In February 2005 the nun and environmentalist Dorothy Stang had to die for the work she did in resistance against illegal land grabbing in the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest. The murder highlights the conflicts around one of the oldest and richest forests of the world.
Author: Kyra Hertel
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“She dreamed of a different Amazon, an Amazon in just and solidarity, where everybody has the right to live, the right to sow and to harvest,” said Bishop Erwin Kräutler from the bishopric Xingu at Dorothy Stang’s funeral recalling his memories of the Brazilian nun and environmentalist. Since her gruesome death on 12th of February 2005 she became a symbol for the resistance against the destruction of the Amazonian rain forests. Still today – 17 years after her death – many people remember her life’s work.
A nun fights for Smallholders
Dorothy Stang was born in Ohio in 1931 and grew up in the US. Later she became a legal Brazilian citizen. Already during her first trip to Brazil in 1966 she grew awareness for the recurring social injustice and suppression of smallholder farmers. At this time she and her Sisters at the convent educated lay catechists. They used that work to speak up about the violation of human rights they observed.
In the 1970s the Brazilian government attracted people from other regions in Brazil to settle in Transamazonia. Many people that did not own land so far, packed their things to seek new hope. Also, Dorothy Stang saw an opportunity to help those people establish sustainable livelihoods. Nevertheless, their new home surprised them with a different kind of threat. Land sharks, who had an eye on the land, drove the new settlers out. The went deeper and deeper into the Amazon, but it soon became apparent that the Brazilian government had different plans with the land. With the “Great Carajas Project” they were about to invest in a huge infrastructure program – out of which the largest iron mine in the world resulted. During this time Dorothy Stang stood closely by the smallholders and defended their rights and accompanied them on their dangerous path.
Nevertheless, their new home surprised them with a different kind of threat.
Her work in Anapu, Para started in 1982 when she approached the bishop Erwin Kräutler who was responsible for the region at the time. Here, she continued to fight for the rights of smallholders and defended their land against large logging companies and investors. She organized community meetings, transferred their demands to the authorities in Belem and Brasilia and worked hard to prevent further deforestation. In the days preceding her death she worked for the catholic Land Commission, that demanded a land reform and secured land rights for smallholders.
A death with consequences?
For 30 years Dorothy Stang fought for the rights of indigenous and smallholder communities. She paid that work with her life. On the 12th of February 2005 a contract killer assassinated the 73-year-old nun. Six bullets hit her body. A big land owner hired the man to get rid of the environmentalist. He paid 50.000 reais (around 25.000$) for the “business”. That is how her killer recalls during the investigations. He himself got convicted for murder shortly after. The land owner himself stayed free for another 15 years until a trial sentenced him to 30 years in prison in 2019.
She paid that work with her life.
The murder was an attempt to silence Dorothy Stang’s voice. Yet, it failed. After her death became known to the public, international protests rose. Not even the president at the time Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (also Lula) could withstand. Right after her death he sent armed troops to control the area. Later he reserved large areas of land for indigenous communities and smallholders.
Nevertheless, the current situation for smallholders and indigenous communities is devastating. Murders in connection to land right conflicts still happen and illegal deforestation is on the forefront. Since Dorothy Stang died, at least 19 more workers have been killed in Anapu. The most recent case happened in January 2022 in São Félix do Xingu. An environmentalist family was executed. It is clear: to stand up for the right to live for everybody is now more important than ever.
“She dreamed of a different Amazon, an Amazon in just and solidarity, where everybody has the right to live, the right to sow and to harvest.”
Title Image: Amazônia Real, edited by Ícaro Uther