Sister Dorothy Stang

Missionary and defender of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil

Dorothy Stang, missionary, environmentalist and human-rights worker: born Dayton, Ohio 1930; professed a nun of the order of Notre Dame de Namur; died Anapu, Brazil 12 February 2005.

Sister Dorothy Stang spent the last 22 years of her life fighting to preserve the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, while helping small peasant farmers to make a living from the patches of land they had carved out of the jungle.

Her work brought her up against powerful commercial interests: ranchers and loggers who had also moved in as penetration roads were driven deeper into the Amazon basin. Local people in the small town of Anapu, in Pará state, where she lived, said they had no doubt that her murder on Friday was the work of hired gunmen working for the landowners.

Dorothy Stang was born and went to school in Dayton, Ohio, and then entered the Cincinnati convent of the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Sister Dorothy, as she became known, was sent to Brazil as a missionary by her order in the 1960s.

In the early 1980s she moved to western Pará and began working to encourage the small settlers who had migrated in their thousands from the arid north-east of Brazil, following the route of the great Trans-Amazonian Highway, to use sustainable farming methods on their plots of land. They had more to contend with than poor soils that degrade rapidly once the forest cover has been removed: there was also competition for land from politically influential individuals and companies involved in clearing the forest to raise beef cattle, grow soya beans and cut tropical hardwoods for export.

The current Brazilian government has tried to introduce tougher environmental protection laws. But, even so, more than 9,000 square miles of forest were lost in 2003.

Those at the sharp end of the fight to slow down the rate of clearance have always known that they are in a highly exposed situation, on the lawless Amazonian frontier, thousands of miles from the country's main cities. Sister Dorothy received many threats to her life. She died less than a week after a meeting with the human-rights minister, Nilmário Miranda, at which she told him that four of the small farmers she was working with had received death threats from pistoleiros hired by the landowners and loggers. They had their eyes on land earmarked for a sustainable development project in the Anapu region.

Sister Dorothy seems to have believed that her age and religious vocation would protect her and, according to the local authorities, she refused offers to provide her with a bodyguard. The landowners made no secret of the fact that they regarded her as a troublemaker.

Sister Dorothy had begun to receive official recognition for her work from the Pará authorities: she was made an honorary citizen of the state a year ago, and last December she was awarded a human-rights prize by the Pará branch of the Brazilian Bar Association.

Colin Harding

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