Remembering Sister Dorothy Stang

Dorothy Stang© Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur Ohio Province

When I met Sister Dorothy Stang, I knew I was encountering someone remarkable. I met her in Belém, the capital of Parã state in northern Brazil. Belém has more than a million people. It was not the natural habitat for Dayton, Ohio native Dorothy Stang, who had gone to the city to petition the state government. She lived far from the city in a remote Amazonian jungle settlement populated by the landless peasants whose interests she tirelessly protected, along with the rainforest itself.

Having read about the late Chico Mendes and the work he did organizing poor rubber tappers (standing up against the road builders and the international banks in the process), it was easy to see how Stang’s efforts dovetailed with his. I thought this even before Stang, like Mendes, was brutally murdered.

Mendes, 44 at the time, was killed by a shotgun blast in 1988. On February 12, Stang, 74, was shot four times in the face and head near the rural town of Anapu on the Trans-Amazon Highway (whose very existence made destruction of the rainforest possible).

Stang had worked in Brazil for 37 years, and had been a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur for 56. The death threats—aimed at stopping her work on behalf of the Amazon’s beleaguered rainforest and its desperately poor inhabitants—had escalated recently.

According to her order, in a statement before the shootings, "Sister Dorothy is being accused of inciting violence in Anapü, Parã and the surrounding area and of supplying ammunition to the people. These accusations are absurd and false. Sister Dorothy has never encouraged violence and, in fact, has been active in trying to stop the daily violence in the region."

The woman I met in Belém was certainly no armed militant, though it’s easy to see how she could be dangerous to certain interests. There was something steely about her, though she was a very slight, unassuming person who radiated goodwill. Sister Dorothy showed me photographs of the small community where she lived, mentioning casually that she had only recently acquired electricity. It was plain that, like the best activists, she cared little about physical comforts and everything about the work she did. Though she mentioned the threats, she didn’t seem overly concerned, and certainly had no thought of giving up her mission. As her niece, Angela Mason, told the Associated Press, "She was the happiest person. She needed nothing. She just loved the people down there."

According to Andrew Revkin of the New York Times, the news of the murder did not shock Sister Michael Mary Nolan, an American nun who moved to Brazil during the military dictatorship and has since become one of the country’s leading independent investigators of justiéeiros—freelance gunmen or moonlighting police who "clean" the streets or forests of the unwanted.

Sister Michael Mary, interviewed by Revkin via telephone, says she has remained busy despite the big changes in the federal government, most recently working on the shooting deaths of six homeless people in a three-block radius in downtown Sao Paulo one night a few months ago and ongoing attacks on Indians in the states of Bahia and Pernambuco.

In Sister Dorothy’s case, Sister Michael Mary said, "There seems to have been a pretty fast response from the Lula government, and witnesses have identified the people. That makes a difference. But will they get the mandantes [the people who commissioned the killing]? That is always the question."

Even in the case of Chico Mendes, the investigation never probed farther than the man who pulled the trigger and his father, and even they were released from prison after serving only half their sentences, because Brazilian law did not consider such a murder a "heinous" crime.

As it happens, Revkin has a piece on Chico Mendes in the forthcoming March/April issue of E, coinciding with the publication of the new edition of his book The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rain Forest. Much of what Revkin wrote about Mendes also applies to Stang. He wrote, in part, "[Mendes] remained an obscure figure outside a small circle of human-rights and conservation campaigners, but his work had been chronicled by a sufficient number of American and European journalists that, when he was gunned down one week after his forty-fourth birthday, everything crystallized: the burning of the forests, the global link created by those rising plumes of greenhouse gases, and the compelling story of a man who had a rare, and crucial, skill set with which to confront ungoverned violence against man and nature.

"Mendes’s life is studied now in some business schools, which might seem odd at first, until one examines his character and tactics more carefully. He was the consummate achiever, starting with a clear goal but never getting locked into one strategy to achieve it
.[O]ne thing he never abandoned was a core focus on nonviolence. He put a tropical spin on the tactics of Gandhi and King, organizing downtrodden rubber-tree tappers into a determined but peaceful resistance force that stood between the forest and the chainsaws of land-grabbing cattle ranchers.

"Like his predecessors, Mendes chose peace in part out of pragmatism, knowing that any other stance would be brutally crushed. The tappers" goal in this resistance was twofold: to protect their rights to the land they had utilized for generations without title and to protect the rubber and Brazil nut trees that, while an impediment to a rancher, represented a renewable source of income to people willing to live within the standing forest.

"The tools and tactics Mendes devised to deal with road builders, ranchers, and the government still influence efforts to both develop and preserve the Amazon—and the planet itself
.As the new millennium began, the daughter of a rubber tapper from Acre, Marina Silva, became the federal minister of the environment. A forest engineer and former political advisor of Mendes"s, Jorge Viana, was elected Acre’s governor. The mayor of Xapuri, Mendes’s home town, was Julio Barbosa de Aquino, a rubber tapper who stood shoulder to shoulder with Mendes in the confrontations with ranchers."

President da Silva, known simply as Lula, was once tried alongside Mendes for union activities, though he has taken a good deal of criticism from environmentalists for not doing more to stop rainforest destruction. The murder of Sister Dorothy is set against the backdrop of a dismaying development in the ongoing effort to stop rainforest destruction. Under pressure from loggers and their allies, according to the New York Times, the leftist government of Luiz Inãcio Lula da Silva in mid February restored logging licenses that had been suspended in 2004. After Sister Dorothy was murdered, the government reversed itself, declared eight million acres to be under protection, and sent in 2,000 federal troops in an effort to restore the rule of law.

The loggers took direct action that recalled that of American old-growth forest protectors—they blocked highways (and, more seriously, burned buses and threatened to seize airports and pollute waterways). Their tactics worked, despite declarations to the contrary from the senior environmental inspector of Para state. In 2005, despite environmentally

friendly leadership at the very top of Brazil’s government, the rainforest is disappearing as quickly as ever.

Death threats didn’t deter Sister Dorothy, and they failed to stop Chico Mendes, either. A few days before his murder, Mendes said in a speech, "I only want that my death contributes to halt the impunity of the killers who count on the protection of the police of Acre, and which have already killed 50 persons like me, seringueiro [worker] leaders, committed to save the Amazon forest and to show that progress without destruction is possible."


Thanks to Andrew Revkin for contributing to this column. His book, The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rain Forest, is published in a 2004 edition by Island Press/Shearwater. His article "Remembering Chico Mendes" will appear in the "Currents" section of the March/April issue of E.