FROM: NY DAILY CHALLENGE - www.challengegroup.com
Black farmers take land dispute to U.N.
By Akwasi Evans, NY Daily Challenge, 25 March 1998
Representatives of Black farmers took their fight for economic justice to the United Nations recently. John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association delivered a petition to the body, March 18, requesting that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan investigate widespread violations of their human rights.
"The country has enabled the USDA (U.S. Department Agriculture) to continue to discriminate against its customers," Boyd said. "This is a national crisis. They have stolen our land. They have taken away our livelihood. Now they are trying to take away our heritage."
African-American farmers have lost over a million acres of land in the past half century and the erosion hasn't ended. There are a myriad of reason for this dramatic decline, but most say the reason is racism and the worst perpetrators are the United States government and the Department of Agriculture (DOA).
For decades Black farmers' claims of discrimination and unjust treatment went largely ignored.
Claims made against local Farm Home Administrations (FHA) often went into USDA trash cans or were referred to the local FHA for evaluation. Finally, in frustration, Black farmers banded together to file a class action lawsuit on behalf of the National Black Farmers Association.
On March 5, 1998, Judge Paul Friedman granted the farmers a status hearing in federal court. The case, Pigford et al. v. Glickman, asked the judge to decide whether the mostly southern Black farmers are entitled to govemment compensation for years of neglect, foot dragging, denial of loans, and unjust foreclosures.
Allowing that time does impose hardships on the farmers, Judge Friedman set Feb. 1, 1999, as the trial date, saying he hoped the cases will be settled through mediation before then.
Last month, Judge Friedman ordered both sides to enter into mediation in an effort to alleviate the farmers' concerns.
The biggest sticking point is the government's contention that all claims presented prior to 1994 are not recoverable and "not subject to monetary relief." The plaintiffs disagree, arguing that because the government has continually taken steps to impede the farmers' suit, there should be no statute of limitation restriction. Such limitations, Pires argued "create another form of injustice."
He accused government attomeys of attempting to make the farmers "go through convoluted claims with artificial issues." He said that 75 percent to 85 percent of all Black farmers with claims could be ruled out if the government's statute of limitations assertion is upheld.
Pires revealed that many farmers have complained but have not filed formal documents. And, he said, "foreclosures are occurring while farmers are trying to get the issue resolved and the govemment continues to sell from the inventory Black farmers are claiming." Pires asked the judge to order an immediate moratorium on the sale of southem farm land until these claims are settled.
He also asked the judge to lift his stay so that his clients could proceed as a class with their suit.
"The cases are incredibly similar. Every farmer has the same elements. They have debt because of what our govemment has done to them," Pires alleged.
Quoting a government official, Pires reported that the Department of Agriculture did not even investigate complaints to local offices. "Nine out of 10 claims were thrown away," Pires stated.
While the government claims that thousands of cases have been settled since January 1997, Pires said that only 11 farmers have gotten relief. Other cases, he said, "were just closed." Time, Pires added, is crucial to the Black farmers. "People are dying and foreclosures are going forth, nothing is more important to them now than an early trial date."
Agricultural Secretary Dan Glickman is committed to trying the case, his attomey stated. "But it is crucial for mediation to go forth," Sitcov added.
Court appointed mediator Michael Lewis said eight mediations were conducted in February, but since then discussions have been halted. He also labeled the government statute of limitation claim "a real barrier," adding that it could possibly be "a smoke screen."
Rev. Joseph Lowery, chairman of the Black Leadership Forum, called upon all major Black organizations to support the Black farmers. He said his organization will approach groups like the NAACP and Urban League in hopes of building a movement in support of the Black farmers.
"There is no more significant group of people than those who till the soil," Lowery stated. "You do not deserve to lose 13 million acres of land in a half century just because you are Black," Lowery said.
Akwasi Evans is publisher/editor of NOKOA-The Observer Newspaper in Austin, Texas.
Edited by the NNPA News Depart~nent