Brazilian police were searching the Amazon rainforests yesterday for the killers of a prominent American missionary who was shot dead after defending peasant farmers from illegal loggers and ranchers.
The killing of Dorothy Stang, a Catholic nun who was shot three times in the face, has thrown the spotlight back on the failure of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to crack down on illegal logging.
The 74-year-old missionary was a crusading defender of the rainforest and local peasants persecuted by illegal loggers and large landowners and had defied frequent death threats.
She recently met the national Human Rights Secretary Nilmario Miranda to report that four local peasants had received death threats from loggers and ranchers.
"They did nothing to protect Dorothy," said Antonio Canuto, national secretary of the Pastoral Land Commission, a Catholic human rights group for which she worked. "This government protects big farmers; that's why they act in this way."
Brazil's first left-wing president has so far failed to deliver on his promise to settle 400,000 landless peasants and the country continues to have massive wealth gaps and chronic social inequality. President da Silva also faces pressure to open tracts of forest land to boost farm exports and support strong economic growth. Rights groups compared Sister Dorothy's death at a settlement for landless peasants close to Anapu in the north of the country to the murder in 1988 of Chico Mendes, the rubber tapper who called international attention to Amazon rainforest destruction.
"Dorothy died fighting for the Amazon, just like Chico died," said Paulo Adario, head of Greenpeace's Amazon programme. "Other people will die if the government doesn't take action. This has got to stop."
Mr Miranda and the Environment Minister Marina Silva met federal police investigators, local legislators and members of the Incra land reform institute to discuss the investigation and how to halt land conflicts in a region known for slave labour and illegal logging.
Police identified two hired killers as suspects, Mr Miranda said, but it was not known who had contracted them. "It was an attempt to intimidate the federal government, to make it stop protecting the Amazon communities," Mr Silva told government-run TV Nacional.
Sister Dorothy had worked in the Anapu region for more than 20 years. A naturalised Brazilian citizen, she was an outspoken critic of efforts by loggers and landowners to take control of land - often through fake deeds - to clear large tracts of rainforest for the lumber and to produce grazing land for cattle.
"She was the personification of a crusade to preserve the rainforest and secure the local land for the people who really deserved it," said the Rev Robson Lopes, who worked with her in the region since the early 1990s.
"She always tried to use her contacts and her access to public institutions to help improve the conditions for local peasants and assure they were being respected," he said.
Mr Lopes said Sister Dorothy was murdered in the Boa Esperanca settlement, which the government reportedly had granted to local peasants but was coveted by loggers. Police said two gunmen shot her as she accompanied two rural workers to a meeting to discuss a settlement. The two workers fled and were not hurt.
Sister Dorothy's body was to be flown to the Para state capital of Belem for an autopsy and then returned to Anapu for burial.
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