WASHINGTON Thousands of black farmers who were discriminated against by the U.S. Agriculture Department will be eligible to receive $1.25 billion in a settlement, the government said on Thursday.
The settlement of the case, known as Pigford II, is contingent on Congress approving $1.15 billion for the farmers, in addition to $100 million already provided in the Farm Bill.
For decades, black farmers said they were unjustly being denied farm loans or subjected to longer waits for loan approval because of racism, and accused the USDA of not responding to their complaints.
The original Pigford lawsuit, named after North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford, was filed against the USDA in 1997, and settled two years later when the government compensated black farmers left out of USDA loan and assistance programs.
More than 13,000 farmers able to provide proof of their claims of discrimination were awarded $50,000 each and given debt relief in a package worth more than $1 billion.
But tens of thousands of claims were denied for missing the filing deadline. The settlement in Pigford II would allow these farmers to again make their claims.
"We have worked hard to address USDA's checkered past so we can get to the business of helping farmers succeed," USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.
"The agreement reached today is an important milestone in putting these discriminatory claims behind us for good," he added.
Black farmers able to demonstrate they suffered from discrimination and filed complaints between 1981 and 1997 will get up to $50,000 and debt relief.
A separate, more in-depth claims process could provide some farmers with up to $250,000 in damages. The final awards for those with successful claims will be determined by the actual amount of funds Congress releases and the number of claims.
"The plaintiffs can move forward and have their claims heard -- with the federal government standing not as an adversary, but as a partner," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
Any foreclosure on farms with pending claims will be halted until the claims are addressed. Those with successful claims will begin receiving payments in mid-2011.
"These are people who have been promised things over the past and they haven't transpired," said John Boyd Jr, founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association.
"We've been really pressing the government for the past 20 years, and we want to make sure this thing really happens for us," he told Reuters, saying the ruling could benefit around 80,000 farmers.
President Barack Obama applauded both USDA for its efforts to right past wrongs and the Justice Department for "bringing these long-ignored claims of African American farmers to a rightful conclusion."
ISSUE MOVES TO CONGRESS
Though the settlement is a significant step forward, black farmers awaiting compensation still have one more hurdle to cross. Farmers will only receive payments if Congress approves the money by March 31.
Blanche Lincoln, chair of the Senate agriculture committee, expressed her support for upholding the settlement agreement.
"I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress to help provide the compensation owed to African American farmers who have been victims of discrimination," she said.
Boyd pointed out that this is the second time the $1.15 billion request has come to Congress. It was not acted on in the previous budget.
"Taking this big step today by entering into an agreement with the black farmers really puts the pressure on the president and the agriculture secretary to finish the job by calling on leaders of Congress to finally bring long-overdue justice to black farmers," he said.
(Editing by Simon Denyer and Eric Walsh)