Remembering Sister Dorothy Stang

Feature story - June 6, 2005
June 7 would have marked the 74th birthday of Sister Dorothy Stang, a longtime advocate for the disempowered in the Brazilian Amazon. On February 12, the American-born nun was assassinated in the rainforest for her convictions. This week, Greenpeace honored her memory by participating in a memorial protest along with other environmental, religious, workers' rights and human rights organizations.

74-year-old American-born missionary Sister Dorothy Stang was assassinated on February 12, 2005 for defending the Amazon and rural workers.

The protest took place in front of the presidential palace in the Brazilian capital. More than 200 people commemorated Sister Dorothy's life by holding photos of her and wearing t-shirts that said, "The death of the forest is the end of our lives." Sister Dorothy herself wore just such a shirt. The groups organizing the protest also delivered a letter to Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, demanding more federal involvement in the Amazon, better federal protection for the rainforest and its people, and increased home-based agriculture that is more compatible with conservation than industrial resource extraction.

Sister Dorothy's assassination occurred 16 years after the murder of Chico Mendes, an environmentalist whose death drew worldwide attention to the dangers faced by activists in the Amazon. "Like Chico Mendes, Sister Dorothy refused to be intimidated, and she paid the ultimate price for it," said Paulo Adario, Greenpeace Amazon coordinator who had worked with her. "She worked selflessly for many years supporting the rights of rural workers and defending the Amazon from deforestation."

Unfortunately, the killings of Chico Mendes and Sister Dorothy are just two of many that have occurred in the Amazon region. Between 1985 and 2004, more than 500 people have been killed over land disputes in Para state. Very few of these cases have been solved and even fewer have resulted in convictions by state authorities.

Intimidation by loggers and landgrabbers, corrupt local authorities and a lack of law enforcement resources mean that many of these cases go uninvestigated and unsolved.

Meanwhile, the decimation of the Amazon continues. Just last

month, the Brazilian government made a startling revelation: the second highest rate of deforestation in Amazon history occurred from August 2003 to August 2004.

"The government must implement real policies to put an end to land grabbing, illegal logging and other causes of destruction and violence in the Amazon," said Carlos Rittl, Greenpeace Amazon campaigner. "To guarantee a sustainable future for the Amazon forest and its inhabitants, the federal government must strengthen public agencies such as the Land Reform Institute by giving them sufficient resources and the necessary infrastructure and authority for enforcing the law."

Some arrests have been made in the death of Sister Dorothy, but interference from a corrupt state government threatens to derail the investigation. Greenpeace and other organizations, including her religious order, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, are demanding that Sister Dorothy's murder be made a federal human rights case, which will help to make sure that all those responsible for her death will be brought to justice.

After the protests, demonstrators went to the Superior Court of Justice in Brasilia, where they met with court president Edson Vidigal to discuss federalizing Sister Dorothy's case, which he supports. A final decision is expected by June 10.

Don't let Sister Dorothy's death be in vain. Please help us continue her important work. The first step is to hold her murderers accountable. Tell the Brazilian government to make Sister Dorothy's case a federal one and let them know that the United States is watching.