Five Years After Her Martyrdom in Brazil Sister Dorothy Has Become a Symbol

Dorothy StangFebruary 12th for many means the Day of Impunity: it was exactly on this date five years ago that missionary sister Dorothy Stang, at 75 years old, died after six bullets from an assassin’s gun. It was a barbarous crime that got the country and the world’s attention. 

The assassination occurred at 7 am in the municipality of Anapu, in the southeastern part of the state of Pará. It was planned by two ranchers whose economic interests were being threatened by the work of the sister who defended poor agricultural workers, working on their behalf for agrarian reform and sustainable production projects.

The two ranchers, Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura, known as Bida, and Regivaldo Pereira Galvão, known as Taradão, have yet to be conclusively condemned by the justice system.

“Dorothy’s work was very connected to the most needy people. She devoted her life to them, made a preferential option for the most poor, lived with these families, and began to organize these communities and associations as well. She often walked from community to community defending the interests of these people,” said Dom Erwin, bishop of Prelazia, Xingu, who worked with the missionary.

For Jane Silva, the coordinator of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) in Pará, the date of Sister Dorothy’s death is important in that it is a chance to remember the work the she pursued, following her vision of people and forests living in harmony.

“She showed that it is possible to manage food production in a way that protects the forest. She showed it was possible if public policies were enacted.”

According to Dom Erwin, who has also received death threats since 2006 and has had to have police escort, Dorothy worked against the ambitions of large ranchers and land grabbers by settling poor families into Sustainable Development Projects (PDS), a new settlement model based on small family farming and subsistent extraction projects with low environmental impact.

“With this type of settlement, begun by the government itself, she countered the interests of large landowners who wanted to increase their pastures,” said Dom Erwin.

For the bishop, the most important thing about this five year anniversary date is to remember that the sister’s death is symbolic – it calls attention to her work in favor of those less favored and for the conservation of the Amazon, which is becoming more and more devastated.

“A few days before her death, she said that in spite of being threatened, she knew her place was alongside these people who are constantly mistreated. So, she could not run away.”

In the same year that the crime was committed, Rayfran das Neves Sales confessed to be the one who actually shot Sister Dorothy and was given a 27-year prison sentence. The sentence was upheld on December 10, 2009 in the Criminal Forum of Belém after a request for a new trial was denied.

Two other accomplices of the crime, Amair Feijole da Cunha and Clodoaldo Carlos Batista, are serving 18 and 17 years, respectively. In 2007, one of the ranchers and architects of the crime, Bida, received a 30-year prison sentence. However, in a new trial held in 2008, he was found innocent.

The public prosecutor appealed the decision. The Pará justice system then annulled the absolution of the rancher and ordered his imprisonment. The Brazil Supreme Court denied Bida habeas corpus in February 4, 2010, and he finally turned himself in and awaits a new trial, to be held on March 31, 2010.

The other architect of the crime, Taradão, has yet to be tried. He continues to walk freely, though he was imprisoned in December of 2008 for another motive: he tried to falsify land documents of the area which was in dispute during Sister Dorothy’s time.

According to the federal police, Taradão fraudulently tried to acquire Lot 55, which occupies 3,000 hectares of the PDS for which Sr. Dorothy was fighting. The rancher was in prison for less than two months. His trial is expected to happen sometime in the first half of this year.

Despite the commotion around Sister Dorothy’s assassination, Dom Erwin said that this is not the only crime of this type, and there are other similar cases which have never been covered by the press.

“A few years ago, a father of a family named Ademir died for the same reason. In the early morning, they entered his house and killed him, in front of his wife. But the case never received the same attention as Dorothy’s case. And there have been other cases in the last few years.”

Jane Silva of the CPT stated that currently the Public Defender’s Office has recognized the existence of 72 death threats in the state. Last week, the CPT entered a list of 681 deaths related to land conflict between 1982 and 2008.

Sister Dorothy Stang was born on June 7, 1931, in Dayton, Ohio, USA, and as a religious sister was sent by her congregation (Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur) in 1966 to work in Maranhão, Brazil.

From the beginning, she worked with agricultural laborers from small Christian base communities. Sister Dorothy accompanied many of such communities in Pará. There was lack of land for family farmers to plant and there were workers fleeing from submission to large land owners.

In 1982, she sought out Bishop Dom Erwin to talk about her desire to work among the poor of the Amazon. “I was already a bishop at that time, and she introduced herself as a representative of her congregation, and told me she wanted to work among the poorest. So I said to her, go to Transamazônia East, what is now Anapu. She stayed there until the end of her life,” said Dom Erwin.

It was in the poorest and the most needy areas of the Amazon (through which passes the Transamazonian Highway) that Sr. Dorothy worked and struggled against the interests of land grabbers and large ranchers. Since the 1980’s, the region of the small city of Anapu has suffered greatly from deforestation. This has caused constant conflict among land grabbers, woodcutters, small producers and settlers. Sister Dorothy denounced the situation various times to the Brazilian authorities..

In June of 2004, the missionary participated in a inquiry commission on violence in rural areas and denounced the impunity that had aggravated the situation of land conflicts in Pará. She said that the land grabbers did not respect boundaries of land destined for agrarian reform. The head of the commission later asked for the creation of a task force, which allowed the Public Ministry and the Federal Police to act in Pará.

The main vision of Sr. Dorothy, indicated by her work for sustainable development, was that rural workers should have the right to a piece of land for planting, respecting the environment.

“This generated a very hostile environment. The large land owners did not want this sister. In the middle of it all, I had to defend her. Even the Legislative House of Anapu declared her to be a persona non grata, and there was a wave of lies. I was on the radio and television many times saying that none of these lies were true,” said Dom Erwin.

Shortly after lands were destined for a PDS, the land grabbers took control of the lands. They alleged that the lands already had owners, and began threatening many families, scaring them off the land.

Sr. Dorothy’s work for small farmers increased the ire of the ranchers. For this reason, her life was cut short with six shots at blank range as she was going to a meeting of rural workers in the countryside of Anapu.

“The murderers wanted to commit the act the night before, while she was sleeping in one of those poor houses. But they were scared away when a child began to cry, and left the deed for the next day,” said Dom Erwin.

After the assassination, the Dorothy Committee ( was formed in Anapu. The group’s objective is to construct a culture of peace through the commitment of men and women and the Defense of Human Rights and Justice office to socio-environmental causes, thus furthering the work of Sister Dorothy.

The committee is formed by religious people, human rights activists, and young people who are indignant with the impunity around these rural crimes, and who believe in the possibility of doing something for the common good and for the rights of excluded people of the Amazon. This is the legacy of Sister Dorothy.


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