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Murder in the Amazon: A U.S.-Born Nun and Environmentalist is Gunned Down in Brazil For Opposing Rainforest Logging

StoryFebruary 22, 2005
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We go to Brazil to speak with a friend and colleague of the slain nun Dorothy Stang. Her killing has brought new interest in the struggle to preserve the Amazon rainforests. Last week Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva signed decrees setting aside 8 million acres to create two massive new rain forest reserves. [includes rush transcript]

Police in Brazil have arrested a second man over the killing of a US-born Catholic nun in the Amazon rainforest.

They say Rayfran das Neves Sales is the key suspect in the murder of 73 year-old Sister Dorothy Stang, who dedicated her life to the people of the Amazon rainforest. She lived and worked in Brazil for more than 30 years. Another man has been charged with conspiracy to murder. He denies any involvement.

Dorothy Stang moved to the Para region of the Amazon in the 1970’s to work with peasant farmers on building sustainable agricultural settlements.

She began confronting the powerful loggers and ranchers in the area — who were illegally cutting down areas of the rain forest. In the weeks before Dorothy Stang was murdered, ranchers had been trying to expel the farmers by burning down their huts.

According to reports, Sister Stang was killed because she was trying to stop logging by a powerful rancher Vitalmiro Gonclaves Moura. Police are still searching for the rancher — who they believe has fled the area. Dorothy Stang was shot dead as she read from her Bible. Her killing is being compared to the assassination of activist Chico Mendez in December 1988. He was killed for his defense of the Amazon rainforest.

  • Joan Krimm, from the same order as slain nun and activist Dorothy Stang. She went to Brazil with Sister Stang in 1966 and lived and worked there for ten years. She was a close friend of Stang and talked to her the week before she was killed.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined by Sister Joan Krimm. She’s a long-time friend of Dorothy Stang. She went to Brazil with Sister Stang in 1966 and lived and worked there for ten years. She spoke with Dorothy Stang a week before she was killed. Welcome to Democracy Now!

SISTER JOAN KRIMM: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: First, our condolences.

SISTER JOAN KRIMM: Thank you. Thank you. We appreciate that.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Sister Dorothy Stang? What was she doing in the Amazon? Can you talk about what you understood happened in the end?

SISTER JOAN KRIMM: Yes. Dorothy moved into the Amazon area when the government had been giving land to peasant farmers in order to populate the Amazon area somewhat. She felt that the presence of the church should be there, and she wanted to support them spiritually and materially. She realized in the 1980s that the loggers and the ranchers were beginning to come into the area and take over the land that had been given to the farmers. The peasants had not been given the deeds to the land, so they have no proof that the land belongs to them. And Sister Dorothy has been trying to get the federal government and the state government to act to protect the peasant farmers.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Sister Joan Krimm about Dorothy Stang. Can you talk about the people that Sister Stang worked with?

SISTER JOAN KRIMM: The people that Sister Dorothy worked with are very simple farmers who have come from a situation of oppression in the state of Maranhao where they worked for other landowners, and this was their chance to have their own little tract of land and become independent farmers. They’re wonderful people. They’re beautiful. They’re a peace-loving people. And Sister was teaching them sustainable farming so that they could farm their land but save the rainforest at the same time.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain exactly what happened in the end, what you understood to have taken place?

SISTER JOAN KRIMM: What we — the news we have received so far is that Sister was — the day before she died, that Friday, she had taken food and clothing into a tiny village that had been burned down. The people were hiding in the forest, and she was taking food and clothing to them. The next day, she was going to the little village of Boa Esperanza which means “good hope.” And she walked the 30 kilometers to get there. While she was walking in the path, she was accosted by two gunmen, one with a pistol, one with a revolver. She reached in her little cloth bag that she always carried with her, took out her Bible, and said to them, this is my weapon, and she opened it and began to read from the Bible. And they stepped back, listened a minute, and then shot her six times. And she died immediately.

AMY GOODMAN: And the person that they have taken into custody now? Do you have any faith that he was involved?

SISTER JOAN KRIMM: What I read in the paper said that they believe he was one of the gunmen. The one that they caught yesterday. The gentleman that they caught before that that turned himself in, said that he had hired gunmen for other killings, but he was not guilty of hiring the two that killed Sister Dorothy. What is true and what is not, we’ll have to wait and see.

AMY GOODMAN: And the actual rancher who they say is in hiding now?

SISTER JOAN KRIMM: Yes. Some of the people who live in the area said that shortly after the killing, they heard and saw a little plane take off, so he may have just flown to some other city. We don’t know. We’re still waiting for word.

AMY GOODMAN: We understand that the president, Lula, is declaring the whole area or at least 8 million acres a preserve. Can you talk about that?

SISTER JOAN KRIMM: We hope — we actually hope that this will happen. The Amazon area is so huge that it’s hard to govern it, and the illegal loggers and ranchers have been cutting down the Amazon for a long time, and it’s hard to get a hold of it. The president is reserving that land now, but even the military — I heard a broadcast from Brazil, and even the military are saying it’s going to be very difficult to stop them, just because of the immensity of the forest. I do believe that the president has good intentions, and I think that he’s going to do all he can to keep that reserve, but it’s going to be difficult.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sister Joan Krimm, I want to thank you very much for being with us, as we remember Sister Dorothy Stang and learn about the circumstances of her death. Thank you for joining us.

SISTER JOAN KRIMM: Thank you very much. Bye.

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