Brazilian Police Charge Man in Murder of American Nun

BRASILIA, Brazil, February 21, 2005 (ENS) - Police Sunday charged a man with conspiracy to murder U.S. Catholic nun Sister Dorothy Stang, who worked for more than 20 years to defend the Amazon rainforest and its poorest inhabitants from wealthy ranchers and loggers. The federal government moved to strengthen control over the lawless region where she died and to set aside more than one million acres in a national park.

Stang, a naturalized Brazilian citizen originally from Ohio, was shot dead at point blank range on February 12 at a government sustainable development project in the state of Pará, in northern Brazil's Amazon region.

Amair Freijoli da Cunha was charged after he turned himself in to police in Altamira, a city about 80 miles from Anapu, where the shooting of Stang took place. Police are still hunting for three other men believed to have been involved in Stang's killing.

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Sister Dorothy Stang making a point about the rainforest she loved. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
Two thousand soldiers have been sent to the Anapu region to impose order, according to General Jairo César Nass, who is in charge of the military operation in Pará. The general told the official news agency Agência Brasil that he has another 2,000 soldiers standing by in case they are needed.

Civil and Federal police say Army helicopters are being used to search for the escaped suspects in the dense rainforests of remote regions near Anapu.

On Thursday, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva called the assassination of Stang and the other murders that have occurred in Pará over land disputes "cruel and cowardly."

Lula said he views the crimes as "a reaction against the implementation of the federal government's program on behalf of property regulation and environmental preservation in the region." Far from being intimidated, the President said he will expand the federal presence in the turbulent area.

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Brazilian soldiers leaving for Anapu (Photo courtesy Agência Brasil)
He ordered the installation of a provisional federal government cabinet in the region to reinforce the federal government's actions. The location has not been determined yet, but the cabinet is expected to function in Belém, the state capital, or in the municipality of Altamira, said Agência Brasil.

Environment Minister Marina Silva and Presidential Spokesman Andre Singer announced Thursday that Lula has authorized the creation of the 1.1 million acre Serra do Pardo National Park.

In addition, 8.2 million hectares (31,660 square miles) of forest on federal government lands adjoining federal highway BR 163 will be "off-limits" for the next six months, the officials said. During that time, the creation of conservation units will be evaluated in the area, located between the Xingu and Tapajós Rivers, known as the Terra do Meio, or Middle Lands, Ecological Station.

Maurício Mercadante, the Ministry of Environment's director of protected areas said that by mid-year, three more extractive reserves should be established within this area, as well as a conservation unit, with an ecological station and park.

"Among the new reserves, one is planned for the region of Anapu, the city where Sister Dorothy Stang lived," Mercadante said. "The reserve will contain 80,000 hectares and will be named Bacajá."

Together, Silva said, these conservation units will protect Pará state's most important forest areas.

Silva, who worked as a rubber tapper when she was a teen, emphasized that these measures should convey a message to the public that "there will be no type of turning back when it comes to the implementation of acts of property regulation and the creation of conservation units in the state."

She said the government was taking these actions to combat to illegal deforestation and promote a new model of development for the Amazon, that is founded on protection of biodiversity, ecosystems and waters, strengthening of the local communities on the basis of sustainable activities, and improvement of the quality of life.

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Illegal logs stacked on the bank of the River Xingu await transport to market. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
Silva said future jobs would be generated based on the sustainable handling of the rainforest and forest products, conservation, scientific research, tourism and education. She promised increased opportunities for public input into the future of the Amazon.

Thirty-nine environmental NGOs sent a letter to Lula, Silva and other Brazilian government officials on Monday, two days after the killing, urgently requesting actions similar to those the government took on Thursday to establish federal authority in Pará and set aside the protected areas.

The environmental groups - including WWF-Brazil, Instituto Socioambiental, Greenpeace, and Friends of the Earth-Brasil - pointed out that the Stang murder is only the most recent among some 125 killings of leaders and supporters of rural social movements during the present government's term of office. More than 40 percent of these killings occurred in the state of Pará.

The groups are asking the government to prioritize a regulation already on the books establishing a deadline to prove ownership in public lands.

"We further request," the groups wrote, "that all members of your government publicly state and clarify that no fait accompli concerning illegal land occupation and illegal activities will be tolerated anymore, for such expectations are the main encouragement to violence and to chasing off the region's dwellers."

If the government cannot immediately establish authority to anticipate and prevent new murders, the groups warned the officials that they "will risk making history as the champion of rural violence, illegal occupation of public lands and illegal logging."

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Greenpeace and the Brazilian Environment Agency IBAMA seize hundreds of illegally cut mahogany logs on a farm in the Middle Lands. October 29, 2001. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
Stang was on the front lines of a battle for the Amazon rainforest that pitted environmentalists and landless peasants against loggers and ranchers.

"To refer to Pará in terms of warfare is no exaggeration: as the report shows there is a war going on in the forest - a war over land, over forest resources and over profit at any price," said Phil Aikman, Greenpeace International Forest Campaigner in November 2003. "If this conflict is not stopped, Brazil stands to lose hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of the Amazon, the lives of many of its citizens, and any remaining chance for a sustainable future."

Pará is the largest producer and exporter of wood products in the Brazilian Amazon and also the site of one-third of the region's total deforestation, according to Greenpeace, which has worked for years to defeat the illegal loggers. Last year in the Amazon an area the size of Belgium was deforested. Nearly all timber sold out of Pará is illegally taken, according to Brazilian government figures.

Loggers and ranchers have encroached upon the world's largest rainforest until about one-fifth of the entire forest has been converted to ranches, agricultural fields, or clearcuts.