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Thousands remember nun who fought for Amazon

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

ANAPU, Brazil -- Thousands of people, from peasants to politicians, converged on this remote Amazon town Tuesday to bury the bullet-ridden body of an elderly American nun killed in the struggle to protect the Amazon rain forest and its poor residents from loggers and ranchers.

After an all-night vigil, mourners filed slowly past the simple, flag-draped coffin holding the remains of Dorothy Stang in the small shingle-roofed church of Anapu, the jungle town of 7,000 residents that Stang adopted as her own.

"I feel like a river without water, a forest without trees. It's like losing a mother," said Fernando Anjos da Silva, who said Stang helped him get medical care after a logging accident that left him in a wheelchair.

Nearly 1,000 miles to the southeast in the capital of Brasilia, Cabinet ministers compared Stang to Chico Mendes, the celebrated defender of the rain forest who was gunned down in 1988.

"Chico died for the same reason, killed by people with no respect for life or the law," said Environment Minister Marina Silva.

Brazil's 1964 to 1985 military government built the Trans-Amazon Highway and gave people free land in an attempt to populate the region. The plan drew settlers from the arid northeast as well as land speculators who took control of much of the rich stands of timber -- mahogony, massaranduba and ipe.

Loggers and ranchers grew strong by backing local politicians, and by hiring gunmen to eliminate opponents.

Stang, 73, a naturalized Brazilian originally from Dayton, Ohio, was attacked Saturday in a settlement 30 miles from Anapu, where she worked helping some 400 families survive in the rugged jungle.

A witness said that when two gunmen approached her, she pulled out a Bible and began to read. Her killers listened for a moment, took a few steps back and fired, he said. Coroners said she was shot six times at close range by two guns.

"Dorothy's last words were the only words she knew: the word of God," said Mary Alice McCabe, a nun from Connecticut who has lived in Brazil for 34 years.

"Dorothy was completely dedicated to those people, to the land, to the whole of the Amazon and what the Amazon is: Nature, people looking for the right to sustain themselves on the last frontier."

But the Amazon is also a battleground between poor residents and ecologists and the logging companies and wealthy ranchers who have steadily pushed deeper into the world's largest rain forest.

Colleagues said Stang helped develop sustainable development projects to benefit poor residents of Anapu, which is on the southern edge of the rain forest. Development, logging and farming has already destroyed as much as 20 percent of the Amazon's 1.6 million square miles.

Stang had warned that land speculators were arming themselves, but she received little response from the government.

"Gunmen loose! Loggers cutting! ... The federal police is nowhere to be seen in Anapu," Stang wrote last year in a letter to the federal government and Congress. The letter was reproduced Tuesday by the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper.

Stang received repeated death threats -- but no protection.

"They wanted to shut her up because she was messing up their plans," said Julia Depweq, a nun from Cincinnati who works in the Para state capital of Belem. "I don't think they realized the repercussions her death was going to have. They thought they'd get rid of her like any other worker."

Police were looking for four suspects in the killing: two hired gunmen, an intermediary and the man they say ordered the nun's death.

Stang's slaying also pushed the government into action on some of the problems she had denounced, and authorities announced a crackdown on illegal logging.

"We will create conservation units and cancel fraudulent plans for land use," said Silva, the environment minister. "We know what we have to do... It's legality, or jail."

Presidential Chief of Staff Jose Dirceu said more than 100 police officers were working on the case, and that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was personally interested.

Many environmentalists expect the government will declare much of the disputed area a forest reserve, where settlers can live provided they keep the forest mostly intact.

"The government has to decide if this land is going to be for settlers or for large landholders," said Paulo Adario of the environmental group Greenpeace.

Still, the brazen way Stang was killed showed that the killers believed they would escape justice.

"I think the large landholders have become bolder," said the Rev. Henri des Roziers, a French priest and lawyer. "They want to send a sharp message to the government to stay away. I think they figure -- and they're probably right -- that even if they catch and try the killers, no one will ever be punished."

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