washingtonpost.com  > World > Americas > South America > Brazil

Murder Galvanizes Nun's Cause

Brazil Reimposes Logging Restrictions, Expands Land Reserves

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 21, 2005; Page A01

ANAPU, Brazil -- The Catholic church building where Sister Dorothy Stang slept is just as she left it.

Her bicycle leans against a wall downstairs. In her wooden mailbox is an unopened letter from Little Rock. Her slippers rest beside the slender mattress in the bedroom. A map of the Amazon region -- curled at the edges from humidity -- still hangs in the hall, charting the rough boundaries of land she fought for decades to protect.

Doves fly over a memorial to Dorothy Stang outside the Supreme Court in Brasilia. Police suspect a rancher ordered her killing. (Jamil Bittar -- Reuters)

The 73-year-old American nun and environmental activist was shot dead Feb. 12 in a settlement of landless peasants. Her life was dedicated to protecting the Amazon rain forest and its poor residents, but it was her death -- blamed on the ranchers, loggers and land speculators with whom she battled -- that prompted the Brazilian government to act.

Just a week before Stang's death, the government had eased tree harvesting restrictions in northern Brazil in response to protests by loggers. But in a stark turnaround five days after Stang's death, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva restored the restrictions and announced 8.2 million acres of new reserves. The government also sent troops to the remote region of northern Para state.

Environmentalists who worked with Stang cautiously applauded the actions. But they fear that the restrictions could stoke more violence in a conflict that no one -- not the activists, the loggers or even the police -- believes will end soon.

The Pastoral Land Commission, a Catholic group Stang worked with, says that about 1,380 people have been killed in land conflicts in Brazil since the mid-1980s. Most of the victims have been rural laborers who settled in areas sought by those claiming logging or ownership rights. More than half of those deaths are believed to have occurred in Para state, which includes the town of Anapu and the nearby settlement where Stang was shot.

She was shot six times by two gunmen, who are still at large. On Sunday, police charged a man suspected of hiring the gunmen on behalf of a rancher who was opposed to Stang's efforts with conspiracy to murder, the Associated Press reported. Amair Freijoli da Cunha had turned himself in to the police Saturday insisting he was not involved.

Like many activists in the region, Stang was accustomed to death threats, and she had drawn scorn from many in industry and government. In 2003, the president of Anapu's municipal government signed a notarized form declaring her "persona non grata." Other officials tried to have her arrested, contending that she agitated local workers, and they accused her of supplying them with guns. She had discussed another round of death threats with Brazilian human rights leaders as recently as two weeks ago.

"As bishop, I had the right to send her away if I believed she was in danger," said Bishop Erwin Krautler, 75, who has helped lead the church's environmental and poverty relief efforts in the Xingu River region for 40 years. "But how could I do that? Anyone who works for this cause is under a threat."

Death threats are passed around like calling cards here. On Wednesday night in Altamira -- a town connected to Anapu by an 80-mile stretch of unpaved Trans-Amazon Highway -- Tarcisio Fettos walked toward friends sitting at a table in a riverside restaurant and unfolded a piece of paper. Fettos, 33, had worked with Stang since he was 15. The paper was a death threat he said he had received earlier that day.

"It's so common to be threatened," Fettos said. "This is my third letter in 10 years." His friends urged him to leave town out of fear that violence would escalate after the new reserves were announced, but Fettos said he was unsure what he would do.

Stang's killing is being compared here to the 1988 murder of Chico Mendes, a rubber tapper whose slaying galvanized international interest in protecting the rain forest from developers. On a cross near her gravesite, a piece of paper bearing her name hangs just below one with his.

A lot of people like sharing their memories of the white-haired woman they called "Irma Doroty," who was originally from Ohio. She moved to the region in the mid-1970s and shifted the focus of her work from education to environmental issues in the 1980s. People remember how Stang loved pancakes, how they used to see her riding her bicycle around town, how humorlessly inept she was at color-coordinating her wardrobe.

They remember how she used to hold the Bible in both hands in front of her and tell them it was the only weapon she needed. According to witnesses, she began to read passages from the Bible as her killers shot her. About 2,000 people attended a service for her Tuesday in the rain forest clearing where she had asked to be buried.

CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company