In Memory of Dorothy Stang

Preamble: I post the following today, as next Wednesday night (8pm March 25, 2009) HBO2 in the U.S. is running the new documentary They Killed Sister Dorothy. If you have opportunity, be sure to watch it. Read the following to find out what it’s about.

If you have opportunity to pick up a January 2007 copy of the National Geographic, take it. It’s easily recognisable by the startling image of a forlorn looking tree, standing alone where was once a thick bio-diverse rainforest. The author, Scott Wallace, unfortunately doesn’t follow through very well on the external connections that are causing the Amazon to shrink, instead focusing on some of the main local antagonists in the battle over the land the forest sits on. Despite this weakness, however, I believe that meeting these characters helps bring the whole tug-of-war over the environment a little closer to home, and in this he’s done an excellent work.

Scott begins his article thus:

In the time it takes to read this article, an area of Brazil’s rain forest larger than 200 football fields will have been destroyed. The market forces of globalization are invading the Amazon, hastening the demise of the forest and thwarting its most committed stewards. In the past three decades, hundreds of people have died in land wars; countless others endure fear and uncertainty, their lives threatened by those who profit from the theft of timber and land. In this Wild West frontier of guns, chain saws, and bulldozers, government agents are often corrupt and ineffective – or ill-equipped and outmatched. Now, industrial-scale soybean producers are joining loggers and cattle ranchers in the land grab, speeding up destruction and further fragmenting the great Brazilian wilderness. – National Geographic, January 2007

Blairo Maggi, governor of the state of Mato Grosso in Brazil, shrugs off concerns about the shrinking Amazon:

“All of Europe could fit inside the Amazon,” he says, “and we’d still have room for two Englands.” – National Geographic, January 2007

But the Amazon is shrinking fast, getting converted into massive and highly mechanised farming projects (with as little as one employee for every 400 acres) which supply soybeans to Europe for animal feed, and sugarcane for ethanol for vehicles. Scientists predict that 40 percent of the Amazon will be gone, and another 20 percent degraded over the next twenty years. All this so we can, in turn, kill ourselves with heart disease, diabetes and cancer from excessive amounts of meat.

If that happens, the forest’s ecology will begin to unravel. Intact, the Amazon produces half its own rainfall through the moisture it releases into the atmosphere. Eliminate enough of that rain through clearing, and the remaining trees dry out and die. When desiccation is worsened by global warming, severe droughts raise the specter of wildfires that could ravage the forest. Such a drought afflicted the Amazon in 2005, reducing river levels as much as 40 feet and stranding hundreds of communities. Meanwhile, because trees are being wantonly burned to create open land in the frontier states of Pará, Mato Grosso, Acre, and Rondônia, Brazil has become one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases. The danger signs are undeniable. – National Geographic, January 2007

The T-Shirt reads: “The death of
the forest will be the end of our lives.”

Greenpeace accordingly awarded Governor Maggi its ignoble Golden Chainsaw award in 2005.

In the midst of this jungle – the literal jungle, and this violent jungle of contention – a little 73 year old nun stood resolutely against the short-sighted and egocentric onslaught of corporate interests, their chain saws and their bulldozers. She stood in defense not only of the environment, but in defense of the indigenous people of the forest, and, might I add, in our defense. But, like that tree on the cover, standing on its own, looking both vulnerable and stubborn, I can’t help but ask why was she not surrounded by a forest of like minded helpers?

Dorothy’s brother, David Stang, speaks of her mission:

“Already,” she once told me, “25 percent of the rain forest, the world’s largest, has been destroyed—more than 9,000 square miles in one year alone. Our project protects the forest and promotes good farming by rotating crops of manioc, vegetables, cacao, pepper and coffee.” – Maryknoll

Dorothy Stang had a vision of sustainable living, and worked to defend the right of that living for all of us.

That has fueled a bloody showdown pitting the powerful absentee elites who raze forest for agribusiness against family farmers who clear small patches for crops but still depend on intact forest around them for survival.

Settlers learned lessons of
conservation from Sister Dorothy,
” a martyr of the earth”

What’s happening today in Amazonia is a clash between two models of development,” said Felicio Pontes, one of a new breed of government lawyers seeking to prosecute corruption, land fraud, and environmental crimes in the Amazon….

“The first model was implanted during the military dictatorship, based on timber extraction and cattle. It’s predatory because it causes death, it’s not renewable, and it devastates the forest.” The alternative model, preached by Stang, is what Pontes calls social environmentalism. The first concentrates wealth, the second calls for its dispersion in small-scale agroforestry collectives. Dorothy Stang, born and raised in Ohio… was revered for her dedication to the ideal of family farmers who extract their sustenance in harmony with the forest. From her base in the frontier town of Anapu, she worked unceasingly to transform settlers along the Trans-Amazon Highway into environmentally conscious, cohesive, and combative communities, able to resist violent cliques of ranchers and speculators who would lay claim to the same land. Stang saw human rights and environmental conservation in the Amazon as inextricably intertwined. Though poor settlers themselves damage the forest, Stang believed they could learn to manage their land sustainably as a matter of self-preservation. “The death of the forest is the end of our lives,” she told her followers. – National Geographic, January 2007

The people Dorothy Stang tried to help were often harassed, evicted, and even killed, by loggers and ranchers brandishing fraudulent land titles, and accompanied by hired guns.

It was at the hands of two of these hired guns that ‘Dot’ met her end.

Her last mission, to save a remote tract of jungle known as Lot 55, ended on the morning of February 12, 2005, when two gunmen confronted the petite 73-year-old nun on a secluded jungle path. A conversation ensued, overheard by a witness who later testified at the men’s trial. Stang admonished them – the land was not theirs, they had no right to plant pasture grasses for livestock.

“So, you don’t like to eat meat?” one of the assailants taunted.

“Not enough to destroy the forest for it,” she replied. – National Geographic, January 2007

The man reached for his gun, and Dorothy was shot in the back at point blank range as she opened her Bible and turned to walk away. The two men shot her a further five times as she lay on the ground.

“I don’t want to flee, nor do I want to abandon the battle of these farmers who live without any protection in the forest. They have the sacrosanct right to aspire to a better life on land where they can live and work with dignity while respecting the environment.” – Dorothy Stang



  1. Hi Craig, dont mean to detract from the main message, however I am moved to comment on your comment ‘All this so we can, in turn, kill ourselves with heart disease, diabetes and cancer from excessive amounts of meat.’
    I’ve come across similar ‘anti meat’ comments in your articles before, and would like to register my thoughts with you and others.
    I would contend that meat per see is not the issue but how the meat is produced and what we eat in general. So I am concerned to see anti-meat arguments being used to attack industrial farming. Industrial farming and living is the problem we have as a species – not meat eating. I would even contend that it is difficult to envision permaculture without some meat eating. Animals are an important part of the storing of energy and yield.

    I’d like to encourage you to check out the Weston A Price foundation website. which gives a good outline of how meat is used to support a healthy diet and support the environment

    Thanks for all the time and energy you put into your articles


    Bob Corker

  2. Hi Bob – Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    I don’t disagree with you at all. Animals are of course an indispensable part of Permaculture systems – indeed, they do for free what we spend exhorbitant amounts of money and energy on, just to do a similar, but inferior work.

    At the same time, our western culture has grown to perceive of eating meat, and other animal products once or even three times a day as completely normal. We walk down supermarket aisles, throwing steaks into our shopping carts with no concept of the energy and water it takes to create that meal. I can’t expect an Inuit in Canada or Alaska to become a vegetarian, but at the same time it’s true that the unbalanced (and historically unheard of) consumption rates in countries like the USA, UK, Australia, NZ, etc., are a big part of the reason those same countries have the highest rates of heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, osteoporosis, etc., as opposed to nations like India, Japan, etc., where those diseases are (at least were until they’ve recently starting chasing the western dietary dream) almost unheard of.

    The reality I see is that countries like China, for example, are now seeing McDonalds billboards going up all over, and the energy conversion ratio means they will feed significantly less people with the same amount of land with a high-meat diet than they would if that same land were used to provide food that’s closer to the sun (lower on the food chain).

    I’ll take a look through your link on the morrow. Thanks again Bob.

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