Missionary’s death triggers Amazon revolt

BRAZIL plans to protect a huge swathe of the Amazon Jungle after the recent contract killing of a missionary who had campaigned for poor peasant farmers in the rainforest communities. Police say the main suspect in the murder of Sister Dorothy Stang is a prominent local rancher.

American-born Sister Dorothy Stang, 74, was a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, an international Catholic religious order. She had been based in Anapu, in Para state, for 35 years where she had become an outspoken critic of ranchers and loggers trying to encroach on farmers’ land.

Sister Dorothy, a naturalised Brazilian, died on February 12. Just days earlier she had met Brazilian officials to warn them of threats to local farmers from powerful landowners and to demand more help to stem land-related violence. Her murder was cold-blooded and cowardly. When her killers confronted her, Sister Dorothy apparently read some lines out of her Bible before they opened fire. Police believe that the men were paid 14,000 euros and 10 heads of cattle.

The missionary’s murder was further proof, if it were needed, that the Amazon is a rich but also increasingly dangerous area. The jungle, 14 times the area of Portugal and occupying two-thirds of Brazil, has come to resemble the Wild West. Loggers, environmentalists, wealthy landowners and peasant farmers fight each other over the area’s natural riches or get caught up in the crossfire, leading to casualties on an almost daily basis.

In addition, the vast area of the jungle, which is impossible to police effectively, has become lucrative territory for drug-traffickers using it as a transit route for cocaine produced in other countries. The Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission concludes that Para, where Sister Dorothy met her death, is particularly dangerous. The state was the site of nearly half the 1,237 land-related killings in Brazil over the past 30 years. And the Brazilian government, for all its condemnations, has seemed powerless in the face of the killing spree.

The natural richness of the area triggers the fighting. The value of the Amazonian sub-soil has been put at seven billion dollars, much of it deposits of bauxite and manganese ore. Environmentalists estimate that the Amazon loses 23,473sq km of forest every year and that about one fifth of the 4.14 million sq km of wilderness has already been cut down. Scientists also claim that the deforesting of the Amazon has led to changes in the global climate and endangered thousands of unique plant and animal species. But not all ‘progressive’ opinion favours the preservation of the jungle. Some feel that the further destruction of such a massive forest is inevitable in a country that lacks sufficient roads and infrastructure. In the words of one resident of Porto Alegre in Brazil: “We don’t want to be the biggest zoo in the world – we want our country to develop.” But all agree that recent events demand regulations.

Preserving the forest

Now the government has intervened to declare that nearly four million hectares (10 million acres) in Para will become a conservation area in a bid to ward off loggers and landowners. The government will also bolster the area’s police force. Environment Minister, Marina Silva, said the creation of the new conservation park was a clear signal that the country would not capitulate to the recent violence. “The government is putting the brakes on the predators,” she said. Officials will also assess if another large strip of land, along a federal highway, can be protected.

Following Sister Dorothy’s murder, the government deployed 2,000 troops to Para. But prominent land reformers are angry that it took the death of a foreigner to force the government into action. They point out that hundreds of land-related killings in Para have gone unsolved over the last 20 years. The government’s priority now is to avoid any further settling of scores in a region marked by increasing bloodshed and conflict.

Meanwhile, Sister Dorothy Stang is likely to take on the status of martyr to poor farmers and environmentalists. She is already being compared to campaigner, Chico Mendes, another symbol of the struggle to preserve the Amazon, who was murdered in 1988. Campaigners and the government will be hoping that the publicity given to Sister Dorothy’s death will remind powerful landowners that they are not above the law.