Murderer Confesses Shooting Amazon Rainforest Champion Nun

BRASILIA, Brazil, February 22, 2005 (ENS) - Brazilian police have obtained a confession in the killing of American Catholic nun Dorothy Stang. The 74 year old conservationist missionary was gunned down at point blank range on February 12 in the northern rainforest town of Anapu where she worked to advance environmental and human rights causes.

A military helipcopter arrived in Altamira from Anapu Monday carrying Rayfran das Neves Sales who police say confessed to the crime after his arrest on Sunday night. Sales was identified on Friday by an eyewitness as one of the killers.

According to the official Brazilian government news agency, Agência Brasil, Sales was taken into custody by the Armed Forces and civil and military police around 35 kilometers from Anapu.

Civil Police Commissioner Marcelo de Souza Nunes said Sales confessed to the murder, which he said he had committed together with a hired gunman by the name of Uilquelano de Souza Pinto, known as Eduardo.

As for who ordered the crime, the commissioner said that it will be necessary to await Sales's statement in Altamira.


Sister Dorothy Stang developed sustainable solutions to keep peasants on their land. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
Stang was a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, an international Catholic religious order that works for social justice and human rights on five continents. In Brazil, she worked with the Pastoral Land Commission, the Catholic Church's arm that fights for the rights of rural workers, peasants and defends land reforms.

Originally from Dayton, Ohio, she had lived in Brazil since 1966. Stang had been in the Anapu area since 1972 and had become a Brazilian citizen as well as an American citizen.

She had received the "Honorary Citizenship of the State" from the state of Para, Brazil earlier this year in recognition of her work as an environmental and human rights champion. She had told friends that threats of death had intensified since she got the prize.

Stang worked with 27 autonomous communities that developed when the federal government opened portions of the Amazon for colonization. Anyone willing to clear the area and remain for one year and a day were told they could file for ownership, but wealthy landowners and ranchers are laying claim to those homesteads.

Stang worked on behalf of the peasants who refuse to sell or give up their land and are sustaining themselves through community projects, including a fruit industry, farming, and food cooperatives.

The week before she died Stang told Human Rights Secretary Nilmário Miranda that death threats had been made against her and other land reform workers.

But it was not the first time Stang had told people she was on a death list. "The logging companies work with a threat logic," she told "Outside" magazine in 2002. "They elaborate a list of leaders and then a second movement appears to eliminate those people. If I catch a stray bullet, we will know exactly who did it."

"She had been on a death list for years," said Paul Adario of Greenpeace Brazil, "yet the state government of Para has failed to protect her. She was not alone either, as there are many others fighting against the forest destruction and the rights of local communities, whose lives are in danger."


Peasants of Anapu, Brazil (Photo courtesy DKA Austria)
Now, Stang's murder has brought the existence of the death lists in the state of Pará to the attention of federal authorities.

A work group newly established by the Special Secretariat of Human Rights has begun to identify people who live under the threat of death in Pará, in order to provide them protection and guarantee their physical safety, according to Agência Brasil.

For this purpose the group crossed-checked lists provided by the Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission, the Landless Rural Workers' Movement,the Pará Federation of Agricultural Workers, and legislators linked to social movements.

The official inauguration of the group took place on Monday, but the group has already met twice, said Minister Miranda, who heads the Special Secretariat.

The five members of the new work group will travel to the 11 municipalities in Pará in which the risk of conflict exists, to find ways of working with state government officials to ensure protection for people on the lists.


Human Rights Secretary Nilmario Miranda (Photo courtesy Office of the Secretary)
"The members of the work group are already leaving for the various muncipalities to talk to individuals whose lives are threatened, in order to determine the form in which protection will be provided," Miranda told Agência Brasil.

The measures also include monitoring human rights violations in the state, as well as transmitting suggestions to state authorities on how best to combat these crimes.

The speed with which the government has moved stems from an emergency meeting on February 15, three days after Stang was killed, held in the Oofice of President Lucio Ignacio da Silva attended by the justice, environment, agrarian development, national integration and human rights ministers to discuss the conflicts in the state of Pará. Following the meeting, presidential Chief of Staff José Dirceu issued an invitation to the governor of the state of Pará, Simão Jatene, to integrate with federal governmental and social efforts towards the solution of these conflicts.

Preliminary data from the Pastoral Land Commission show that, in Brazil as a whole, 161 people received death threats related to land disputes in 2004. In the state of Pará, there were 40 people on the death list, including Sister Dorothy Stang.