When the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Native American farmers and ranchers reached a discrimination lawsuit agreement in 2011, $760 million in litigated damages became available. Four thousand Native Americans who claimed they were denied equal access to credit in the USDA Farm Loan Program applied for recompense. Now a national coalition of nonprofit organizations working with Native agricultural efforts has banded together in an effort to facilitate distribution of the remaining $380 million in funds.
“The Native American Farm, Ranch, and Food Fund that seeks to provide one-time and on-going grants supporting Native American farmers, ranchers, and food systems, is an amazing opportunity to strengthen the long-term survival of Native communities,” says Terrol Johnson, President/CEO of Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), one of the organizations helping coordinate the proposal. “NAFRFF would ensure we have thriving farming, ranching, and food systems by supporting economic development, nurturing our cultures, and promoting community health.”
It would do more than that, according to Tristan Reader, TOCA’s Special Projects Director. “This is a revolutionary concept, the first time there’s been an opportunity for Native communities to really influence food systems and farming and ranching issues for generations to come. This isn’t a small amount of money nor is it a short-term fix. This has the potential to build sustainable food systems in Native communities across the United States.”
NAFRFF would utilize settlement funds to establish three programs – $155 million for on-going grant-making and advocacy operations; $125 million in endowment grants, and $100 in capital grants. As proposed, 10 percent of that $380 million would be available for distribution within six months of final approval of the plan which will be presented to the court this month. “The remainder would be placed in a trust to be distributed within 20 years, all the while accruing compound interest,” says Reader.
According to the NAFRFF Executive Summary, “Discrimination alleged in the litigation has meant that Native farmers, ranchers, and food systems have not had access to the capital they need in order to effectively develop and run their operations. Providing a capital infusion would allow a counter balance to this reality.”
There was no lightning-bolt epiphany behind the proposal under consideration. “There’s been a growing movement around farming and ranching and food issues in Indian country for the last 20 years and a network has built up,” Reader says. “When suggestions were requested on how to disseminate the $380 million, rather than it becoming a money grab where different people with different agendas centering on narrowly-focused individual communities competed, we thought it more productive to come together with a common vision and a common goal that would benefit generations to come. This isn’t a group of people who came together because there was money available, this is a group that has been working together across tribal communities over the last two decades, developing relationships, and sharing what works and what doesn’t. Because the network already existed, we mobilized some 150 years of collective thought and effort and came up with this proposal.”
Rather than facing a politically-charged, bureaucratic, Washington-based allocation of the remaining funds, NAFRFF proposers wanted the decision to be made by the people who have decades of experience in knowing what actually works based on having done so for years with little in the way of resources. Joining TOCA were endorsers like Winona LaDuke of the White Earth Land Recovery Program; Taos Community Economic Development Corporation; Cheyenne River Youth Project; Native Foodways magazine, and hundreds of individual indigenous farmers, ranchers, fishermen, chefs, food producers, and foragers.
The Tohono O’odham Community Action efforts have been on-going for 20 years, much of it a minimally-funded labor of love. “We’re one of the organizations in need of financial support,” Reader says. “If we get some dollars, like a lot of other Native American communities, we want to invest in training, planning, and funding the building blocks of strong community farming, ranching, and food production, strengthening the long-term programming of the infrastructure needed to rebuild a tribal food system.”
From TOCA’s perspective, it’s a no-brainer win-win proposition. “You can’t be a sovereign nation if you’re one hundred percent food dependent on outsiders for your nutrition. Economically it makes sense too. Between 40 and 60 million dollars a year is spent in the Tohono O’odham community alone for food, but less than five percent of that currently goes to tribal food producers, so there’s a tremendous opportunity for sustainable agricultural economic development from within. Imagine if the O’odham community could capture 10 percent of those millions, $6 million a year in locally-generated economic activity. Then take that to a national scale and you’re talking something like close to $400 million a year spent on food by federally-recognized tribes. That’s a huge economic sector that doesn’t rely on gaming or grant funding, but a kind of economic activity that Native people would have in their own control, resources that didn’t leave the community. What if you were able to capture that? Wow. That’s the kind of leverage these funds could make possible.
“We’ve made our collective group suggestions to the plaintiff’s attorneys and are hopeful they will put together a fair and equitable final plan for consideration by the court. None of us is breathing a sigh of relief yet, but we’re feeling positive that this opportunity to positively influence generations of farmers, ranchers, and Native community food producers will be implemented in the right way – in a way that invests and supports the very people who seek to rebuild their own food systems.”