Murder of a crusader

Print edition : March 25, 2005

Sister Dorothy Stang in the Amazon rainforest. - CARLOS SILVA/AP

The murder of a U.S. missionary in the Amazon basin of Brazil once again draws attention to the destruction of rainforests and the exploitation of indigenous people and small farmers in the region.

SISTER Dorothy Stang believed that promotion of justice was an integral part of the service of the faith. And she, like several others before her, paid the ultimate price for that conviction. She knew that her enemies wanted her dead. But, despite receiving several death threats, she refused to abandon the small farmers of Brazil's Amazon basin. She had dedicated her life as a nun to their service. Sister Dorothy even turned down the local authorities' offer to appoint personal bodyguards. She said: "I don't want to flee, nor do I want to abandon the battle of these farmers who live in the forest without any protection. They have the sacrosanct right to aspire to a better life on land where they can live and work with dignity while respecting the environment."

When they finally came for her, on February 12, the gutsy resolve and commitment seemed to have taken even the murderers by surprise. Confronted with gun-toting contract killers, she pulled out a Bible and read it to them. They listened for a while, and fired. When her body was found - lying face down on mud in the Trans-Amazonian Highway near Anapu, in the State of Para - it had three bullet injuries, in the head and the throat.

The United States-born, 74-year-old Sister Dorothy belonged to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church, known for its adherence to liberation theology and social justice. In her almost three-decade-long work among the oppressed farmers and indigenous people of the lawless and hard-to-reach fringes of Brazil, she lived the order's mission to "take our stand with poor people, especially women and children, in the most abandoned places". She joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in 1948 and reached the Latin American country as a missionary in 1966.

In Brazil, Sister Dorothy found herself in the midst of a revolution within the Catholic Church. A rejuvenated post-Second Vatican Council Church was reinventing itself as the "People of God" through base ecclesial communities, a "preferential option for the poor" and activist priests and nuns. She had no difficulty in adapting herself to the new situation. By the early 1980s, Sister Dorothy was in Para working with the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), a Catholic organisation founded in 1975 to fight for the rights of rural workers and peasants.

Since then Sister Dorothy helped to organise poor farmers, many of whom had migrated to the Amazon basin in search of land, taught them methods of small-scale sustainable farming and protected precious rainforests. Her work earned her powerful and ruthless adversaries - illegal loggers and ranchers - who were locked in a bloody battle with the farmers for pristine forests. With the support of corrupt local politicians and government officials, they forged land titles and resorted to violence to force out farmers from the land given to them by the government. In the past 25 years, conflicts over land in the Amazon basin have claimed numerous lives, the majority of them farmers and agricultural workers. Para alone accounts for the highest rate of such murders. According to the Brazilian human rights group Justica Global, 33 of the 73 rural workers killed in 2003 belonged to Para. For 2004 the figures were 19 and 53 respectively. The CPT estimates that more than 1,400 people have been killed in land-related conflicts in Para since 1985.

Hardly a week before her death, Sister Dorothy told Brazilian Secretary of Human Rights Nilmario Miranda that four farmers whom she worked with had received death threats. It was on her way to meet them in the state-owned settlement of Boa Esperanca that she was killed. The CPT said in a statement: "The hatred of ranchers and loggers respects nothing. The reprehensible murder of our sister brings back to us memories of a past that we had thought was closed." On February 16, thousands gathered for the funeral of the woman they affectionately called "angel of the Trans-Amazonian" and "Sister of the T-shirt" (after the colourful, hand-painted T-shirts she wore).

The murder of the widely respected and honoured nun - she was made an honorary citizen of Para in 2004 and won a human rights prize from the Brazilian Bar Association - made international headlines. Media reports compared her martyrdom to that of 44-year-old Chico Mendes, rubber tapper, trade union leader and environmental activist. Mendes, born Francisco Alves Mendes Filho, was killed in 1988 in his native Acre State for organising rubber tappers against landowners. About a year before his death he received the Global 500 Award of the United Nations and the Better World Society Prize. Mendes' death brought to focus the environmental destruction, the exploitation of indigenous people and other illegal activities going on in the Amazon basin. The international criticism that followed prompted the government of the day to impose some regulations on the use of public land and clamp down on the violence.

Chico Mendes.-GAMMA

Seventeen years later, history is repeating itself. Sister Dorothy's murder has drawn the world's attention to the plight of the region and its people. Condemnations and calls for action flowed in from across the world. Brazil's leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said: "We're going to end this practice of businessmen ... hiring gunmen to kill organised rural workers. Brazil is not a no-man's land." Lula was a colleague of Mendes in the nascent Workers Party (P.T.) and was tried in a case along with him for trade union activism.

On February 17, Lula's government created two new forest reserves of about 10 million acres (four million hectares). Two Ministers were despatched to Para to study the situation. The government deployed soldiers in the region and launched a massive manhunt to arrest Sister Dorothy's killers. So far three suspects have been arrested and two of whom charged with murder. The third person is alleged to have conspired and employed the two to carry out the killing.

However, in spite of the crackdown on violence, the Amazon basin continues to bleed. Since Sister Dorothy's death, two rural workers and a union leader have been killed. On February 21, two ranchers were gunned down. Several workers, trade union leaders and activists said that they had received death threats.

THE Amazon rainforest in Brazil, one of the richest and most diverse ecosystems in the world, was the exclusive preserve of Indian tribes and other traditional forest dwellers until the late 19th century. The first and second waves of immigration to the region occurred in the early- and mid-20th century following the rubber boom generated by the demand for rubber in North America and Europe, and the Second World War. The majority of the immigrants were impoverished people without land from southern and northeastern Brazil. They worked as rubber tappers for companies that acquired huge areas of the rainforest to extract latex from the natural rubber trees that were scattered across the area. The indigenous people who resisted the occupation of their land were ruthlessly massacred. Others were forced to join the swelling ranks of rubber tappers and rural workers.

With the decline of the rubber industry after the Second World War, the bankrupt rubber companies left the region. But rubber tapping continues to be the main source of livelihood for many people in regions such as Acre. They are legal owners of the land and practise an eco-friendly and sustainable way of using the resources of the forest.

The U.S.-backed military coup in 1964 marked the beginning of a new era of exploitation. The military regime put out plans of a massive development project for the region - roads, railways, dams and other infrastructure projects, and investment-promoting incentives such as low-interest loans for farming and ranching - with the objective to integrate it with the rest of the country. The most important segment of the project was the Trans-Amazonian Highway, which connects the eastern and western regions of the Amazon basin. This was followed by another wave of immigration, again largely of poor people who were promised landholdings by the military government. Couched in terms reminiscent of the Zionist colonisation of Palestine, the Amazon basin was touted as a "land without people for a people without land".

A 2003 Greenpeace report on Para, "State of Conflict", notes that since the 1990s "logging and cattle ranching are the driving force behind the illegal assault on the land" in the State. Grilagem or forging of land titles is the most common method used by loggers and ranchers to acquire public land illegally. With the complicity of local authorities the titles are registered with the respective State and federal agencies. More often than not, land is acquired after expelling the original inhabitants, mostly traditional communities who are the legal owners. The report says: "In the boom and bust cycle of predatory logging and deforestation, madeireiros (loggers) exploit the land, deplete it of forest cover and abandon it to the fazendeiros (farmers)." The deforested areas are transformed into grazing areas for cattle or used to cultivate soya.

The incidence of slave labour is increasing rampantly on such farms and ranches. "Between 1995 and 2001, 49 per cent of the cases of slavery in Brazil occurred in cattle ranches and 25 per cent were related to deforestation. The expansion of the soya frontier into the Amazon is drawing on slave labour - already 6 per cent of all known cases," the report observes. The CPT estimates that more than 25,000 people work in conditions of slavery or semi-slavery in 167 farms in southern and southeastern Para.

Workers, mostly from the slums of Brazil, are trapped by the agents of ranchers and loggers with false promises of high wages and taken to areas deep in the forest. The report notes: "[They] become indebted with the expense of travel to the area, then through having to pay exorbitant prices for accommodation, clothes, medicine and food. They receive very little or no salary and become trapped in debt bondage... They are forced to live in inhuman sanitary and health conditions, sleeping under a canvas and under constant surveillance by armed guards. Those who try to rebel against the subhuman conditions or to escape are sometimes simply killed."

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