Death of nun shows peril of Amazon activism

Dorothy Stang was one of almost 1,400 people killed in the Brazilian jungle over the past 20 years.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The weekend murder of an American nun who spent almost 30 years denouncing powerful logging and farming interests in the Brazilian Amazon has turned the spotlight on the unheralded and sometimes dangerous life of activists there.

Dorothy Stang, a 74-year-old Catholic nun from Dayton, Ohio, was killed on Saturday morning as she made her way to a gathering of peasant farmers near Anapu, a remote jungle town in the Amazonian state of Para.

"She was practically ambushed," Jose Geraldo da Silva, a deputy from the state and a friend of Stang's for more than a decade, said in a telephone interview from the area. "They planned it in advance, walked up to her on the street, and when she answered back [two men] shot her."

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Mr. da Silva says Stang was targeted because she had spoken out against big landowners who were battling over land with small farmers in the notoriously lawless rural region of Para. Commercial farmers and loggers often dispute land ownership with local peasants. Much of the land is without title, and when the government does award deeds they are rarely respected.

Stang was a champion of the poor and their efforts to live and farm in the Amazon through sustainable methods. She dedicated her life to helping peasant farmers organize against powerful local interests, and didn't back down even when told she would be murdered if she continued to speak out. "She was a leader," da Silva says. "She was killed for defending families with no land."

Stang's death focuses attention on the struggle over land in Brazil, a country where the 37 biggest landowners own more land than the 2.5 million smallest ones. The Pastoral Land Commission, a Catholic group that Stang reported for from Para, says 1,379 rural workers have been killed in land conflicts in Brazil since the commission began keeping records in 1985. A sizable portion of them occurred in Para, a huge and largely undeveloped state on the eastern edge of the Amazon that is a magnet both for small farmers seeking land and big developers and loggers drawn to the timber-rich forests. According to Greenpeace, the international environmental organization, two-thirds of all illegal deforestation in Brazil takes place in Para.

The commission's secretary, Antonio Canuto, blamed Brazilian authorities for the violence, saying they had failed to implement an effective land-reform bill and reduce the inequity that plagues the countryside. Neither the efforts of former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who gave away more land to the poor in his eight years in power than all the presidents before him, nor the promises of current President Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva, who vowed to settle 240,000 families before his term ends next year, have significantly alleviated the problem.

Of more immediate concern is the lack of an effective justice system or a responsible police force capable of investigating and stopping the violence, Mr. Canuto says. Over the past 20 years, only 80 people have been convicted on charges stemming from the killings.

"That statistic tells you everything," says Canuto, a retired priest. "These big guys feel like they are able to do what they want without worrying over the consequences, and that includes killing. They are exempt. It's frightening."

Lula has sent two ministers to oversee the inquiry and handed control of the investigation to federal agents. Police have issued arrest warrants for the two suspected gunmen, as well as an intermediary and a rancher who is believed to have ordered the killing. No arrests have been made thus far.

Canuto and other advocates say violence in the Amazon occurs more over land than over ecology - environmentalists who simply come to study the rain forest's diverse flora and fauna are rarely hassled. Still, Canuto acknowledges that in the Amazon the two issues are closely intertwined, and he hopes Stang's murder will focus much needed attention on both problems. Some even say it could provoke the same international outcry that followed the murder of Chico Mendes, leader of the rubber tappers, whose killing in 1988 focused world attention on the plight of the Amazon.

"I think the two killings are comparable," says Adriana Ramos, the public policy coordinator with Instituto Socioambiental, an environmental organization here. "They were both victims of the Amazon's perverse violence."

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