Brazil: Murder of Nun Leads to Amazonian Reserve Decree, Deployment of Soldiers

Article excerpt

The murder of a US-born nun in the Brazilian state of Para has led to the deployment of troops to the Amazon, a decree ordering an Amazonian reserve, and an international outcry. Within days of the killing of Dorothy Stang, police had taken into custody three of the four suspects and had retrieved one of the weapons used for the crime. But violent death continued to haunt the landless and environmental movements, as several murders quickly followed Stang's. The murder of Stang forced President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to cut short an international trip and attempt to militarize the region, although the question of whether military deployment would bring order to the region remained unanswered.

Stang becomes "martyr" for Amazon

Dorothy Stang, 73, a nun from Dayton, Ohio, and a naturalized Brazilian citizen, was shot dead on Feb. 12, a result of a dispute with an influential rancher in the eastern Amazon state of Para, on the country's frontier of forest and development, where powerful interests collide with the Amazon's poor.

Witnesses said Stang was killed because she was trying to halt logging in an area of near-pristine jungle coveted by rancher Vitalmiro Goncalves de Moura, known as Bida. Police were searching for Moura but think he fled the region in a small plane after the killing. As of Feb. 22, an attorney for Moura said the rancher was negotiating his surrender and would turn himself in to police shortly.

Police already had the three other suspects in custody. Amair Freijoli da Cunha is accused of hiring the killers, and Rayfran das Neves Sales confessed to firing twice at Stang. Another suspect in the case, Uilquelano de Souza Pinto, known as Eduardo, was apprehended in eastern Para. Cunha, who was charged with conspiracy to murder, has denied any involvement.

An autopsy performed in Belem determined that Stang had been shot six times--in the head, throat, and abdomen. Claudio Guimaraes, director of the state's forensics institute, said the shots appeared to have been fired from just over a half meter away.

Witnesses who escaped the killers said Stang pulled out her Bible when confronted by the killers and began to read passages to them before they shot her. "My only weapon is the Bible," said Sister Dorothy, according to the campesinos who witnessed the murder.

Just 10 days before, Stang had said that assailants would not have the courage to kill a woman of her age. "I know they want to kill me, but I won't flee," Stang told the newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo. "But if they do kill me, I would like to be buried here in Anapu, with the humble people."

Thousands of people, from peasants to politicians, converged on the remote Amazon town for the burial of the nun killed in the struggle to protect the Amazon rain forest and its poor residents from loggers and ranchers. After an all-night vigil, mourners filed slowly past the simple, flag-draped coffin in the small shingle-roofed church in Anapu, the jungle town of 7,000 residents that Stang had adopted as her own.

Comparisons to Chico Mendes

"Before she came here, she was in southern Para, where loggers cut down everything, and she saw that that model brought disgrace for many and improvements for only a few," said Felicio Pontes Jr., a federal prosecutor who often worked with Stang on land issues. "She vowed not to let that happen here."

That vow cost Stang her life--and made her a symbol for rain-forest defenders. Her killing drew repeated comparisons to rubber tapper and environmentalist Chico Mendes, who was slain in 1988 (see Chronicle, 1989-03-28; NotiSur, 1993-02-23 and 1996-08-02).

While Mendes' death brought international attention, increased environmental awareness, and government regulations, much has remained the same. The Amazon is still a wild, mostly lawless region. Loggers, ranchers, and developers are still cutting down the trees--about 20% of the 2. …