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Brazil: Remembering Dorothy

Antonia Silva Lima lives in a place called Hope. She came to the Amazon rainforest more than two decades ago, like hundreds of thousands of other migrants fleeing from poverty in other parts of Brazil. The settlers moved deep into the forest and cut down the trees to grow subsistence crops, only to be chased off their small plots by gunmen at the hire of wealthy, government-sanctioned land grabbers. And then eight 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 from Ohio who gave the village its name: Esperança–the Portuguese word for hope. At that place called Hope, Sister Dorothy was assassinated seven years ago today–on February 12, 2005–by opponents of the pioneering jungle experiment.

“Dorothy thought of the name, and 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. That’s what Dorothy wanted us to do, and I believe her spirit is alive among us today. We’re achieving her dream, bit by bit,” Lima told me when I went to Brazil in 2008 in order to write about Stang’s life and death and legacy.

The Amazon where Stang died is a region under assault. In the last four decades, almost one-quarter of the rain forest has 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 amidst the chain saws and bulldozers and the growing fields of mechanized 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.

That vision remains inconvenient, however, for those who profit from the rainforest’s destruction, and they’re on the attack against a church that sides with the poor and nature. Those responsible for killing the feisty 73-year old Stang are not deterred by the on-again, off-again functioning of Brazilian justice which has convicted five men linked to the killing. They’ve threatened other church activists and even offered half a million dollars to kill a meddlesome bishop. On soil literally fertilized by Stang’s blood, the church has made a stand for all of God’s creation.

The Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon, in the northern Brazilian state of Para.

Contrary to idealized conceptions of the Amazon as a vast stretch of uninhabited wildness that some foreigners want preserved in U.S.-style 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,” says Felicio Pontes, a crusading federal prosecutor in Belem, the capital of the northern state of Pará, who was one of Stang’s closest friends and allies.

“The historians who described life here in the 1500s were surprised by the number of people living in the jungle. But these people knew how to live with nature, how to survive from nature. So in Brazil we can’t talk about some foreign concept of pure ecology without people, but rather try to understand the Amazon in socio-environmental terms.”

The region suddenly started getting crowded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Brazil’s military government, worried about losing sovereignty to neighboring countries, opened up the Amazon to poor 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 like an open vein it carried the desperately poor into the harsh region where some perished, some prospered, and some returned from their failed quest to join the burgeoning rings of misery around the country’s large cities.

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 thousands of acres. An entire industry of corruption flourished; the landrobbers 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 often the only institution they had in common, and it helped build community among people who didn’t necessarily trust one another, providing a focal point for common resistance to the violence of the wealthy. The Comissão Nacional da Pastoral da Terra (CPT)–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, disappearance, 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 Father Jose Amaro Lopes de Sousa, the parish priest in Anapú and a close collaborator of Stang.

Still clad in her habit, Sister Dorothy arrived in Brazil in 1966 after a 13-year stint in Arizona where she taught school and assisted migrant families. In Brazil she and the other Notre Dame sisters learned Portuguese, studied liberation theology, and were soon sent to the north of the country where the heat convinced them to cut up their habits to make reasonable clothing. These were heady years in the wake of Vatican II, and Stang threw herself happily into organizing schools for children and base communities for adults, encouraging the poor to believe in themselves. Such work wasn’t appreciated by all, and as colleagues began to be picked off by the pistoleiros or military, several times Stang had to lay low to avoid being tortured or killed herself.

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.

“Dorothy came to me asking only to serve here with the most poor of the poor. I remember saying to her, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about, because the poorest of the poor live in misery, and it’s impossible for a North American to live without any comfort.’ But she insisted, and began her work along the Trans-Amazon with the poor. She traveled several times to the States to visit her family, but always came back to the poor. 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 told me.

As Stang worked with the poor along the serial potholes that form the Trans-Amazon, she increasingly became a champion of their right to have land of their own, even though that meant facing down the wealthy and their hired guns. Her reputation grew.

“After hearing about her, we came looking for her because we wanted land to work. We asked her how we could get land, how we could confront the land grabbers, the landlords. We small farmers had no power, no experience, and we were afraid of confronting them. We were afraid of getting killed. Even Jesus was afraid of dying, so what about us? We were afraid of confronting them by ourselves,” Lima said. “Dorothy was a person of faith, courageous and willing to face difficult battles. And she took our side.”

Stang’s preparation for those difficult battles usually involved lots of papers, including detailed maps of jungle and photocopied sections of obscure agrarian reform regulations. She carried them with her Bible, wrapped in plastic inside the cloth bag she carried everywhere, and was quick to pull them out and–squinting at the printing because macular degeneration was causing her to slowly go blind–start lecturing anyone who would listen about how the poor were being screwed by those who ignored the law.

“Dorothy was extremely legalistic. If I mentioned a law, the next time we met she had read it and understood it, and we talked about its implementation. She wanted justice for the peasants, and she knew that the law wouldn’t work if it only stayed on paper. It had to make a difference in the life of the poor,” said Pontes. “She wasn’t against the laws. She argued for their implementation, and she provided a bridge between the law and the groups which had no voice. She became the voice of those people in Brazil who had no voice. As an educator, she could explain–much better than us–how the justice system worked for people who often couldn’t read or write because they’d been excluded from the education system all their lives.”

As a popular advocate, Stang could be relentless in making reluctant bureaucrats pay attention. After an official in the government’s agrarian reform agency in Belem kept putting her off, telling her he’d see her soon but really hoping she’d leave, Stang spent the night sleeping on an office couch–driving her colleagues, worried that she’d been disappeared, to launch a city-wide search. And when another government bureaucrat denied having received her repeated letters documenting grievances of the poor, she walked to his file cabinets and started searching until she found her correspondence.

“This wasn’t your grandmother’s nun. She made things happen,” said Michael Astor, an Associated Press reporter in Rio de Janeiro who covered Stang’s murder. “You can cut through a lot of crap by breaking the rules and acting like an American. But sooner or later it will come back to get you. And that’s why they killed her.”

Beatriz Sousa da Silva, a 6-year old girl in the Esperança Sustainable Development Project, in front of her family's house. Her family is part of a pioneering jungle community where U.S. Catholic Sister Dorothy Stang worked. Stang was murdered here for her defense of the jungle and landless poor families like this one which survive there.

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, Sister Margarita Maria Pantoja, a Missionary of Saint Teresinha, pulls out a glass container of blood-soaked soil from the site where Stang was killed. I join the group in laying our hands on the bottle. “Sister Dorothy lives!” shouts Pantoja. “Forever! Forever! Forever!” we respond.

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 a violent instigator of armed struggle. During the 2007 trial in Belem of a rancher convicted of ordering Stang’s killing, Americo Leal complained about U.S. government-instituted violence from Hiroshima to Guantanamo, 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 in his office in Belem, Leal told me Stang’s killers acted only after the nun told them that she would burn them alive inside their thatched hut.

“She had a history of giving guns to peasants who were invading land, of giving weapons for the massacre of landowners,” Leal said, citing a 2003 case where Stang had been accused of complicity in a shootout on a contested farm outside Anapú in which one pistoleiro was killed. Stang’s supporters, from Pontes to her congregation’s headquarters back in Ohio, claimed she was innocent, the victim of harassment designed to intimidate her into silence.

Leal, famous in Pará for defending his wealthy clients with flair and exaggeration, even compared Stang to a pedophile. “When there’s someone who wants to sexually molest children, they often move from the cities to the little villages where there is less vigilance. I think that Dorothy came from North America to the little towns of our region in order to give in to her impulses to arm the peasants,” he said with a straight face.

“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,” Leal said.

Stang’s colleagues told me she never touched a gun, and that far from urging civil or violent disobedience, the murdered nun counseled patience and civil obedience to the state, which Stang believed could be a motor for social change in the region. For someone who has been labeled as a “radical nun,” Sister Dorothy was in many ways conservative.

“At times some of us thought that she was too naive, because she felt that if we could just get the government to do its job, then the agrarian reform would work,” said Julia Depwig, a Notre Dame de Namur sister in Belem.

“Dorothy believed in the system. She wanted it to do what it said it would do,” said Notre Dame Sister Rebeca Spires, who worked with Stang for years along the Trans-Amazon. “I don’t think she knew how deep-seated the corruption was in INCRA [the government agrarian reform agency], or how strong organized crime is within the Amazon. I’ve learned a lot about this since Dorothy died. I’ve spent a lot of time with the police, and realize now how hard a time the good police officers have doing their job. There are a lot of people on the take.”

Stang was nonetheless growing weary of the government’s repeated failures to do its job. In the last months of her life, when she sat down with Sister Jane Dwyer for morning devotion, Stang would get particularly excited by readings from the Psalms where God intervenes to make justice happen for the poor.

“Dorothy loved those Psalms where God is the God of Sinai, the powerful one. They would fill her with hope. 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. “Dorothy had become the bad witch for the wealthy landowners, the butt of all their anger, but she kept wanting to trust. She kept pushing the public agencies, expecting that they would change, although they never did. We don’t believe that. You have to speak up, but we’re not as easily deceived as she was.”

If her hope in the government was wearing thin, Stang remained optimistic about the ability of individuals to change. When traveling the back roads of the Amazon or commuting to Belem to pester some government official, Stang would often hitchhike, at times accepting a ride from one of the wealthy land barons in their big pickups. “She’d get in, ride with them for a couple of hours, preaching the whole way, and the next day she’d tell us that she thought she really got through to them,” said Kathryne Webster, a Notre Dame de Namur sister in Anapú.

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 who owned 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.

“Dorothy didn’t raise her voice, even in her most angry moments,” Spires said. “She believed in the good in every person. She loved every person. When she talked to [the two men who killed her] she called them ‘My children, my sons.’ She said, ‘God bless you.’ She was not angry with them. She knew they had just burned the house of Luis [a community member], had threatened him and were planning to kill his whole family from the children up. She knew how cruel they could be, but she wanted to redeem the good that she knew was there in them.”

Devastation around Anapu, in Brazil's northern Para State, where the Amazon jungle has been cut down and burned in order to raise cattle. Dorothy Stang, a Catholic activist nun from the U.S., was killed near here for her defense of the environment and landless peasants..

In a dramatic series of trials and retrials and appeals that still continue today, five men have been convicted so far in the crime: the killer, his accomplice, an intermediary, a rancher, and a wealthy rancher, Regivaldo Pereira Galvão, who is popularly known by his nickname of “Sleazy.”

The triggerman, Rayfran das Neves Sales, originally said he was supposed to be paid for killing Stang. Yet under intense pressure (his accomplice changed his story after being severely beaten in prison), Sales also changed his tune and has tried to claim the two did it on their own initiative. Stang’s friends and colleagues discard the new version. Some even see Sales as a product of the Amazon’s vicious class conflicts.

“The gunman is also a victim of this structure of injustice. He comes from a poor family, a family at the margins. This crime had a hierarchy, but it’s difficult to get justice for the people high up in that hierarchy,” said Luisa Virginia Oliveira Moraes, an activist with the Dorothy Committee.

Church leaders and government prosecutors told me the hierarchy goes even higher than Sleazy. They say a meeting was held in the Augustus Hotel in Altamira one night in January 2005 where several wealthy ranchers and politicians from the area were present, and in which plans were made to get rid of Stang. The group is referred to as “The Consortium,” and is believed to be behind failed attempts to kill both Bishop Kräutler (an attempt that killed an Italian priest riding in his car) and de Sousa, the priest in Anapú. (His parish has inherited Stang’s white VW Beetle, which now has “Dorothea” painted on the sides and is laden down with loudspeakers used to announce meetings in the town of church and small farmers’ groups.)

The Consortium’s interests are varied, and activists have also angered the group with their opposition to the Belo Monte Dam, 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, the price on the bishop’s head had gone up to half a million dollars at the time of my visit. As a result, the federal government insisted that the prelate have bodyguards, and so Kräutler was accompanied everywhere by two bulky federal police officers. I had to walk by them to enter the bishop’s office. Kräutler wasn’t happy about it.

“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.

The threats were also a convenient distraction, giving people something to talk about other than the continued unbridled exploitation of the rainforest and its people by the wealthy.

“We really don’t want to publicize the threats against the bishop and the others,” Dwyer argued. “It just gives it more publicity. And while everyone is worrying about bishops and sisters and priests, the people are dying. They’re dying because they’re being murdered, they’re dying because of hunger, they’re dying because they don’t have land, but this is all forgotten when we get distracted by the threats against Father So and So and Sister So and So. It’s true that our lives are threatened, but the people have been threatened all of their lives. Is one life worth more than the others?”

Everyone knew there were serious threats against Stang, who had taken to wearing a t-shirt that said A morte da floresta é o fim da nossa vida, “The death of the forest is the end of our life,” but many refused to believe it could really happen.

“We’d had information for four or five years that these groups wanted to kill Dorothy, but I didn’t think it would happen. I thought the repercussions would be too great. I didn’t think anyone was capable of killing a 73-year old religious woman from the U.S.,” Pontes said.

Bishop Kräutler, who colleagues say pulled back some from Stang after the attempt to kill him, repeatedly warned Stang to be careful. “As a bishop, many times I said to her that she was threatened, but she thought that being a religious woman, and so old, and a little for being a North American, that nothing would happen to her,” he told me. “One time a group of ranchers chartered an airplane to come see me, and warned me that I had to put the brakes on her. I told them that if they could prove that the land legitimately belonged to them, I would be the first to defend their rights. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do anything to stop Dorothy. They left mad at me.”

Vanesa Silva de Soza (left) and Yulimara Machin da Silva, both 8, in the rain in the Esperança Sustainable Development Project, where Sister Dorothy Stang, a U.S. nun, was murdered for her defense of the forest and the landless poor. .

Eight-year old Vanesa Silva de Soza in the rain in the Esperança Sustainable Development Project, where Sister Dorothy Stang, a U.S. nun, was murdered for her defense of the forest and the landless poor.

What seems to have been the last straw in setting the stage for Stang’s murder was her appearance, just nine days before she was killed, at a public hearing in Belem, where she told a federal panel about the constant grileiro-sponsored violence faced by the residents of Esperança, and the complicity of government agencies in the intimidation. INCRA officials promised her, however, that a lingering dispute over land ownership had been resolved in favor of Stang’s people. And the police commander in the state capital promised her that police in Anapú would provide protection.

After her public appearances, Stang was tired, yet she ignored the entreaties of her fellow sisters who tried to convince her to stay on in Belem for a few days. She said she had to get back to Esperança to call a meeting to explain to the community their new legal status. She made the journey back, arriving in Esperança on February 11. On the way she stopped at the police station in Anapú to pick up the armed escort that had been promised her. The police said they were too busy. The next morning Stang was killed as she walked along a jungle path to the community center where she had called the meeting. Her body lay in the rain for hours until the police finally arrived, her blood soaking into the red soil of the rainforest.

The same day as the murder, the federal minister of the environment, Marina Silva, another friend of Stang’s, was also 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 rainforest. Pontes 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. The message may have had an effect. Silva, increasingly frustrated over the capitulation of the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores to huge agribusiness interests, resigned her post in 2008 and joined the Green Party. She ran for president in 2010, garnering almost 20 percent of the vote in the first round.

Those close to Sister Dorothy report that in the days leading up to her murder, she knew the stakes were higher. The day before her murder, she called her brother David, a former Maryknoll missionary in Africa, at his home in Colorado, even though it was 4:30 am there. She quickly briefed him on the situation and then said, “I’m really nervous this time.” She’d never admitted to her brother that she was concerned for her own safety. “I’d visited her in December and witnessed several people come up to her to say they’d heard of the threats. They told her to be careful, but she never showed any concern herself. Until that last morning she called,” David Stang told me.

According to Spires, Sister Dorothy accepted the increasing danger as the price of being faithful to her calling. “She knew she was threatened. Yet she did all the right things. She was not reckless. She did all the things we’ve all been asked to do when threatened. She knew there was danger, but she was thinking more about the people. She worried there would be an armed conflict between the pistoleiros and the farmworkers, and that others would be killed. She was afraid, and she didn’t deny the fear. She walked right over it. That’s what courage is. It’s not not being afraid. It’s being afraid and going anyway,” Spires said.

Stang’s last moments were consistent with her four decades of ministry in the Amazon, Spires believes. “When she stopped and talked to the two men, I don’t think she thought they were going to kill her then. But when Rayfran pulled the gun and she read the Bible to him, I think she was very aware that this was it. And so the last words from her lips were from the Bible. And that’s a beautiful way to go,” Spires said. “They say that later, when the police arrived and they turned her body over, she had a smile on her face. She did what she was supposed to do, and she was satisfied by that. Just as the Gospel says that Jesus, as he died on the cross, said that he was satisfied. I’m sure it had to be terrible for her, but as terrible as it was, I’m sure that she was happy, that she was satisfied. In the deepest way possible, she had real joy. She gave her all. Which is what she did every day. If Dorothy is important, it’s not because of how she died, but because of how she lived, and her death was just a continuation of that.”

Two-year old Fabiana Souza da Silva gets a ride in a wheelbarrow from her father, Joao Luis Santos Borge da Silva, while her mother, Maria Benedita de Chaga Sousa, walks beside them. The family lives on the Esperança Sustainable Development Project, near Anapu in the northern Brazilian stte of Para, where U.S. Catholic Sister Dorothy Stang was murdered for her defense of the jungle and the landless poor.

The murder of an elderly nun from the U.S. 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 rainforest would cease.

Seven 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, as Brazil has no death penalty, they did get long sentences, but judicial shenanigans have meant new trials, which means those who demand justice continue their vigil. The nuns pass the hat and the residents of Esperança crowd into buses for the journey to the courthouse in 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.”

Some 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.

“The state of Pará is a champion of killings in the countryside. Seventy percent of these crimes aren’t even investigated by the police. In the other 30 percent, it takes an average of ten years for it to come to trial. The only cases that get to a jury are those with international or national repercussions. And there’s no guarantee that even those found guilty will end up in prison. Ranchers simply never go to jail. If anyone goes it’s only the pistoleiro,” said José Batista Gonçalves Afonso, a lawyer and member of the national coordinating team of the CPT. “Impunity is a license to kill. A rancher can send a pistoleiro out to kill someone, and they both know nothing will happen. Impunity is an official guarantee that you can continue committing crime.”

The region where Stang was killed has a lot in common with John Wayne movies, but the good guys usually don’t win in the end.

“Dorothy was working out on the frontier, where just like in your cowboy movies, anything can happen. She was out in the Wild West, and tried to establish her sustainable project where there was no support and no security,” said Thomas Mitschein, president of the Program on Poverty and the Environment in the Amazon, based in Belem at the Federal University of Pará.

Mitschein 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. But we shouldn’t have had to lose Dorothy to get that. She was the soul of this development work,” he said.

Bishop Kräutler lambasts the country’s leaders for responding superficially to demands for change. “The politicians were all present on the day of our sister’s burial. Anapú never saw so many state and federal senators and deputies. Today I am convinced that the majority of those present at the funeral came because of the media coverage of this sad event,” the bishop said in his homily at a Mass celebrating the third anniversary of Stang’s murder. “The authorities who cried at the side of the coffin wanted to show to the world that they did not concur with death and violence in the Amazon. But they have not given one single example of courageous or valiant action to change that reality. 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 late 2007, with soy and beef prices rising, the trees began to fall faster than ever. Widely-publicized government crackdowns on illegal logging in the Amazon seem at best symbolic resistance to the renewed rape of the rainforest.

With increased deforestation, other sins are also on the rise in the Amazon. As we talked in his office, Prosecutor Pontes pulled up a map on his computer to show where deforestation is heaviest, and then clicked to maps that showed reports of extrajudicial killings and reports of slavery. They were the same areas. “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. Deforestation is the beginning of social decomposition that ultimately leads to the death of persons,” he said.

Maria Gregoria Mariadulce feeds her chickens in a clearing in the jungle where she lives. She is a a member of the Esperança Sustainable Development Project, a pioneering jungle community where U.S. Catholic Sister Dorothy Stang worked. Stang was murdered here for her defense of the jungle and landless poor families like this one which survive there.

The jungle settlement where Sister Dorothy Stang died is an innovative experiment designed to equip formerly landless peasants with the skills and tools to survive in the jungle without destroying it. The Esperança Sustainable Development Project (PDS) brings together 250 families, giving each 100 hectares of land. They can use 20 percent for farming, but the remaining 80 percent is managed collectively–and sustainably. That means the rainforest remains intact. Limited harvesting of trees is allowed, but under strict controls to guarantee the forest remains viable.

The plans for such a project had long existed in theory, some bureaucrat’s idealistic dream to thwart the steady destruction of the Amazon. Stang’s genius was making it work.

“Dorothy’s dream was that everyone should have their own piece of land, and she discovered in INCRA [the agrarian reform agency] this plan for Sustainable Development Projects. It wasn’t Dorothy’s idea, it already existed on paper, but INCRA had forgotten it in a drawer somewhere. I still don’t know how she found out about it, but Dorothy said, ‘Let’s try it. Let’s make this work.’ The government wasn’t very excited about it, but Dorothy’s determination and tenacity could wear people out. Or make them angry,” said Depwig.

The Esperança project particularly angered land barons who illegally claimed some of the jungle where the project was cited. They wanted to burn the forest and plant pasture for cattle. Stang wanted the land for the poor with whom she’d been working for four decades, and whose dream of a small plot of land she had adopted as her own.

“Dorothy was obsessed with finding land where the poor could live and grow their crops. It was the only alternative for the people who continue to migrate here, families who come here with nothing. What other future do they have? 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. Dorothy worked day and night to find them an alternative,” said Gonçalves Afonso, the CPT lawyer.

The Amazon is about 60 percent of Brazil’s territory, but contributes only about 5 percent of its GDP, according to Mitschein. While the Amazon is seen as a vital environmental resource by ecologists abroad, he said that in Brazil it’s difficult to generate the political will to fund the essential infrastructure–schools, roads, marketing assistance–that projects like Esperança desperately need in order to develop the region in a sustainable manner. “Their problem isn’t just that they face devils who are trying to destroy the project. Yes, there are devils, but there’s also a structural problem. They don’t have the technical and financial resources they need. And they need public institutions which can act quicker to provide the legal and economic context in which they can flourish,” Mitschein said.

Over recent decades, the Amazon hasn’t necessarily suffered from a lack of government investment. The problem has been that state subsidies flowed into the bank accounts of the wealthy land grabbers, not into projects that would equip the poor to survive in a global economy.

“Dorothy had a prophetic vision of how to carry out authentic agrarian reform. But what she dreamed of doing needs support from the government. The loggers and cattle ranchers didn’t come to the Amazon without state resources. They were financed by government banks. The Brazilian government financed the destruction of the Amazon. If the peasants had the money today that the loggers and ranchers robbed from the state over the years, we’d have an Amazon where the poor would live a much better life. But the poor never get any resources from the government,” said Pontes, the federal prosecutor.

According to Bishop Kräutler, Brazil is giving away the Amazon’s future to companies like Cargill and ADM, all in the pursuit of short-term profits. At the time of my visit, he blamed the country’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who embraced the rush to chop down trees to grow soybeans for export to China and sugar cane to fuel Brazilian cars. (Lula was succeeded in 2010 by Dilma Rousseff, also from the PT, and she has shown herself to be a dependable friend of the Amazon’s enemies.)

“The government’s Program of Accelerated Growth promotes an understanding of development that’s merely economic. Lula understands growth as more soybeans, more exports, as making the country more attractive to foreign capital. He doesn’t care about future generations, and cares even less about the indigenous. He doesn’t mention them much, and when he does he refers to them–along with environmentalists and the attorney general’s office–as obstacles to development,” Kräutler said.

“Lula worries a lot about Brazil’s image, so he has to talk about the Amazon, because the whole world is watching. But the reality on the ground is something else. The ministry of the environment doesn’t have the resources it needs to do its job. The log trucks carry trees out of here day and night, and when the environment officials are in one place, the log trucks simply take a different road,” Kräutler said.

Yet Mitschein believes the blame goes farther. “Everyone in the whole world is co-responsible for the destruction of the Amazon. International ecologists can’t say, ‘You have to preserve the Amazon,’ if they don’t explain how to change the workings of the international financial system. People like Dorothy, in our own local context, suffered the consequences of an international scenario that’s pushing us toward destruction instead of sustainability. International solidarity is critical. But people have to understand that the Amazon can only be preserved and saved from within the Amazon. You can’t do it from New York or Berlin or London. But you can help. You should help.”

Esperança is one of two PDS that Stang helped establish. Scores of others were later established by the government in a flurry of fashionability, but so many of them were fronts for loggers that the government finally cancelled the rest.

Esperança’s families have grown tired of waiting for the government to respond to their needs. Despite a flurry of promises after Stang’s murder, much of their land remains in legal limbo; they have no titles. Yet residents have built their own temporary houses and schools, carved their own roads, started a project to manufacture hardwood furniture, installed water systems, learned to use a computer and mastered the technical skills needed to be good stewards of the rainforest.

“This community is an act of faith. There’s nothing in this world that says to us that we should believe this is going to happen. But the people aren’t going to give up. They’re still there. With all their weaknesses and with so many forces against them, they’ve done amazing things. They can’t read or write but they’ve learned to use GPS to manage the forest in a responsible way,” said Dwyer. “We just help and encourage them. Don’t put me out in the forest; I will get lost. But they know how to do it. They’ve learned. And they will battle to the end. These people aren’t saints, and they have difficulty maintaining their journey at times. But they’ve got nothing to lose.”

Edna Machin da Silva sands a hardwood turtle bowl crafted by members of the Esperança Sustainable Development Project, a pioneering jungle community where U.S. Catholic Sister Dorothy Stang worked. Stang was murdered here for her defense of the jungle and landless poor families like this one which survive there. The Project's families use the forest in a sustainable way.

In the wake of Sister Dorothy’s killing, there has been more interest than ever in joining the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. By the time I visited, a majority of the congregation’s 19 sisters in Brazil were native born.

Maria de Fatima Borges is one of them. In her late 20s, she spent a year working with Stang, and in 2007 took her vows. She says her parents worry about her safety, but she shakes off such concerns. “If the people who killed Dorothy thought they were doing away with her dream, they were very mistaken. It only increased our desire, our will to continue. And the new women who are joining encourage us even more. Dorothy hasn’t left us. She walks with us today,” Borges told me.

The older members of the congregation claim that Stang’s legacy is a renewed commitment to the poor as the locus of God’s intervention in the world.

“We often discussed with Dorothy where change would come from. We had very different points of view, but Dorothy was very determined, and she had a lot of experience. She was the first one of us to come here. The reason this place exists is because of Dorothy, who came and began working among the first pioneers who come here. She helped them see other possibilities of coming together and organizing. That’s what makes this place still viable for the poor today. And her death reminds us that the world is only going to change when the poor, who have no vested interest in anything but life, bond together to build a new life. Dorothy has helped us believe even more strongly that the impetus for the journey has to come from the people themselves,” Sister Jane Dwyer said.

“Dorothy’s killing takes us back to our source, the Gospel, the belief that it’s the small seed, the people organizing together, that will make a difference. You can have good people in the government who want to do something, but the structure is bigger than any one person; it’s not a life-giving structure for the poor, but rather for the rich. There was tension with Dorothy because she believed in those structures. Dorothy struggled to make INCRA morally responsible. She believed that they could be, and that if they only did what they should do, then things would be different. She believed that with all her heart. That’s why she had so many friends. And why she had so many enemies.”

Portions of this post appeared in the National Catholic Reporter.
An excellent film about Stang and her murder, narrated by Martin Sheen, is They Killed Sister Dorothy.

2 Responses to Brazil: Remembering Dorothy

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