On Wednesday, Congress passed one of the most sweeping relief programs for minority farmers in the nation’s history, through a provision of President Biden’s pandemic stimulus bill. Although the landmark legislation, which would cancel $4 billion worth of debt, seemed to emerge out of nowhere, it actually is the result of more than 20 years of organizing by Black farmers.

The Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act will forgive 120 percent of the value of loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or from private lenders and guaranteed by the USDA, to “Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic farmers and other agricultural producers of color,” according to a release from the bill’s sponsors, Senators Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

Advocacy groups say the debt relief will begin to rectify decades of broken promises and discrimination from the USDA that caused Black farmers to lose roughly 90 percent of their land between 1910 and today.

Although the program will be administered as pandemic relief — and apply to all farmers of color — the intellectual forces behind the bill say its main objective is to address failures in two landmark civil rights settlements between the USDA and Black farmers, Pigford I and II. The Pigford settlements stem from a 1997 class action lawsuit that accused the USDA of discriminating against Black farmers through loans and other policies, and failing to investigate or respond to discrimination claims. USDA settled with the farmers, agreeing to compensate them with cash and debt relief. But a federal judge made debt relief available to the farmers through a consent decree, their attorneys and the U.S. Department of Justice negotiated a stipulation order that placed additional restrictions on which loans would qualify, including a requirement that farmers prove that the specific loan was affected by discrimination. In the end, less than 5 percent of the Pigford I funds went to debt forgiveness, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Though the new debt-relief program emerged out of advocacy for Black farmers seeking the loan forgiveness promised in the Pigford settlements, the activists pushed for a more inclusive bill because of the federal government’s history of discrimination against all farmers of color. The greatest land giveaway in U.S. history, for example, occurred through the 1862 Homestead Act, under which the federal government transferred more than 270 million acres of Native American land to mostly white settlers. More recently, USDA has settled claims of widespread loan discrimination against Native AmericanHispanic and women farmers.

“This moment right here was based on the advocacy of Black farmer organizing,” said McCurty. “That’s a fact. But the beauty of it is the commitment of Black farmers to collective liberation.”

Read the full article about debt relief by Monica Nickelsburg at the Food and Environment Reporting Network.