Sister Dorothy Stang lived among those who wanted her dead. When they finally
came for her she read passages from the Bible to her killers. They listened
for a moment, then fired. Her body was found face down in the mud, blood
staining the back of her white blouse.
The town of Anapu, on the edge of the Amazon rainforest, is most notable for the dust that clogs its streets and for the number of shops selling chain-saws. It is also the place that Sister Dorothy called home for more than 30 years and where she organised her efforts to try to protect the rainforest and its people from disastrous and often illegal exploitation by logging firms and ranchers. Now Anapu will be known as the place where Sister Dorothy is buried.
The 74-year-old activist was laid to rest yesterday morning after being assassinated by two gunmen on Saturday at a remote encampment in the jungle about 30 miles from the town. Sister Dorothy - the most prominent activist to be murdered in the Amazon since Chico Mendez in 1988 - was shot six times in the head, throat and body at close range. "She was on a list of people marked for death. And little by little they're ticking those names off the list," said Nilde Sousa, an official with a local women's group who worked with the nun.
People walk 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) on the transamazonic highway
carrying the coffin containing the body of American missionary Dorothy
Stang from the airport to the Santas Missoes Church (Holy Missions
Church) where Stang's wake took place in Anapu, northern Brazil, Monday,
Feb. 14, 2005. Stang was gunned down Saturday Feb. 12, 2005, at the
Boa Esperanca settlement where she worked with some 400 poor families
near Anapu, a rural town about 1,300 miles (2,100 kilometers) north
of Rio de Janeiro. (AP Photo/Paulo Santos)
As with the death of Mr Mendez, a rubber tapper, the murder of Sister Dorothy has triggered waves of outrage among environmental and human rights activists who say she dedicated her life to helping the area's poor, landless peasants and confronting the businesses that see the rainforest only as a resource to be plundered and which have already destroyed 20 per cent of its 1.6 million square miles.
It has also highlighted the problem for the Brazilian government of balancing a desire to protect the rainforest with pressure to open tracts of forest to support strong economic growth as demanded by the International Monetary Fund, which loaned Brazil billions of dollars following a recession in 2002. Such a conflict of interests has hindered attempts by the authorities to fulfil the promise of the left-leaning President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to find homes for 400,000 landless families. The promise is badly off target and showing no signs of rapid improvement.
The President immediately ordered a full-scale investigation into Sister Dorothy's death and dispatched two members of his cabinet to the region, an area that is notorious for violence, crime and slave labour. One of those who was sent, Nilmario Miranda, the government's secretary for human rights, said before setting off: "Solving this crime and apprehending those who ordered and committed it is a question of honour for us. This is intolerable."
Sister Dorothy was in the Boa Esperanca settlement when she was killed. She was travelling with two peasants to a meeting to discuss a settlement for the area, which has apparently been granted to peasants by the federal government but which is sought by loggers. The two men travelling with her escaped unhurt and may be able to identify the killers to police, reports suggest.
While the suspects' names have not yet been released, Sister Dorothy's supporters say there is little doubt as to who was responsible. While the local people called her Dora or "the angel of the Trans-Amazonian", loggers and other opponents called her a "terrorist" and accused of supplying guns to the peasants. The Pastoral Land Commission of the Roman Catholic Church, which she worked for, 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."
Sister Dorothy was originally from Dayton, Ohio, where she attended Julienne High School. It was while she was a student that she decided to become a nun and when she left school she joined the convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Cincinnati. The order, founded in France in the early 18th century by Marie Rose Julie Billiart, is an proponent of liberation theology and social justice. Its mission statement dedicates the order to "take our stand with poor people especially women and children, in the most abandoned places".
Her beliefs took her to Brazil in the 1960s and it was there, in the vast Para region, which encompasses large tracts of rainforest, that she found her calling - despite the obvious dangers she faced. Just two weeks ago, Sister Dorothy met Mr Miranda, the human rights secretary, and told him of the death threats that she and others had received and asked for the government's help and protection.
Sister Elizabeth Bowyer, a senior nun at the Cincinnati convent, said yesterday that she believed Sister Dorothy may have realised she was going to be killed at some point even though she told her friends and colleagues that her status as a nun would offer a level of protection. "She knew she was on the death list. She said she would be protected because of her age and because she was a nun - she was wrong," she said. "We don't know who hired the gunmen but we know the loggers and ranchers were very upset by what she was doing. She was working with the human rights people to protect the small farmers who have been given the right to the land."
The stakes could not have been higher. Greenpeace estimates that 90 per cent of the timber in Para is illegally logged. The danger of speaking out against such exploitation could barely have been greater. Campaigners say Para has the country's highest rate of deaths related to land battles. Greenpeace said that more than 40 per cent of the murders between 1985 and 2001 were related to such disputes.
The Brazilian human rights group Justica Global said 73 rural workers were murdered in 2003 - 33 of them in Para. Last year 53 were killed. Of those, 19 were killed in Para.
"The government is simply not giving adequate protection," said the group's director, Sandra Carvalho. "We think its actions in the region are extremely weak. The government put together a programme to deal with these problems but it is being carried out at such a slow pace. The government has not managed to carry out the land reforms it spelt out before coming to power. What they have done is far below what we anticipated." She added: "There is constant conflict with very few convictions because there is a culture of impunity. Generally these conflicts involve landowners and landless rural workers ... Dora was killed because she stood up to these people."
And yet this fight appeared to energise the sprightly 74-year-old. Samuel Clements, 24, a student film-maker from Britain who spent the summer of 2003 filming Sister Dorothy's work, said she seemed to become a different, more animated person once she left dusty Anapu and travelled into the jungle to meet with the small farmers and peasants. In addition to fighting to preserve the rainforest she was helping encourage small-scale, sustainable agriculture.
In a recent letter to Mr Clements, she wrote: "Our forest is being overtaken by the others daily ... Together we can make a difference."
Mr Clements also believed Sister Dorothy may have had a premonition of the fate that awaited her and yet she still looked for the best in people. "She said once 'Humanity is like a fruit bowl, with all the different fruit - black, white and yellow - so different and yet all part of it'. She had incredible energy even though she was fighting incredible battles," he said.
Lúcio Flavio Pinto, an investigative journalist in the region who produces a weekly newspaper, Jornal Pessoal, knew Sister Dorothy since the 1970s. He has also been campaigning against the same people she was taking on and has also been on the receiving end of threats. "There were many people who wanted to kill Sister Dorothy," he said yesterday, speaking from the city of Belem, the state capital.
It was to Belem that Sister Dorothy's body was taken on Sunday for a post-mortem examination and where dozens of supporters gathered outside the mortuary singing hymns and holding placards calling for an end to the rampant crime. Claudio Guimaraes, director of the state's forensic science institute, said it appeared that the gunmen were about 18 inches away from Sister Dorothy when they shot her.
In Ohio she was remembered at a series of services which recalled her dedication and courage. "Sister Dorothy in her ministering to the poor remained faithful. We honour those who die for their faith," said Father Dennis Caylor, pastor at St Rafael church in the suburb of Springfield.
And from those who worked with the nun, there were promises that the effort she had undertaken would continue despite her death. Mariana Silva, president of Brazil's National Institute for Settlement and Agrarian Reform said: "We won't step back even one millimetre from our projects in Para because of this. They want to intimidate us but they won't succeed."
Additional reporting by Tom Phillips and Isabela Caixeta in Belo Horizonte.
© 2005 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd