2/15/2005

Rainforest Martyr

The town of Anapu, on the edge of the Amazon rainforest, is most notable for the dust that clogs its streets and for the number of shops selling chain-saws. It is also the place that Sister Dorothy Stang called home for more than 30 years and where she organised her efforts to try to protect the rainforest and its people from disastrous and often illegal exploitation by logging firms and ranchers. Now Anapu will be known as the place where Sister Dorothy is buried.
The 74-year-old activist was laid to rest yesterday morning after being assassinated by two gunmen on Saturday at a remote encampment in the jungle about 30 miles from the town. Sister Dorothy - the most prominent activist to be murdered in the Amazon since Chico Mendez in 1988 - was shot six times in the head, throat and body at close range. "She was on a list of people marked for death. And little by little they're ticking those names off the list," said Nilde Sousa, an official with a local women's group who worked with the nun.
As with the death of Mr Mendez, a rubber tapper, the murder of Sister Dorothy has triggered waves of outrage among environmental and human rights activists who say she dedicated her life to helping the area's poor, landless peasants and confronting the businesses that see the rainforest only as a resource to be plundered and which have already destroyed 20 per cent of its 1.6 million square miles.
It has also highlighted the problem for the Brazilian government of balancing a desire to protect the rainforest with pressure to open tracts of forest to support strong economic growth as demanded by the International Monetary Fund, which loaned Brazil billions of dollars following a recession in 2002. Such a conflict of interests has hindered attempts by the authorities to fulfil the promise of the left-leaning President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to find homes for 400,000 landless families. The promise is badly off target and showing no signs of rapid improvement.
Greenpeace estimates that 90 per cent of the timber in the Para region is illegally logged. The danger of speaking out against such exploitation could barely have been greater. Campaigners say Para has the country's highest rate of deaths related to land battles. Greenpeace said that more than 40% of the murders between 1985 and 2001 were related to such disputes.
Sister Dorothy was originally from Dayton, Ohio, and when she left school she joined the convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Cincinnati. The order, founded in France in the early 18th century, is a proponent of liberation theology and social justice. Its mission statement dedicates the order to "take our stand with poor people especially women and children, in the most abandoned places".

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