Monday, January 31, 2005
February 18, 2005 The Brazilian government has responded swiftly to the murder of 74-year-old American social and environmental activist Sister Dorothy Stang in Para, Brazil, by deploying approximately 2,000 troops to the region and setting aside 12.8 million acres of rainforest for governmental protection, according to Paulo Adario, Greenpeace Amazon Campaign Coordinator. As reported by The New York Times, a pair of gunmen shot Sister Dorothy four times in the chest and head while she was visiting an encampment near the Trans-Amazon Highway last Saturday. A witness claimed Sister Dorothy began reading the Bible aloud before she was shot to death at close range, according to the Associated Press.
A native of Dayton, Ohio, Sister Dorothy, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, moved to Brazil in 1966 and helped to organize and educate rural Brazilians on issues such as land tenure and the economic and environmental benefits of avoiding deforestation. Sister Dorothy-like Adario himself, and many other activists-had received numerous death threats, as reported in Outside in contributing editor Patrick Symmes's 2002 investigation of a series of contract murders of social and environmental activists in the Amazon. ("Blood Wood," October 2002.)
On Feb. 13, the day after Sister Dorothy was murdered, the New York Times reported that the Brazillian government restored logging licenses that had previously been suspended in an effort to stop deforestation in the Amazon. Loggers had created blockades along BR 163, a major Amazon highway, in protest of the government restrictions, and threatened to pollute waterways with chemicals and seize Novo Progresso Airport. While loggers were pleased with their re-instated licenses, environmental groups saw it differently. "Giving in to blackmail is always a dangerous precedent," Adriana Ramos of the Socio-Environmental Institute told the Times. "Before long, somebody else appears, also wanting to unilaterally force negotiations, so it is important that the government not weaken the implementation of the law."
In response to Sister Dorothy's murder and the region's continued lawlessness, however, the Brazilian government has dispatched military personnel to Para to, as Adario explained, "give space and security to all the government departments." It is unclear how long the troops will remain in the region, which Adario described as a "very remote area, with very difficult conditions. We hope they stay until the murderers are arrested and the land grabbers are expelled from the areas the government wants to protect."
Meanwhile Para simmers. "The people are terrified," Adriano said. "There are areas of the Amazon that the Federal Police [Brazil's version of the FBI] don't have the courage to enter. The Federal Police don't go on the road Sister Dorothy was killed on."
While Sister Dorothy's death is a serious blow to Brazil's environmental movement, it has prompted the government to make long-needed reforms. A decree signed Thursday by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will create an ecological reserve spanning more than 8 million acres, which, according to Greenpeace, will only be accessible to scientific researchers. The government has also allocated more than 4 million acres for protection, and announced a six-month deforestation moratorium for an additional 20 million acres along the western side of BR 163, the Amazon's major traffic artery. All told, the Brazilian government has, at least temporarily, protected an area approximately the size of England.
The Amazon, the world's largest rainforest, lost territory the size of New Jersey last year, according to The Los Angeles Times, and, in spite of the newly protected areas, logging will continue to be a major and perhaps even deadly issue. "The logging companies work with a threat logic," Sister Dorothy told Outside in 2002. "They elaborate a list of leaders, and then a second movement appears to eliminate those people . If I get a stray bullet, we know exactly who did it."