Sister Dorothy and Cattle Ranching in the Amazon

by Emily Kirkland

April 14, 2010

Sister DorothySister Dorothy was an American nun who spent her life working for the preservation of the Amazon and the protection of its poor and disempowered. She helped farmers make a living from small plots or from forest products that could be gathered without deforestation. She stood up to powerful interests that tried to grab land from the farmers she worked with. She was famous for wearing a t-shirt that read: “The death of the forest is the end of our life”.

Her death, in time, provided a tragic illustration of the role that cattle ranchers can play in the Amazon. On April 22, 2005, Sister Dorothy was shot in cold blood by two men hired by a cattle rancher. A biographer described the murder thus: “Her hired assassins…found her in the forest…When they asked if she carried a weapon, she reached into her bag and produced a Bible…Then they shot her.”

For decades, cattle ranchers have been setting the rainforest aflame and replacing it with grazing lands for cattle. Every 18 seconds or so, another hectare of forest is lost in this way. In fact, cattle ranches now occupy 80% of  deforestated area in the Brazilian Amazon.

These ranchers know that this destruction brings quick profits. The beef and leather products that come from their cattle can be exported around the world; they may end up in the hands of consumers from Britain to China. Thanks to the recent expansions, Brazil is now the world’s largest exporter of beef; it claims the largest commercial cattle herd in the world. 

But the expansion of cattle ranches has come at the expense of the rainforest—and the expense of those who live in it, work in it, and defend it. Ranchers grab lands from poor farmers and impinge upon indigenous reservations. They use slave laborers on isolated ranches. And they have a history of intimidating, threatening, and murdering those who dared to defy them. Sister Dorothy’s death is only one example; 772 people were killed in land disputes in the Brazilian state of Para between 1972 and 2007.

These ranchers have operated with impunity in a region where enforcement can be difficult and officials are often corrupt. Few ranchers are ever held accountable for their crimes. As of 2007, only eight of the 772 murder cases had gone to trial.

While the forest is not safe, there has been progress. Last spring, Greenpeace released the “Slaughtering the Amazon” report, which detailed the deforestation created by the expansion of cattle ranching in Brazil. In the wake of that report, major brand-name companies like Nike, Adidas, Clarks, and Timberland sent a simple message to their suppliers: Clean up your act, or we’ll drop your contracts. Last fall, Greenpeace was able to declare victory on that campaign after all four of the largest cattle companies in Brazil (JBS, Bertin, Marfrig and Minerva) agreed to a moratorium on further expansion in the Amazon.

The first step in implementing the moratorium is the mapping and registration of all the ranches that directly supply these slaughterhouses. This is a vital task. Without mapping and registration, it’s impossible to know who is operating in the Amazon and whether or not they have continued to destroy the Amazon to make room for grazing cattle. All the ranches in the Brazilian Amazon must be mapped and registered before truly effective law enforcement and deforestation monitoring can take place. Only then can we bring an end to the deforestation, land grabbing, and violent acts perpetrated by cattle ranchers. Greenpeace is continuing to pressure slaughterhouses to ensure that this all-important task is completed.

And on April 12th, Vitalmino Bastos de Moura was convicted for Sister Dorothy’s murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison. This offers hope that in the future, those fighting to protect the forest will not be tragically silenced. As Paulo Adario, director of Greenpeace’s Amazon campaign, said of the conviction: “It’s obviously a sign that the times of violence without consequence are ending”.

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