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Nun's murder mobilizes Amazon activists

The slaying of a U.S. nun in Brazil's Amazon has mobilized locals to honor her by trying to curb the lawless logging of the rain forest.
The coffin of American missionary Dorothy Stang is carried through Anapu, Brazil, on Monday.
The coffin of American missionary Dorothy Stang is carried through Anapu, Brazil, on Monday.Paulo Santos / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Thousands of settlers in bare feet and on motorcycles crowded the Trans-Amazon highway Monday to accompany the coffin of Dorothy Stang, a 73-year-old American nun slain over the weekend in the environmentally fragile region she defended for 20 years.

Stang was gunned down Saturday at the Boa Esperanca settlement where she worked to organize some 400 poor families near Anapu, a rural town about 1,300 miles north of Rio de Janeiro. She also fought to protect the large areas of pristine jungle nearby.

Her body had been flown to the state capital, Belem, some 370 miles to the west, for an autopsy and was returned here for burial Tuesday.

Stang’s violent death has drawn new attention to the region, which is notorious for illegal logging, slave labor and violent land conflicts.

Stang had received countless death threats for her advocacy work and many are asking why the government didn’t do more to avert her death.

“The death of Sister Dorothy was a crime foretold,” said Bishop Jayme Chemello, president of the Catholic Church’s Amazonia Episcopal Committee. “We ask the government to take a stand to revert this chronic reality of corruption and impunity in Brazil, especially in the Amazon.”

Last words were from Bible
Witnesses said Stang read passages from the Bible to her killers before they shot her. One witness said Stang pulled the Bible from her bag when she was confronted and started reading. Her killers listened, took a few steps back and fired.

A file photo of Missionary sister Dorothy Stang in Brazil's Amazon
Dorothy Stang, a 74-year-old American nun, was shot to death early February 12, 2005 in Brazil's Amazon rain forest where she worked to defend human rights and the environment despite frequent death threats, federal police said. Unknown assailants shot U.S. missionary, Dorothy Stang at point-blank range at an isolated agricultural settlement in dense jungle 31 miles from the town of Anapu in the state of Para, police and fellow religious workers said. A February 12, 2004 file photo shows Missionary sister Dorothy Stang in Belem, northern Brazil. (BRAZIL OUT) REUTERS/Imapress/AE/Carlos SilvaCarlos Silva / X01489

Arrest warrants have been issued for four suspects — two purported gunmen, a man who allegedly hired them and a rancher accused of ordering the slaying, officials said. No arrests have been made.

Residents of Anapu expressed shock.

“The whole town has stopped because of this. She was very dear to us. Everyone is here to honor her memory,” said Milton Pereira da Costa, who arrived here three years ago in search of land.

Officials said Stang, of Dayton, Ohio, never sought police protection despite the constant threats.

“She always asked for protection for others, never for herself. She wasn’t the kind of person who could live with police watching her all the time,” said federal Human Rights Secretary Nilmario Miranda, who flew to the region shortly after the killing.

Anapu, a hardscrabble town of 7,000, sits in the so-called “arc of destruction” — the logging frontier encroaching steadily on the rain forest’s southern edge.

The hot, dusty region attracts settlers from Brazil’s poor, arid northeast. Many take jobs clearing brush and get caught in an endless cycle of debt. Others work as “pistoleiros,” or hired gunmen, in a region where life is cheap.

All about logging
The profits go mainly to loggers, who frequently flout laws requiring that most of the forest be left standing, and the “grileiros,” who forge land titles to expel poor settlers and gain access to the lucrative timber.

Ubiritan Cazetta, chief federal prosecutor in Para state, said Stang’s killing would likely hurt the loggers’ interests. “Now with the world’s attention, implementing the sustainable development project has become a question of honor,” Cazetta said.

U.S. Ambassador John Danilovich said he was “saddened and appalled” by the killing.

“Sister Stang was a courageous individual who loved the people of Brazil and who dedicated her life to serving those less fortunate. I share the outrage over her tragic loss,” he said.

The Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission, linked to Stang’s work, identified 30 land activists in Para state alone who had received death threats, the Folha de Sao Paulo daily reported.

“We are trying to make this an issue for police before someone gets killed, instead of after,” Miranda said. “In this region, fighting for human rights is a high-risk occupation.”