Hundreds mourn U.S. nun who defended rain forest

The Ohio native's murder could boost Amazon protections.
ALTAMIRA, Brazil (AP) -- Priests, nuns and rain forest defenders gathered Monday in this eastern Amazon city to remember a 73-year-old American nun who was shot and killed over the weekend in the environmentally fragile region she spent 20 years defending.
In muddy boots and cowboy hats, hundreds of residents flocked to the chapel where Dorothy Stang's sealed casket lay, covered in flowers and photographs of the Ohio native. Many wept, while others put up signs saying, in Portuguese, "How long will they kill those who fight for life?"
"When they said she was risking her life, she just smiled," recalled Bishop Erwin Krautler of Altamira. "She didn't believe them, and neither did we."
U.S. Ambassador John Danilovich said in a statement he was "saddened and appalled" by the brutal killing.
"Sister Stang was a courageous individual who loved the people of Brazil and who dedicated her life to serving those less fortunate. I share the outrage over her tragic loss," he said.
Little surprise
Yet the killing came as little surprise in a region notorious for illegal logging, slave labor and violent land conflicts. She had received countless death threats over the years for her advocacy work.
"The death of Sister Dorothy was a crime foretold," Bishop Jayme Chemello, president of the Catholic Church's Amazonia Episcopal Committee, said in an official statement. "We ask the government to take a stand to revert this chronic reality of corruption and impunity in Brazil, especially in the Amazon."
The target of countless death threats over the years, Stang was gunned down Saturday at the Boa Esperanca settlement where she worked with some 400 poor families near Anapu, a rural town about 1,300 miles north of Rio de Janeiro.
Witnesses said Stang read passages of the Bible to her killers before they shot her, said a high-ranking member of the government Human Rights Commission, who asked not to be named.
Supporters gathered Monday for a Mass in Stang's honor, and her body was to be taken for burial Tuesday in Anapu, where she had worked for more than 20 years.
A front-page photo in the Diario do Para newspaper Monday showed Stang's body lying face-down on the muddy ground in a forest clearing, with blood staining the back of her white blouse. It was the first public photo of the killing.
"People warned her not to go to Boa Esperanca that day, that it was too dangerous. But she went anyway," said Maria Socorro Cunha, a nun who worked with Stang. "She didn't believe anyone would dare do anything to her."
Officials said Stang, of Dayton, Ohio, never asked for police protection despite the constant threats.
"She always asked for protection for others, never for herself. She wasn't the kind of person who could live with police watching her all the time," said federal Human Rights Secretary Nilmario Miranda, who flew to the region shortly after the killing.
Working together
Miranda said the federal government and Para state officials were working together to implement a program to investigate death threats to human rights activists before they were killed.
Ubiritan Cazetta, chief federal prosecutor in Para state, said Stang's murder would likely hurt the loggers' interests.
"Now with the world's attention, implementing the sustainable development project has become a question of honor," Cazetta said.
The Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission, linked to Stang's work, identified 30 land activists in Para state alone who had received death threats, the Folha de Sao Paulo daily reported.
"We are trying to make this an issue for police before someone gets killed, instead of after," Miranda said. "In this region, fighting for human rights is a high-risk occupation."
Stang worked in the so-called "arc of destruction" -- the logging frontier that fringes the rain forest's southern edge like an ever-tightening belt.
Where the rain forest is gone, what remains is a hot, dusty region filled with emigrants from Brazil's poor, arid northeast who have come seeking opportunity.
Many find jobs clearing jungle brush -- and then fall into an endless cycle of debt. Forced to pay for their food, tools and transportation to remote jungle ranches, they find themselves trapped in a modern form of slavery.
Others make a living as "pistoleiros," or hired gunmen, in a region where life is cheap.
The profits are mainly for the loggers, who frequently flout environmental laws requiring that most of the forest be left standing, and the "grileiros," who forge land titles to expel poor settlers and gain access to the lucrative timber.
Stang opposed the profiteers and worked to implant Projects for Sustainable Development, which allowed residents to live in the Amazon and not destroy it. She worked to organize poor families and to protect large areas of pristine jungle around Anapu.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.