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    ink and watercolor illustration of a rainforest leaf

    Sister Dorothy Stang

    Defender of the Amazon and Its People

    Susannah Black and Jason Landsel

    May 25, 2021
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    “If anything happens,” her friend Ivan remembers her saying that weekend, “I hope it happens to me; the others have families.”

    Sister Dorothy Stang arrived in the Brazilian rainforest around the same time as the agribusiness tycoons. In 1966, when she and four other Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur were sent to help forest-farming peasants establish economic self-reliance, the government had just begun its romance with the World Bank to develop the Amazon for logging, mining, and cattle ranching. The Wall Street Journal called it the Brazilian Miracle. The peasants called it capitalismo selvagem, a savage wild beast.

    Dorothy had been raised Catholic in Dayton, Ohio. At seventeen, she and her best friend entered the same religious order. She had a deep desire to serve the poor and befriend people very different from herself.

    When she arrived in Brazil, it soon became clear that serving the poor was not going to be an apolitical proposition. It was a pivotal era, with Latin American bishops boldly applying the teachings of the gospel to local injustices. Dorothy helped establish dozens of the “base ecclesial communities” that were springing up throughout Latin America: lay-led cooperatives for both spiritual development and economic empowerment. She learned Portuguese and local indigenous languages, set up schools, and repeatedly, persistently, filed legal claims on behalf of small farmers whose land was being stolen.

    ink and watercolor illustration of a grey haired woman in a t-shirt with green rainforest leaves

    Dorothy Stang Artwork by Jason Landsel

    She also was concerned to preserve the forests themselves, at a time when the environmental movement was in its infancy. Her favorite T-shirt read “The death of the forest is the end of our lives.” Part of her work was advocating for reforesting stripped areas with appropriate crop-trees such as coffee and açaí, and encouraging small farmers to use intensive techniques rather than the slash-and-burn practices of the big landowners.

    By the late 1990s, deforestation was coming under greater scrutiny, and a group of ranchers and miners put Dorothy’s name at the top of a death list of those who were making too much trouble for them.

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    On February 12, 2005, Dorothy was up early and on her way to another community meeting to strategize a response to illegal logging. She had heard rumors that a few ranchers and loggers had met in January to determine how to have her killed and who would pay the assassins. Things had been heating up. Gunmen had just driven Luis, a small farmer whose land a rancher wanted, from his home and burned it down. When she got to the meeting, Dorothy would organize a place for the displaced family to stay.

    As she got to the top of a low hill, under the forest canopy, two men blocked her path. She knew them; they worked for the man who had driven Luis out. “Do you have a weapon?” they asked.

    “Yes,” she answered, and pulled out her tattered Bible. She opened it and read: “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Blessed are the peacemakers.” She looked at the men standing in her way. “God bless you, my sons.”

    They shot her six times.

    The obituaries said things like, “She gave her life for her causes,” evoking a do-gooder with a collection of worthy bees in her bonnet. But no. Already as a teen, she gave her life as a handmaid of Christ, king of a kingdom where all people will live in harmony with each other and the earth.

    Contributed By Susanna Black Susannah Black

    Susannah Black is a contributing editor to Plough.

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    Contributed By plough author Jason Landsel

    Jason Landsel is the artist for Plough’s “Forerunners” series, and lives in the Woodcrest community in upstate New York.

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