the USDA should be commended for resolving the discrimination claims responsibly — without divisive and expensive litigation.

"I'm optimistic that the new initiatives created by the settlement will benefit both Native Americans and the agriculture industry overall.”

American Indian farmers seeking part of the settlement can do so one of two tracks. On the first, a farmer could seek up to $50,000 in compensation by proving that he was a farmer between 1981 and 1999; that he was denied a loan or loan servicing from the USDA because of discrimination; and that he complained about the denial to the USDA.

The second track, by which a farmer could receive up to $250,000, would require more evidence of the discrimination and the actual economic losses resulting from the action.

President Barack Obama said Tuesday that the settlement was "an important step forward in remedying USDA's unfortunate civil rights history” and that the administration was working to settle claims filed against the USDA by women and Hispanic farmers.

Obama also urged Congress to approve the settlements with American Indian trust account holders and the black farmers. 

The House has approved them but some Republicans, including Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, have concerns about the settlement with black farmers.

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