Sister Dorothy Stang spent the last 22 years of her life fighting to preserve the Amazon rainforest in Brasil, while helping peasant farmers live sustainably in the forest. Sister Dorothy’s work brought her up against powerful commercial interests: loggers and ranchers pushing ever deeper into the forest, eager for the short-term gain of timber and cheap cattle grass. Sister Dorothy knew their greed for short-term gain not only threatened the landless peasants she strove to empower, but us all. One of her biggest things to motivate Sister Dorothy in her work was the issue of climate change. “When I arrived we had six to eight months of rain, we now have four. Each year we have to dig our wells a little deeper”, she told me.

Sister Dorothy’s name had been on a death list for many years, although no one really thought it could happen to such a dear elderly lady. On February 12th 2005 whilst on her way to a meeting of poor farmers – on the same red dirt road we had travelled together two years earlier - two gunmen confronted her. She pulled out her Bible and read to them. They listened for a moment, took a few steps back, then shot her six times. In this lawless latter day Wild West, life is cheap. Her killers were paid a mere twenty dollars each for her death. Since 1985 there were 1379 land related murders, yet only seventy-five people have been brought to trial.

Sister Dorothy, born in Dayton Ohio, joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur when she was in junior high school. Their mission statement is to “take our stand with poor people, especially women and children, in the most abandoned places.” Dorothy sent me a picture of St. Julie, the peasant woman of the 18th century that founded her congregation of religious women. She wrote, “her delight for is/was to help women find/assume their role in society to help bring a more just world.”

Sister Dorothy was sent to Brazil as a missionary by her order in the 1960s. In the early 1980s she moved to western Pará and began working with the small settlers who had migrated in their thousands from the arid north-east of Brazil, following the creation of the Trans-Amazon Highway. She encouraged them to abandon the practise of ‘slash and burn’ for more sustainable forms of farming. A forest ecosystem is extremely intricate and delicate, and once the forest canopy is removed the soil rapidly degrades. They had more to contend with than poor soils. There was also competition for land from politically influential individuals and companies involved in clearing the forest to raise beef cattle, grow soya beans and cut tropical hardwoods for export.

Sister Dorothy rode a motorcycle, wore hand-painted T-shirts, craved chunky peanut butter and loved making pancakes, which I can attest were delicious! Sister Dorothy had an inspiring delight for life and a wonderful sense of humour. “Drink plenty of water” she chirped, “it’s the best way to stay alive”. Letters I received from Dorothy reflected her growing concern for the region including Anapu, the jungle town of 7,000 residents that Sister Dorothy adopted as her own.

We have invested in much here. Our land situation is becoming more crucial. I think this has to happen so that all will get better. The government has to take a better, firmer stand. Almost each day there is some crisis,” she wrote in 2003. Sister Dorothy believed it was only five years before all the forest in her area would be lost forever.

Sister Dorothy repeatedly denounced the land grabbers for threats and violence. In 2003 she told Federal Police that twelve local landowners were intimidating the farmers. The landowners responded by declaring her a terrorist and accusing her of arming the peasants. “Our sustainable project isn’t going too well. In February there was a shoot out and a gunman was killed. The police jailed four and some of us are accused of invasion of land and carrying arms – Dorothy; supplying food to ‘men involved in organised crime’! Imagine the poor being called organised criminals! We went to Brasilia many times seeking help to occupy our land,” she said in a 2003 letter.

Sister Dorothy died less than a week after a meeting with the human-rights minister, Nilmário Miranda, at which she asked for protection – not for herself, but for her people. For Dorothy it was only a question of time. Some small farmers that had received death threats from pistoleiros hired by landowners and loggers. They had their eyes on land earmarked for another of Sister Dorothy’s sustainable development projects.

In 2004 Sister Dorothy was made an honorary citizen of the State of Pará and was awarded a human-rights prize by the Pará branch of the Brazilian Bar Association. Her death promoted a series of high level actions, with ministers flying to her funeral, police arresting suspects, and 2,000 heavily armed troops being helicoptered to the region. Brazil’s president also declared the creation of an 8.2 million-acre reserve and a national park spanning 1.1 million acres.

Greater awareness and positive action must arise from this tragedy. I’m sure Sister Dorothy will have even more to say now she has gone.

Sister Dorothy Stang, nun, environmentalist and human rights worker, born June 7 1930, died February 12 2005.

Sam Clements 2005

Letters from Dorothy

Listen to a BBC World Service interview by Sam & Jim. Outlook programme, 18/2/05 - mp3 audio.

Read press articles about Sister Dorothy’s murder