Dorothy Stang was born in Dayton, Ohio, in the north central United States, in 1932. Her parents were strongly religious Christians and also strong environmentalists. They brought Dorothy up to believe in the importance of helping poor people in faraway places and of helping them in a way that did not damage their natural environment.
When she had finished high school, Dorothy joined a religious order and in 1956 she became a nun, “Sister Dorothy.” In 1966 she was sent to Brazil to work as a missionary in the Amazon Basin, a huge area of tropical rainforest in the northern part of the country.
Before long, Dorothy came to see that the poor farmers were being badly exploited by the ranchers and loggers who were competing with them for valuable land of the Amazon. She decided then that she was going to devote her life not just to helping the people she was working among but to trying to get justice for them.
Later on Dorothy began working for the “Pastoral Land Commission,” an organization that was created by Brazilian church leaders in 1975. Its purpose was to protect poor farmers from the wealthy loggers and ranchers who wanted to get rid of them so they could cut down and sell the valuable trees and then sell them and then use the land for grazing their cattle. After joining the commission, Dorothy went to live in a small town called Anapu. She made her permanent home there and became a Brazilian citizen.
The farmers Dorothy was working with were settlers who had come from other parts of the country to find land. Even if they had been farmers previously they didn’t know much about working with the special soils of the Amazon. Dorothy concentrated on trying to teach them how to do sustainable farming—in other words, how to farm without damaging the environment.
She helped to set up a sustainable development project. The idea behind this project was to use about 500 square kilometers of land, which had been granted to the commission by the Brazilian government, to test an idea. The idea was to allow settlers to clear and farm 20% of this land but to leave all the trees standing on the other 80%. In this way the harmful increases in carbon dioxide levels caused by deforestation could be kept under control and the many plant and animal species peculiar to the Amazon basin would be able to survive.
Even though the project involved only a small amount of land, the loggers and the ranchers were determined to resist it. They put pressure on the government to reverse their grant of land to the project and they threatened that if the government did not give them what they wanted they would seize airports and pollute rivers. Their tactics worked and the government restored the licences that they had suspended earlier so the project could go ahead.
Despite this setback, Dorothy and the others continued to resist the businessmen’s efforts to ‘clearcut’ the land. They knew that Dorothy was the leader of the struggle and they knew how much the farmers depended on her for help. They accused her of being a terrorist and of supplying ammunition to the farmers.
Dorothy knew that many other people fighting to protect the forests and the small farmers had already been murdered on the orders of the loggers and ranchers. She hoped they would hesitate to kill her because she was old and she was nun, but she knew there was a chance she would soon be dead. Despite this, in 2004, she went to the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, to give evidence to a government committee enquiring into the situation. She gave them the names of logging companies that were illegally invading the forests.
Not long after, on February 12, 2005, she was walking down a muddy road with two supporters going to a meeting in a village close to Anpura. Along the way, she noticed two men with guns approaching from the opposite direction. When they reached her she took out her Bible and started reading. They listened for a moment and then, from less than a meter away, one of the men shot her six times in the head and body and she fell dead on the road with her face in the mud.