This memorial essay was written by David Stang, brother to martyred activist Sister Dorothy Stang, SNDN. Reprinted with the author's permission.
OnFebruary 11, 2005 Dorothy Stang called Colorado to talk and she said, “I cannot leave my family in Esperanza. I know that Luis and his family have just had their house burnt down, their crops destroyed and his wife and children are out in the Amazon forest with no food, blankets, or protection of any kind and there are others who are very afraid nearby. Can a Mother leave her children in such need,” she said? I wanted to tell my sister over the phone, please don’t go to Esperanza.
“David, she continued to talk, I am on my way to Esperanza, now, with food, clothing, hammers, nail, saws. For one minute though David I can smell the cool air of Palmer Lake Colorado where you live, and say hello to you. It is very hot here, humid and it is raining. I stopped at the police post to ask for assistance as there are killers where I am going but the Police refused to help me. Thugs have just burnt down Luis’s home and they are terrorizing the people who merely want to survive and maybe even enter into the economy of their country. The Government has approved this Project of Sustainable Development where Luis just had his house burnt down by the local Ranchers, Plantation Owners, and their armed thugs who believe they are the government. I am going to Esperanza, to show support, maybe protection and help them, though this terrible time, however this time I am a little nervous.” Again, I wanted to say please don’t go. Now, I am trying to pull myself together with this disconcerting phone call as it is 4AM here in Colorado. I could still hear the people outside Dorothy’s house laughing and joking. “ The next day Dorothy was murdered. Six shots were fired at her, at close range and all of them hit her, a 73 unarmed woman who was a known protector of the poor.
A week after Dorothy’s murder I flew to Anapu and visited Esperanza, sat and cried at the spot where she was murdered, sat and cried at the spot where she wasburied , deep in the Amazon, surrounded by nature, beautiful trees, falling rain, humidity, singing birds, the dirt, mud and the people. I was surrounded most especially by the poor who hugged me, touched my t-shirt with Dorothy’s picture on the front of the shirt. They all cried, but most of all, I saw unbelief in their eyes that this person who for years fought for them, ate with them, slept with them, how could she be murdered, they thought. She had often escaped death, prison, hunger, and stood with them, a warrior, fearless, undaunted. She would often show up with legal documents from Belem or Brazilia, documents to protect their homes and land. She was known to all of them, to not only fight for them personally, but also for their schools. Schools which from the beginning she personally helped build, over thirty schools. She would often see that their teachers were paid and even developed teacher training centers. However, I cannot forget the local Brazilian priest, who slept at Dorothy’s grave for a week, to protect her grave from being desecrated by the local ranchers who hated her. He left her grave only after the Federal Government sent troops to protect the people and Dorothy’s grave. His hug was a greatly appreciated.
As I sat in the Bishops pick up truck with soldiers in the back for protection, driving from Anapu to Esperanza, I was stunned to watch the driver handle the muddy road, slide down the hill and just stop right before the wet log bridge and wonder how we would cross over. The driver was telling everyone to get out and walk over. As we slipped on the wet logs, looking at the raging river down below, we wondered how he was going to cross over with the Bishops pick up. Staring intently we watched the driver make the sign ofthe cross, put the metal to the petal and sped over the narrow wet bridge, the tail end weaving back and forth. Truly this was a marvel of driving. I thought to myself how did Dorothy a week earlier make it to Esperanza in a tiny car during the rainy season, for we had four harrowing bridges to cross over, deep mud, and hills and valleys to climb and slide down, hoping not to slide into the river itself. The 20 miles from Anapu to Esperanza took four hours. I kept repeating to myself during this drive, Dots powerful message, “I cannot leave my family.” A message so powerful it overcame the enormous struggles that I was seeing before my very eyes. Tears came to my eyes, thinking, like the people, how could they kill her, however, still remembering Dot telling me that there were hundreds of leaders, farmers, who have been killed in the area just in the last couple of years. As I slept in Dot’s bed that night, on the walls were pictures of those who have been murdered. On the night stand was a little shrine that she made and on the wall, next to the door, was a piece of bamboo, slit in the middle, and carved out of this bamboo was the Christmas crib set that she would touch every morning when she left her room. Can we wonder if we would have staid true under such horrific circumstances, and knowing that many people already had been murdered? Can we not ask what strength it took for Dorothy to stay with the poor.
I mention all this to set the stage for the important question, “what happens now” in this great forest that the world needs, for such corruption and violence does not just disappear. Over the next ten years, after 9 trials and only four people being indicted by the State of Para, the killers are after less than ten years now free. Even one of them has been indicted again for another killing. The big rancher Regivaldo appealed his verdict of 30 years in jail, to the High Court of Brazil, and he won his appeal. For years now , he is free on appeal, even though the judge of theCourt of the State of Para clearly stated, “ Regivaldo even if you appeal, you must stay in jail during the appeal.” W e all remember In a packed courtroom, at the trial of Regivaldo, with one of the now free killers sitting right in the courtroom with us and with his thug friends. We all heard the verdict to Regivaldo from the Judge saying, “You will stay in jail, if you appeal.” The Judge during the trial brought in extra policemen to protect us, as the courtroom were full of Regivaldos powerful friends. I am sure the last thing the Judge wanted wasto have murders in his courtroom. As we left the courtroom, we sawone of the TV broadcasters surrounded by security, for she had just been threatened by a motorcycle gang, supporters of Regivaldo, who we were told were going to escort Regivaldo home free. They were angry that he had been indicted. Obviously, the trials were merely a small part of what was and is happening in and to the Amazon. We must remember that there were many others involved in Dorothy’s murder and many of the other murders of the farmers in the Amazon, all free.
As we move on to today, one does ask, who controls the Amazon today? . For example, there is a new law allowing cutting down illegally the trees in the Amazon, and that all who cut down trees illegally in the Amazon in the past have been legally forgiven. Sucha horrendous law helps me to remember one of the people who worked for years in the Amazon saying to me during the trials, David, “these trials of Dorothy’s killers are merely a distraction from worse things that will happen. ” One wonders if any good behaviors remain of all the work that Dorothy and the people did. We do hear that, the two Projects of Sustainable Development, that Dorothy and the people worked so hard to create are thriving, and others farmers are uniting to demand, their rights to own their land, seeing that the projects were able to persevere why can’t they fight for their rights. The schools are still open. The special school to educate future farmers, is still open. The seed of Human Rights planted by all those who have been murdered are growing and the memory of Dorothy and all those warriors for the people in the Amazon are still remembered even, in the midst of enormous oppression such as pisteleiros are still haunting the forest, and hundreds of years of tradition that supports these Injustices continue, so one wonders how things can possibly go forward? Is it not the blood of those who gave their lives that keeps hope alive? Is it not those who still continue to fight for their rights that give us hope?
Changing long term habits of oppression can be so difficult. Dorothy knew very clearly the long history of oppression that she was up against and that she did as much as she did is clearly a miracle in itself. There is a saying that, “ We must know History or we will certainly repeat it”. This we must know in order to understand why there are so many murders in the Amazon, among Indigenous People, among the poor. Historians tell us, “When Christopher Columbus first set foot on the white sands of Guanahani Island, he performed a ceremony to take “possession” of the land for the king and queen of Spain, acting under the international laws of WesternChristendom. Although the story of Columbus’ “discovery” has taken on mythological proportions in most of the Western World, few people are aware that his act of “possession” was based on a religious doctrine now known in history as the “ Doctrine of Discovery”. Even fewer people realize that today five centuries later, the United States government still uses this archaic Judeo Christian, Doctrine of Discovery” to deny the rights of Native American Indians, to their lands. This Doctrine pervades the thinking of the rich and powerful in Brazil.
Why do I bring this document before us? The Plantations Owners, Ranchers, in Brazil still feel they have the same right of discovery, even if people live on the land they are claiming. Governments are vital to overcoming this long habit of Discovery. Dorothy was very involved with the Government of Brazil on so many levels, Education, Land, Freedom, to change this horrendous memory of the, “Law of Discovery.” As the Federal Prosecutor of Land in the Amazon said in the Courtroom, “She did what we were afraid to do, she encouraged us to do our job.” The stories of Dorothy going to Brazilia or to Belem to help people get legal documents to protect their ownership of land is well known. In 2005, when I went to see the Minister of Justice, I was stopped at securityat the Justice Building entrance. The security person who stopped me looked at meand said, “ I recognize you she said, you look like your sister Dorothy. I am the one who would give her permission to sleep in the hallway all night so she would be at the officer’s door when he arrived the next morning to do his job and Dorothy would get legal documents to help her people.” I saw a look of pride in her eyes as she spoke. Hopefully, this pride is the future of Brazil, of the Amazon.
Feb. 15, 2017