Sr. Dorothy Stang chose to live in extreme poverty in order to help others living in poverty. She had a passion for people of all cultures, for social justice, peace making, fairness, and respect for the environment. She dedicated her life to defending the rainforest and indigenous people. Dorothy Stang is known today as the “Martyr of the Amazon”.
On a rain-soaked Saturday in February 2005, she carried that Bible while making her way along a muddy Amazon jungle road. She was headed to Boa Esperança, a village near Anapu, where she lived in the northern Brazil state of Para. The area lies on the eastern edge of the Amazon, a region known for its wealth of natural resources and the violence that boils over from land disputes. Waiting for Sr. Dorothy that morning was a group of peasant farmers whose homes had been burned down to the ground on the land which the federal government had granted to these farmers. While Sr. Dorothy walked on toward Boa Esperança, she heard taunts from men who had stopped alongside her. The rain poured as she stopped and opened her Bible. She read to the men. They listened to two verses, stepped back and aimed their guns. Sr. Dorothy raised her Bible toward them and six shots were fired at point blank range.
Many believe that a consortium of loggers and ranchers had contributed to the bounty on Sr. Dorothy’s head in an effort to silence her. Ironically, their attempt at silence resulted in an opposite effect: an outraged world, well informed about the murder through persistent global media reports, sent Sr. Dorothy’s voice soaring to new heights. And a proclamation came quickly from Brazil’s President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva, that the land in question, over 22,000 acres, would be reserved for sustainable development by the poor farmers whose cause Sr. Dorothy had championed.
Like most Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Dorothy Stang chose life in this Congregation which has a clear preference for work among those living in poverty. At age 18, she completed her application to join the Sisters and wrote boldly across the top of the form: “I would like to volunteer for the Chinese missions.” She never served in China, but her dream of missionary work was realised in Brazil.
Sr. Dorothy lived and worked in Brazil for nearly 40 years. She went there for the first time in 1966 with five other Sisters of Notre Dame. At that time, Sr. Dorothy and her Sisters spoke little or no Portuguese. So they began the ministry with language learning. Soon they established a new convent at Coroatá in the state of Maranhão, where they trained lay catechists and gave religious instruction to adults. Over time, the Sisters became more aware of the social problems troubling this region, particularly the oppression of farmers. The Sisters reacted by stressing basic tenets of human rights in their lessons and their work took on new proportions and expanded to new areas in Brazil.
Over the years, the work became progressively more dangerous for the Sisters in Brazil and for the farmers and their families. As the world discovered the vast possibilities offered by the rich natural resources of the Amazon rain forest, people with more limited and self-centred goals began to plan ways to capitalise upon them. Gradually, loggers, ranchers, land speculators, and agribusiness became the dominant forces in the region, victimising the poorer farmers and destroying the rain forest.
Sister Dorothy understood that the rain forest, also called the earth’s lungs, plays a critical role in the exchange of gases between the biosphere and the atmosphere. Her frustration grew as she witnessed the destruction of this natural resource so vital to her people’s and the planet’s future. She saw the forest and the people plundered for financial gain by illegal logging operations, land speculators, and cattle ranchers. She witnessed political leaders allowing the destruction to continue.
The Great Carajás Project designated 10.5 million acres in northern Brazil for development encompassing three states, including Para. The plan was to open the land for mining, refining and agribusiness projects. Sr. Dorothy worked to develop a new type of agrarian society that helped farm families from diverse cultures develop common bonds and learn how to use the soil to sustain themselves and the land. During these years, she worked with the Pastoral Land Commission, an agency of the Bishops’ Conference in Brazil. She also helped to foster small family business projects in the village, often creating, for the first time in many families, women breadwinners. She worked to create schools and helped teachers become properly trained. Many people learned to read and write because of Sr. Dorothy. She also had a vast knowledge of popular health care remedies, particularly useful in areas where doctors and hospitals are scarce, and medication costs are often exorbitant.
In spite of Sister Dorothy’s good work for the people of Para and the world, protecting the rainforest by encouraging sustainable farming techniques presented a threat to loggers, land speculators, and agribusiness concerns in the region. As a result, in the late 90s she was named to a “death list” created by the power brokers of the area.
In the last year of her life, Sr. Dorothy was granted naturalised citizenship in Brazil. She received a humanitarian award from a Brazilian lawyers’ association and officials in the state of Para named her “Woman of the Year.” Both honours were given for her work to secure land rights for peasants but while she was given the award from the officials in Para, a plan was underway for a paved highway through the area, raising land values higher and escalating the violence.
Several thousand people attended Sr. Dorothy’s funeral. In the month following her murder, four men were arrested and charged with the murder. On December 10, 2008, Sr. Dorothy Stang was awarded the 2008 United Nations Award in the Field of Human Rights. She is buried in a grove in Anapu, her grave marked with a simple wooden cross bearing her name and dates of birth and death.
The Student, the Nun & the Amazon is a film about the work of Sister Dorothy made shortly before her death. Be inspired by her courage and compassion. Watch the movie here.
To find more resources about Dorothy visit the dedicated website by her congregation.