The Brazilian Amazon: The legacy of an eco-martyr

National Catholic Reporter

Story and Photos by PAUL JEFFREY Para, Brazil
Publication date:
July 11, 2008

The Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon Deep in the Brazilian Amazon,

Antonia Silva Lima lives in a place called Hope. She came to the rain forest more than two decades ago, following thousands of other migrants fleeing poverty in other parts of Brazil. The settlers moved deep into the forest and cut down trees to grow subsistence crops, only to be chased off their small plots by gunmen at the hire of government-sanctioned wealthy land grabbers. Then four years ago Lima and her family joined a small gathering of peasant farmers committed to living sustainably in the middle of the jungle without cutting it down. She was encouraged to join the project by Dorothy Stang, a sister of Notre Dame de Namur who gave the village its name: Esperança — the Portuguese word for hope.

As those familiar with struggles to save the Amazon rain forest well know, Stang was assassinated in 2005 at that place called Hope by opponents of the pioneering jungle experiment. A native of Dayton, Ohio, she had gone to Brazil as a missionary in 1966.

Antonia Silva Lima

“Although they killed her, we still have that hope that we can one day make this what Dorothy dreamed of, where the forest still stands, where nature is preserved, where we’ll earn enough to support our families by living in harmony with nature,” Lima said. “We’re achieving her dream, bit by bit.”

To many, Stang is an eco-martyr. The Amazon where she died is a region under assault. In the last four decades, at least 20 percent of the trees in the rain forest have been cut down, and the future looks bleak for a region that provides one-fifth of the world’s fresh water and remains an untapped treasure trove of biodiversity. Yet amid chain saws and bulldozers and the growing fields of monocrops that are steadily replacing ancient stands of vine-draped mahogany, the innovative project championed by Stang challenges the dominant slash-and-burn culture with a vision of peaceful coexistence between humans and the forest.

Sr. Jane Dwyer visits the grave of Sr. Dorothy Stang, in a section of woodland preserved at the edge of Anapú, Brazil.

That vision remains inconvenient for those who profit from the rain forest’s destruction, and they’re on the attack against a church that today sides with the poor and nature. Those responsible for killing the feisty 73-year-old Stang are undeterred by the verdict of Brazilian justice, which has convicted three men linked to the killing. (A fourth man, a Brazilian rancher convicted a year ago of masterminded the killing, was acquitted in retrial in May. Brazilian law requires retrials for people receiving sentences of more than 20 years.) They’ve threatened other church activists and even offered half a million dollars to kill a bishop.

On soil fertilized by Stang’s blood, the church has made a stand for all of God’s creation.

The opening of the Amazon

Contrary to idealized conceptions of the Amazon as a vast stretch of uninhabited wildness that some foreigners want preserved in the style of U.S. national parks, the region has always been populated.

“To defend the forest we have to defend the people of the forest, because the forest has always had people living in it,” said Felicio Pontes, a crusading federal prosecutor in Belem, the capital of this northern state of Pará. Pontes was one of Stang’s closest friends and allies.

The region’s population grew in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when Brazil’s military government, worried about losing sovereignty to neighboring countries, opened up the Amazon to families fleeing poverty in the northeast and south of the country. An escape valve designed to ameliorate discontent, the government advertised the jungle as “land without people for people without land.”

The Trans-Amazon Highway was built to provide access, and it carried the desperately poor into the harsh region, where some perished and some prospered.

The opening of the Amazon also represented a unique opportunity for the wealthy and unscrupulous, who took advantage of abundant subsidies and lax oversight to stake often-competing claims for vast swatches of land. An entire industry of corruption flourished; the land robbers were dubbed grileiros after the common practice of artificially aging falsified land titles by putting them in a drawer full of grilos — crickets — for several days, after which they’d take on the look of old, legitimate property certificates. As grileiros, loggers, cattle ranchers and miners flocked to the region, the poor who got in the way of their ambitious projects were frightened off, enslaved or simply eliminated by pistoleiros — hired gunslingers — who found abundant work on the frontier.

Attempts by the poor to organize to defend themselves were made difficult by the fact that they had migrated to the Amazon from so many places, and thus lacked a common history. The church was for many a commonality and it became a focal point for resisting the violence of the wealthy. The Pastoral Land Commission of the Brazilian bishops was established in 1975 to support the poor in their struggles for land and, together with activist Christian base communities in the area, quickly earned the church a reputation as a troublemaker standing in the way of “progress” — understood as unbridled exploitation. The military labeled the church activists subversives and launched a campaign of torture, disappearances and killings.

“The church had long been on the side of the ranchers and the rich, and when it switches sides it has to be shut up. Even if it’s necessary to use a bullet to accomplish that,” said Fr. Jose Amaro Lopes de Sousa, the parish priest in Anapú and a close collaborator of Stang’s.

‘She lived with the poor’

Stang felt a calling to accompany those at the margins, and as the Trans-Amazon Highway pushed people deeper into the jungle, she went to Altamira in 1982 and presented herself to Erwin Kräutler, bishop of the prelature of the Xingu, one of the world’s largest dioceses, and perhaps the most dangerous.

At the Esperança Sustainable Development Project, 8-year-olds Vanesa Silva de Soza, left, and Yulimara Machin da Silva use banana leaves to protect themselves from the rain.

Kräutler recalls that Stang asked to serve with the poorest of the people. That was the beginning of her work along the Trans-Amazon.

“She didn’t make incursions into poor communities. She lived with the poor … and because of her love for the poor and their cause, and her defense of the environment, she was killed,” Kräutler said.

As Stang worked with the poor along the serial potholes that form the Trans-Amazon Highway, she increasingly became a champion of their right to have land of their own, even though that meant facing down powerful opponents.

“Dorothy was obsessed with finding land where the poor could live and grow their crops,” said José Batista Gonçalves Afonso, a member of the national coordinating team of the Catholic church’s Pastoral Land Commission. “It was the only alternative for the people who continue to migrate here, families who come here with nothing. If they don’t make it here, they’ll move to the periphery of the cities and face hunger and violence and misery, their kids will go to the streets and get involved in prostitution and crime.”

The Esperança Sustainable Development Project, which Stang galvanized, brings together 250 families, giving each 100 hectares, or 247 acres, of land. They can use 20 percent for farming, but the remaining 80 percent is managed sustainably, so that the rain forest remains intact. Limited harvesting of trees is allowed, but under strict controls to guarantee the forest remains viable.

Dorothy’s papers

Stang’s preparation for land disputes between the poor and the wealthy usually involved papers. These included detailed maps of the jungle and photocopied sections of obscure agrarian reform regulations. She carried them with her Bible, inside the cloth bag she took everywhere. She was quick to pull them out and — squinting at the print because macular degeneration was causing her to slowly go blind — start lecturing anyone who would listen about how the poor were being exploited by those who ignored the law.

Josué Pinto de Oliveira, a member of Esperança, inspects his cacao, a plant that grows well underneath the jungle canopy.

As a popular advocate, she could be relentless in making reluctant bureaucrats pay attention. Her enemies grew.

For many in the Amazon, Stang is a hero, a martyr, a saint. At the end of a meeting of the “Dorothy Committee,” an ecumenical group based in the offices of the Conference of Women Religious in Belem, which works to ensure that justice is done in Stang’s case, Sr. Margarita Maria Pantoja, a Missionary of Saint Teresinha, pulls out a glass container of blood-soaked soil from the site where Stang was killed. Everyone lays their hands on the bottle. “Sister Dorothy lives!” shouts Pantoja. “Forever! Forever! Forever!” the group responds.

Yet there’s an alternative view of Stang. According to the attorney for several of the men convicted of her murder, the U.S. nun was an instigator of armed struggle. During the May 2007 trial of the rancher convicted of ordering Stang’s killing, Americo Leal complained about U.S. government-instituted violence from Hiroshima to Guantánamo, then argued that Stang “shares this DNA of violence, the DNA to kill.”

He told the court that Stang was a secret U.S. government agent who was killed in legitimate self-defense because the U.S. nun had 50 armed peasants backing her up. In an interview with NCR, Leal said, “Dorothy was unique in the Catholic church. I come from a Catholic family, and I know the church well. Its people never behave like Dorothy. The priests, the nuns, they stay in the church and on Sundays they have Mass, but they never take up arms.”

Stang’s colleagues of course describe Leal’s characterization as preposterous. Though clearly Stang was zealous and implacable, they say she never touched a gun, and far from urging civil or violent disobedience, she counseled patience and civil obedience to the state.

A member of Esperança works in the jungle.

Toward the end of her life, Stang, who had taken to wearing a T-shirt that said, “The death of the forest is the end of our life,” was nonetheless growing weary of the government’s repeated failures to do its job. Sr. Jane Dwyer recalls that Stang would get particularly excited by readings from the Psalms where God intervenes to make justice happen for the poor.

The days she was most animated were the days when God was taking charge, believing, “If I can’t do something, then God will take care of them,” Dwyer said.

That optimism lasted until the day she was murdered. Cornered along a muddy path in the forest by the two men hired to kill her for $25,000, a sum that was never paid after the work was done, Stang pulled out her maps to try to convince them they were on the wrong side of a legal dispute about ownership of the land. Failing to convince them with the map, she pulled out her Bible and, according to the testimony of one of the killers, read to them from the Beatitudes.

The group believed to have plotted to kill Stang is referred to as “the Consortium,” and is believed to be behind failed attempts to kill both Kräutler (an attempt that killed an Italian priest riding in the bishop’s car) and de Sousa, the priest in Anapú. (His parish has inherited Stang’s white Volkswagen Beetle, which now has “Dorothea” painted on the sides and is laden with loudspeakers used to announce meetings in the town of church groups and small farmers groups.)

The Consortium’s interests are varied. Activists have angered the group with their opposition to a giant hydroelectric project that will flood indigenous reserves and kill off native fish species. Kräutler earned their ire once again when he denounced a ring that was abusing children. According to a conversation overheard in an Altamira bar Feb. 23, the price on the bishop’s head has gone up to half a million dollars. At the government’s insistence, he now travels with two federal police officers who serve as bodyguards.

“For the government, it’s easier to give me bodyguards than to fully investigate and find out who is responsible for the threats,” the bishop said.

Dwyer, one of the sisters who worked with Stang, said focus on the threats is a convenient distraction, giving people something to talk about other than the wealthy’s continued unbridled exploitation of the rain forest and its people.

Sending a message

The same day as Stang’s murder, Marina Silva, then-federal minister of the environment and another Stang friend, was in Pará, in the city of Porto de Moz, to inaugurate the “Forever Green” Extractive Reserve — another sustainable alternative to letting the grileiros destroy the rain forest. Pontes, the federal prosecutor in Belem, and others had encouraged Stang to go to the ceremony with them, but Stang had insisted she had to get back to Esperança. According to an investigation by a government intelligence agency, the assassination of Stang was a “message” to Silva and other activists in the government, warning them to back off from implementing environmental and agrarian policies that would threaten the hegemony of the Consortium.

Around Anapú, the jungle has been cut down and burned in order to raise cattle.

The murder of an elderly U.S. nun was big news, and the Brazilian government was forced to respond. Hundreds of soldiers occupied Anapú. Log trucks were stopped. Promises rained down that those responsible for the crime would be punished, that the Esperança lands would be properly titled, that the illegal depredation of the rain forest would cease.

More than three years later, it seems the initial response was nothing more than “hanging a few people for the English to see,” a popular Brazilian expression.

Although the killers didn’t hang (Brazil has no death penalty), they did get long sentences, but judicial shenanigans have meant new trials. Each time a trial is held, the nuns pass the hat and the residents of Esperança crowd into buses for the journey to Belem, which can take anywhere from 15 to 72 hours, depending on the rain. A police escort makes the trip with them.

Accompanying the judicial process takes a lot of time, pulling the sisters in Anapú away from their work of trying to help the settlers in Esperança consolidate their gains. “It’s a terrible distraction,” said Dwyer, “but we can’t dismiss the trials as simply the show that they are, because of the issue of impunity. We can’t betray the hundreds of other people who’ve been murdered and haven’t even had a day in court.”

Almost 800 farmers and human rights activists have been murdered in land-related struggles in Pará in the last three decades. Stang’s killers are the only ones in jail.

Thomas Mitschein, president of the Program on Poverty and the Environment in the Amazon, based in Belem at the Federal University of Pará, said Stang’s murder has changed things some. “In political terms the situation is calmer. The bad guys don’t have the courage to do now what they were doing before to destroy these sustainable initiatives.”

At a memorial Mass in February on the third anniversary of Stang’s killing, Bishop Kräutler lambasted the country’s leaders for failure to keep promises to make more profound change.

“The politicians were all present on the day of our sister’s burial. … They were not converted. Their idea of development for the region continues being merely economic. They think only of immediate profits and intentionally ignore the irreparable damages being caused. They delegate to future generations the task of dealing with the disgrace caused in these times.”

The rate of deforestation throughout the Amazon did drop for a couple of years following Stang’s killing, yet the development seems more a product of market conditions than any shame over the murder. By the last six months of 2007, with soy and beef prices rising, the trees began to fall faster than ever. A widely publicized government crackdown in February on illegal logging in a corner of the Amazon known as Tailandia seemed at best symbolic resistance to the renewed rape of the rain forest.

Pontes, the federal prosecutor, pulled up a map on his computer to show where deforestation is heaviest, and then click to maps that show reports of extrajudicial killings and reports of slavery. They are the same areas.

With increased deforestation, other sins are also on the rise in the Amazon.

Sr. Dorothy Stang “Deforestation is a signal of where violence is focused. It’s not just about cutting down trees. Where they cut down trees, they also kill people,” Pontes said. “Deforestation is the beginning of social decomposition that ultimately leads to the death of persons.”Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary journalist who has filed stories on Latin American concerns for many years. He now lives in Eugene, Ore.

Stang’s passion, on page and screen

Two books and a documentary film have been released in recent months that make Dorothy Stang’s life available to those who didn’t know the feisty nun.

Even as a girl, Stang was enthralled with the idea of mission. As a student at Julienne High School in Dayton, Ohio, run by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, she convinced her siblings and friends to walk to school so they could donate their bus money to overseas missions. “I want to be a missionary in China,” Stang wrote on her application to join the order.

She became a novice in 1948, less than two months after her 17th birthday. A few years after her vows, she embarked for a mission school in Arizona. She spent 13 years among poor immigrants in the Southwest. In 1963, when Pope John XXIII appealed to U.S. religious communities to send 10 percent of their personnel to Latin America, she was one of the first in her order to sign up.

The book Martyr of the Amazon: The Life of Sister Dorothy Stang (Orbis) is the in-house version of her death after almost 40 years in Brazil, told by Roseanne Murphy, a member of the same order as Stang. Based on Stang’s own writings and the memories of her family and colleagues, it chronicles Stang’s journey from childhood through her years of becoming a nun, all the way to the muddy path where she was killed by two hired gunmen in 2005.

Binka Le Breton’s The Greatest Gift: The Courageous Life and Martyrdom of Sister Dorothy Stang (Doubleday) takes readers along the same journey, but the British author, a journalist who has written about slavery and the environment in Brazil, provides more context, detailing the culture of impunity and violence in which Stang tried to help landless farmers survive.

A third resource will hit U.S. theaters later this year. “They Killed Sister Dorothy” is a feature-length documentary by Colorado filmmaker Daniel Junge. Narrated by Martin Sheen, it follows Stang’s brother David to Brazil in his quest for justice. Perhaps more about Brazilian injustice than the martyred nun, it offers gripping behind-the-scenes footage of how the wealthy and their attorneys cynically manipulate judicial proceedings — including threats to the gunmen to change their stories — in order to escape responsibility for killing the remarkable 73-year-old woman who got in the way of their schemes to rape the Amazon. Trailer and release information is available at [1].

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Justice in the World – 1971 Synod of Bishops