Tens of thousands of African American farmers and Native Americans will soon receive compensation for discrimination and mismanagement they allegedly suffered at the hands of the federal government.
President Barack Obama is expected to sign a $4.5 billion bill just passed by the U.S. Congress to settle these long-standing claims.
Black farmers settled their lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture more than a decade ago over claims of racial discrimination in federal loans and other programs that USDA administers, but disputes over who was eligible and Congressional wrangling over funding for the settlement delayed final resolution.
The new law makes nearly 80,000 black farmers eligible to apply for compensation that amounts to about $50,000 each.
John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, described Congressional passage of the Claims Settlement Act as long-overdue justice.
"It's very, very good that black farmers will finally have the opportunity to have their cases heard, based on their merit," he said.
But Boyd said the victory as bittersweet, because many black farmers who suffered discrimination have died before their cases could be resolved.
USDA is also taking steps to resolve claims of discrimination involving Hispanic and women farmers along the same lines as the settlement with black farmers.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, "There has been a concerted effort to do what has not been done in many cases for 10, 15, 20, in some cases 30 years, which is to try to resolve as many of these cases in as fair and equitable a way as possible."
Native American land, water
In addition to the settlement with black farmers, the new law also provides $3.4 billion to settle a variety of claims made by Native Americans. They include mismanagement by the Department of the Interior of hundreds of thousands of trust funds intended to compensate Native Americans for the use of their lands and resources.
Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes says the new law also makes historic progress on four water-rights cases in the arid American West long pursued by Native American groups.
"These four matters have been, in fact, in litigation for cumulatively over 100 years of litigation," he said. "We brought all of them to settlements."
In a written statement, Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said the law settles historic injustices and starts the U.S. government on a course to make Native American lands more productive for future generations.