Brazil: Battle for the heart of the rainforest

Sister Dorothy Stang's murder is a reminder that the financial benefits of Brazil's jungle outweigh the political will to preserve it, writes Andrew Buncombe
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The Independent US

The place where Sister Dorothy Stang was assassinated is marked by a simple wooden cross pushed into the mud of a track that runs deep through the jungle. The cross is covered in the wax from melted candles. A few plastic flowers are scattered on the ground, along with a young sapling in a plastic grow-bag. Other than that there is just the constant sound of birds and the chatter of insects on an afternoon so damp and humid that one's clothes stick to the skin like cling-film.

The place where Sister Dorothy Stang was assassinated is marked by a simple wooden cross pushed into the mud of a track that runs deep through the jungle. The cross is covered in the wax from melted candles. A few plastic flowers are scattered on the ground, along with a young sapling in a plastic grow-bag. Other than that there is just the constant sound of birds and the chatter of insects on an afternoon so damp and humid that one's clothes stick to the skin like cling-film.

This deep inside the rainforest the trees are so huge, the soaring canopy so dense, that there is an echo that makes noises ring out.

Vicente Paulo Suera, a small farmer who scrapes by growing rice and manioc on a tiny plot nearby, heard gunshots on the morning of 12 February when the Catholic nun was shot to death by gunmen allegedly hired by a local rancher. The rancher, Vitalmiro Moura, has just surrendered to police, claiming he is innocent. She was left face down in the mud, her Bible at her side. "We have lost a great defender. No one else will help us," said Mr Suera, leaning against an upright timber in his mosquito-infested shack.

The Amazon rainforest is an extraordinary and otherworldly place. Vast, dense and hugely rich in plant and animal life, there is nowhere else like it on earth. When you stand inside it, beneath vast trees that chase up into the sky, you can feel it pulsating - vigorous, alive, untamed. It accounts for 40 per cent of the world's remaining rainforest and the Amazon basin contains perhaps a fifth of its fresh water. It is so rich in flora that an average acre contains 179 different species of plant. Critically, it absorbs much of the planet's greenhouse gases and produces 20 per cent of its oxygen.

And yet it is under threat like never before. Since 1970, perhaps 20 per cent of its original 1.5 million square miles have been lost to logging and development. Campaigners say that 13,000 acres (20.5 sq miles) are being lost every day - eight football pitches a minute. The unceasing and illegal devastation of the Amazon rainforest of Brazil is best seen from the air.

Flying west in a small, shaking, turbo-prop aircraft from the regional capital, Belém, the forest stretches ahead like a vast, black-green carpet that races to the horizon. Yet when you look straight down you cannot miss the strips and patches of bare brown earth where the logging has eaten into the jungle. Around 80 per cent of the logging is believed to be illegal. On the ground, when you actually visit these slash-and-burn sites in what was once pristine forest, fire-scarred rocks and debris of the burned timber stand forlorn and alone in the middle of what are now grassy paddocks grazed by white cattle. It is like being at the scene of some terrible arson in which nothing and no one survived.

Sister Dorothy, 73, a lifelong activist, was apparently murdered as a result of the latest land dispute in which she had become willingly involved in this remote part of north-eastern Brazil. Her murder, like that of Chico Mendes in 1988, was quickly seized on by environmentalists around the world as a sign of the bitter land battles still being fought here. And yet her death six weeks ago represents a great deal more that. Her murder did not take place in a vacuum. Economic and social forces are battling over the future of the Amazonian rainforest and the left-leaning government of Brazil is struggling to balance a desire for "sustainable development" with domestic and international demands for economic growth.

Given the role of the Amazon as a provider of oxygen, it is no exaggeration to say the outcome of that tussle will effect all our futures. We all have a stake in the battle that cost Sister Dorothy Stang her life. Originally from Ohio, the nun spent the past 30 years on the front line. Having joined her order after leaving school, she arrived in the Amazon in the mid-1970s. She worked as an educator but after witnessing what was happening around her, her focus turned to environmental and lands-rights issues.

In Anapú, 30 hours by dirt road from Belém, many people turned to her for help. The small town, all but unreachable at the height of the rains when the unpaved Transamazonian Highway becomes rutted and churned, is one of the flash points in the battle over the forest.

In Anapú, as elsewhere across the state of Para, loggers and ranchers are pitched in an often deadly fight against small farmers and environmentalists. The deforestation and the development of ranches all around Anapú show which side is winning. Sister Dorothy's case was far from unique: since 1985 1,400 people have been murdered in land disputes - half of them in Para. Death threats have become a way of life. "They apparently have lists of those they want to kill," said Sister Mary Gillespie, another nun from the order, sitting in the front room of Sister Dorothy's humble, green-painted wooden house.

Francisco de Assis dos Santos Souza knows all too well about threats. The 36-year-old, known as Chiquinho, is president of the local branch of the Rural Workers Union, which worked with Sister Dorothy to stop the illegal occupation of land set aside for the poor. Before the latest murder, Chiquinho had received plenty of threats. Two days after his friend was shot, he received a letter that read, "Dorothy has been killed - you are next". When Chiquinho spoke to The Independent at the union's simple headquarters - really nothing more than a shed - a thick-set armed policeman sat next to him. He has apparently been instructed never to leave his side.

"When you are against the financial interests you are a target," he said, explaining that the small farmers had no way to resist the intimidation of the land thieves, or grileiros from the Portuguese word for cricket. But here the crickets carry guns o arrive at the homes of peasants shaking handfuls of ammunition. "The small ones cannot say no. If they do they eat bullets."

Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, Brazil's President, hoped to put an end to such violence. In a country where the poorest 20 per cent own just 2 per cent of the wealth, Lula campaigned during the 2002 election as a champion of environmental protection and promised to provide land for 400,000 landless peasants. Despite the devastating recession he inherited, he was also critical of taking international loans from groups such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). So far Lula has failed to match rhetoric with deeds. Rather, say analysts, he has had to confront the political reality of Brazil's recession and the pressure for growth. As a result, instead of acting convincingly to protect the rainforest, he at least tacitly encouraged the development of it.

In the days after the killing, Lula announced new logging restrictions and the establishment of 8.2 million acres (12,850 sq miles) of new reserve. But nothing has altered the pressure to maintain economic growth and to maintain the jobs that the ranchers and others provide.

Though he was opposed to an IMF loan, Lula inherited a decision made by his predecessor to take the $30bn (£16bn) loan, which came with a series of stringent austerity demands and a requirement for Brazil to control the ratio between public debt and GDP, as well as to pay off its huge international debts. Last year Brazil's economy grew by 5.2 per cent. The Amazon is inextricably linked with Brazil's economy. Logging may only account for a fraction of Brazil's export earnings, but the rainforest is also a source of gold and minerals and, more importantly, has provided much of the land for the recent expansion in cattle production and agriculture.

Agriculture, including the rapid increase in soy bean production, is now a $150bn business and accounts for more than 40 per cent ofexports. Meanwhile, the country last year overtook the US as the world's biggest producer of beef. Annual overseas sales of beef earns Brazil $2.5bn. A recent paper by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the independent, inter-American think-tank, said: "The issue [of Brazil's environmental and economic situation] are interdependent and unfortunately, one's success is the other's loss." Around 15 per cent of Brazil's total external debt is owed to the IMF. When The Independent contacted the fund, a spokesman scoffed at the suggestion that fiscal requirements attached to its loan, such as the need for Brazil to produce a primary surplus of 4 per cent, in any way contributed to the struggle over land use in the rainforest. William Murray, a spokesman, said any such a suggestion was "outrageous" and "harebrained". He said Brazil's economy was widely diversified and the country's "economic growth [was] not significantly linked to logging". "Deforestation is not something we support. It never has been."

Others see the situation differently. Carlos Rittl, a Brazilian-based Greenpeace campaigner, said there were historically two important debts faced by the Lula administration. "One is the international debt and the other is the social debt," he said. "Both are very important but it seems the international one is more urgent. This causes all the problems we face in the Amazon. Policies to pay external debts promote the development of agriculture and cattle ranching, which are quickly advancing into the heart of the Amazon. This is increasing forest destruction and causing social disruption."

Sister Dorothy wanted it both ways. The white-haired woman believed it was possible to use the forest's resources without destroying it. She was an outspoken champion of sustainable development. She promoted reforestation and worked to educate local people about the rainforest and its value. She tried to make them feel they had a stake in its survival. She also tried by every means she could to obtain land for small farmers and to help them and their families make a living.

"I don't know what she was not involved with," said her brother, David Stang, who recently travelled to Anapú from Colorado to visit his sister's grave. "I'm very proud. I never dreamed she did so much." In theory at least, Sister Dorothy's views had the support of the Brazilian government. Everton Vargas, the country's foreign minister with responsibility for the environment, told The Independent that his government's policy was based on sustainable development - a seemingly magical mixture that would allow economic growth without leading to deforestation.

"Promoting preservation when at the same time promoting economic growth and better social conditions for the people, you will imagine, is a very complex and difficult challenge," he said. "There are no simple responses for this problem and for the challenges we have in that region." In regard to international pressure for growth, Mr Vargas said that foreign debt had "historically been an important pressure on Brazilian fiscal and economic policy". He also said that US subsidies to products such as cotton were a factor on the development of land for agriculture.

Another problem is the difficulty of policing so huge an area. The distances here are vast. In the rainy season it can take up to six hours just to travel the 50 miles between Anapú and the nearest large town, Altamira.

Campaigners also say local police are often corrupt. Renarta Lira, a lawyer with the Brazilian human rights group Global Justice said there was a complete absence of legal support for small farmers. She has been taking testimony from farmers who say they have been told by gunmen hired by ranchers to leave their land. "The [gunmen] don't wear masks," she said. "They go into these areas and they talk to the people directly. 'Go or die'."

Strategic Forecasting, the US-based global-issues analysts, said it did not believe Lula's government has the will to enforce tougher restrictions. In a report it said: "If da Silva scales back agriculture's expansion into the Amazon, Brazilian exports would likely slow, affecting foreign exchange earnings and hampering both the economy's growth and his own chances of re-election [in 2006]."

Despite the death threats that she too received, Sister Dorothy did not back down from a struggle she was involved in at Boa Esperanca, a tiny community 30 miles deep in the jungle from Anapú, where she was helping small farmers such as Vicente Paulo Suera establish little plots.

The community is only reachable by four-wheel-drive vehicle or by a two-hour, bone-shaking ride on the back of a motorbike on a steep, rutted track.

Despite its remoteness the land was coveted by Mr Moura, the local rancher. Sister Dorothy had arranged a meeting with the small farmers on the morning of 12 February to explain latest developments. Because the settlement was so far from Anapú she had stayed the night before the meeting at the shack built by Mr Suera. He had watched her leave at 7.30am.

She got no more than a few hundred yards when she was confronted by two gunmen, or pistoleiros, allegedly hired by Mr Moura. They are also in custody.

They apparently told police that Sister Dorothy read to them from her Bible before they shot her at close range. Police say that Mr Moura paid the gunmen and an intermediary more than $19,000 - a massive amount given that a "hit" can be bought for $40.

"We are missing her so much," said Mr Suera, the farmer. "Without Sister Dorothy it would have been impossible for us to be here."