Paulo Santos  /  AP
Brazilian soldiers arrive Thursday in Anapu after a U.S. nun, Sister Dorothy Stang, was shot to death last weekend.
updated 2/17/2005 8:16:21 PM ET 2005-02-18T01:16:21

Brazil’s president signed decrees Thursday creating two huge forest reserves, succumbing to intense pressure to protect a lawless Amazon region from violent loggers and ranchers after the killing last weekend of a U.S. nun who fought to protect the jungle.

The measures signed by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will form a reserve of 8.15 million acres and a national park spanning 1.1 million acres in the state of Para, where Sister Dorothy Stang, 73, was shot to death Saturday in a dispute with a powerful rancher.

“We can’t give in to people committing acts of violence,” said Environment Minister Marina Silva, who announced the decrees. “The government is putting the brakes on in front of the predators.”

Activist groups demand end to violence
The decrees were announced after more than 60 groups signed a letter to the president demanding strong moves to curb “violence and impunity associated with the illegal occupation of lands and deforestation” in the Amazon, especially in Para, which is nearly twice the size of Texas.

Sister Dorothy Stang
Carlos Silva  /  AP file
Sister Dorothy Stang, 73, of Ohio, was killed a year after she was honored by the legislature in Para state as an “honorific citizen.”

Unless the killing stops, Silva “will risk making history as the champion of rural violence, illegal occupation of public lands and illegal logging,” said the letter, which was signed by the World Wide Fund for Nature, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other groups.

Logging companies and wealthy landowners have steadily pushed deeper into the world’s largest rain forest, which sprawls over 1.6 million square miles and covers more than half the country, vying for its abundant natural resources. Development, logging and farming have destroyed as much as 20 percent of the rain forest.

Manhunt for nun’s killers under way
In this eastern Amazon town, helicopters flew in 110 soldiers from the 51st Jungle Infantry Division to join a police manhunt for four men accused of killing Stang. They set up camp near the graveyard where she was buried this week.

For the town’s 7,000 residents, the arrival of the troops was both a relief and another reminder of how much the situation had deteriorated in Para, 900 miles northwest of Brasilia, the capital.

“Sadly, it’s necessary. Calling in the army should only be the last resort,” said the Rev. Andoni Ledesma, a Spanish priest.

The troops were part of a larger operation involving 2,000 soldiers who were sent in to keep the peace around Para. At least three other people have been killed in the region since Stang’s murder.

Police were searching for the two gunmen and for rancher Vitamiro Goncalves Moura, known as Bida, who authorities say ordered the killing.

Walame Fiado Machado, who is heading the federal police investigation, said he believed that the two gunmen were likely hiding in a dense, hard-to-reach stretch of forest near Bida’s ranch and that the rancher and an associate may have fled the region in a small plane soon after the murder.

Police were checking flight records to see whether a plane came and left the region Saturday or Sunday, Machado said. He also said Bida’s lawyers could try to negotiate his surrender to police in Altamira, a city about 100 miles from Anapu.

Little progress in probe
Many find the lack of concrete results frustrating.

“It’s been five days since she was killed, and so far nothing,” said the Rev. Jose Amaro Lopes de Sousa, a local priest. “The army’s here, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to get around in the jungle. If they catch someone, I’ll only believe it when I see it.”

As police searched for the suspects, residents continued to vent their anger over Stang’s death. Farmers from the Boa Esperanca settlement, where Stang was killed, staged protests Thursday in Altamira, where most federal and state authorities have their regional headquarters.

Stang, a naturalized Brazilian originally from Dayton, Ohio, was attacked Saturday in a settlement 30 miles from Anapu. A witness said she began to read from a Bible before being shot at close range six times by two gunmen.

Lawlessness has long been common in Para state, where ranchers, backed by hired gunmen, ensnare poor workers in an endless cycle of debt akin to slavery. Tensions rose further when the government recently ordered ranchers to evacuate land they occupied but could not prove they owned.

Ranchers and loggers blocked roads and rivers, and the government relented, allowing ranchers with dubious claims to the land to continue logging.

Environmentalists have complained bitterly about the government’s decision. In their letter Thursday, the 60 groups demanded that Silva set a deadline for the occupiers of public land to prove ownership “without flexibility for any sector.”

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