Thursday, February 24, 2005

The martyrdom of Dorothy Stang

``Speaking truth to power is a prophetic act and Sister Dorothy Stang paid for it with her life. (She) spoke for the dispossessed and the voiceless to the wealthy ranchers and lumber companies who ruthlessly savage the rainforest and exploit it for personal gain.’’ This was from the statement of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) of the U.S. on the recent murder of a nun who worked among the poor of the Brazilian Amazon.

A citizen of both the U.S. and Brazil, Stang, 73, took four bullets in her face and head from two gunmen on Feb. 12. The killers attacked Stang in a settlement near the rural town of Anapu, in the state of Para, where she worked to help some 400 families survive. Anapu is along the Trans-Amazon Highway whose construction several decades ago wreaked destruction on the Amazon wilderness.

Stang was murdered less than a week after meeting with Brazil’s human rights officials about threats to farmers from loggers and land owners. After receiving several death threats herself, Stang recently said: ``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.’’

(After Stang, two other murders followed. Killed were the former president of a rural workers’ union and a farmer.)

A CNN report said that witnesses saw two gunmen approach Stang. Seing them, she pulled out a Bible and began to read. Her killers listened for a moment then stepped back and fired at close range.

Last year, Stang was named ``Woman of the Year’’ by the state of Para for her work in the Amazon region. In Dec. 2004 she received the Humanitarian of the Year award from the Brazilian Bar Association. And early this year she received an ``Honorary Citizenship of the State’’ award from Para.

This nun who wore T-shirts and a short bob was no parachutist, here now, gone tomorrow. Like the trees, Stang had grown roots in the Amazon region. One more mighty tree has been felled but the Amazon has certainly been made richer by the sap of Stang’s life and the manner of her death.

It’s martyrdom any way you look at it. And those of us who had dreamed in our youth of giving up family, fortune, career and comfort for the least and the lost could only wonder whether we would have had the fortitude that Stang had, whether we would have been as graced.

Having written about church-related stuff in succession these past weeks (last week, nuns and the Banwaon-Manobo under threat in Agusan), I told someone that I was not going to write about god/church stuff for some time. Well, I could not say ``Pass’’ on Stang the way I could not pass up the murder of Italian Annalena Tonelli who worked in Somalia for 33 years and lived among the poorest, giving hope to refugees and HIV-AIDS sufferers.

Like, why are they murdering all these great, selfless women? These are the real stars. They do not dazzle with glamour and glitter, the give light and life.

Stang’s fate was not unlike that of Chico Mendes who was murdered in 1988. Mendes worked among poor rubber tappers and fought road builders and international banks that threatened the jungle, the humans and the wildlife that depended on it. Get the book ``The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rain Forest’’ by multi-awarded journalist Andrew Revkin of the New York Times. Or watch the film.

What Revkin wrote about Mendes could well be for Stang. ``It became clear that the murder was a microcosm of the larger crime: the unbridled destruction of the last great reservoir of biological diversity on Earth.’’

Think of our own Sierra Madre, our ``last great forest.’’ And think of the recent series of disasters that showed us how nature strikes back.

For centuries, Brazilians have tried to conquer the Amazon (size: 4 million square kms.) which covers more than half of Brazil. Brazil is 28 times the size of the Philippines. I’ve read that the jungle frustrated ventures even by Henry Ford and billionaire Daniel Ludwig. Brazil’s 1964 to 1985 military government built the Trans-Amazon Highway and gave free land to populate the region. The plan attracted settlers as well as speculators who took control of the logging operations. Loggers, ranchers and politicians conspired and hired hit men to eliminate those who stood in the way.

The Amazon rainforest continues to be a battleground, with the poor inhabitants and ecologists together and the loggers and ranchers forcing themselves into the wilderness.

On the edge of this special place, Stang helped develop sustainable development projects for the poor of Anapu. Born in Dayton, Ohio, Stang belonged to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. She began her ministry in Brazil in 1966 then moved to the Amazon in the 1983. Stang worked with the Pastoral Land Commission, a Catholic organization that fights for the rights of rural workers and peasants and defends land reform in Brazil.

You should hear the wailing of the swallows, a Chinese-Filipino activist told me, when the nests (dried bird saliva) are snatched from the limestone cliffs of Palawan, later to soak in that pricey Chinese soup. ``Do you know what a sobbing monkey sounds like?’’ Stang was quoted as saying to a group of legislators.

I hear them now, calling to us.

The Amazon holds some of the greatest wonders and secrets of this planet. Here now lives the spirit of a true ``Amazona.’’