Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Martyrs in the Amazon
distributed 3/4/05 - ©2005

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Clarence (Lindy) and Robin Baer, of Lakewood, Colorado. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Dorothy Stang was an American and a nun. She is being heralded as a martyr.

On February 12, 2005 Sr. Dorothy was assassinated in Brazil. For many years, she had been active in the struggle to protect the land, livelihood and culture of people living in the Amazonian rainforest.

The worldwide reporting of her violent death has forced the President of Brazil to make significant changes in national policies about the management of his country's vast rainforests, and to promise better law enforcement. If those changes are implemented, the nun's death will have achieved much of what she sought in her life.

Sr. Stang chose to do her activist ministry in a very dangerous setting. She chose to serve in the heart of the Amazon, struggling for the most vulnerable of the people and for the environment. She stayed in the face of recurring death threats. It is said that she used to hold the Bible in front of her and say that it was the only weapon she needed. According to witnesses, she began to read passages from the Bible as her killers shot her.

It is fair to call her a martyr. But what of the 1,380 locals who also have died in the Amazonian land struggles of the last 20 years? Their deaths have gone unnoticed by most of the world. Their sacrifices did not bring prompt changes in Brazilian government policy. We diminish their sacrifice if we see them only as victims. Many of them were martyrs, too -- people of conscience who gave their lives for a larger cause.

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For those of us in the "developed" world, the Amazon is hard to comprehend.

It is vast, covering an area larger than all of western Europe. In part because of its huge expanse, it is essentially lawless. Government policies are not enforced. Details that we take for granted about land ownership and legal rights are widely ignored. Intimidation, kidnapping and murder are widespread. It is an uncontrolled frontier region.

Biologically, too, the region is hard for those from temperate climates to understand. The rainforest ecosystem is both astonishingly vibrant and remarkably fragile. It produces plant and animal life in great abundance and diversity, and yet it can be quickly devastated by inappropriate land management practices.

Because the persistent rain washes all the nutrients from the thin, poor soil, the nutritional basis for the system's productivity is held in the trees, not the earth. When the trees are removed -- by logging, or to open spaces for ranching -- the soil quickly becomes sterile, and it hardens into a form that can no longer generate forests. When the forest is stripped from the land, an ecological and economic disaster is launched. For a few years, the land can support grazing or crops, but it then degenerates into a wasteland that is biologically and economically unproductive.

The Brazilian government estimated that about 8,880 square miles of land was deforested in the Amazon last year -- a square almost 100 miles on a side if it were all contiguous. Through recent years of "development", about 20 percent of the Amazonian wilderness already has been destroyed. It is an enormous area cannot be easily or quickly restored.

The financial advantage from that widespread deforestation goes to loggers and land speculators, outsiders who profit richly from the exploitation of the land. The costs are borne by the peasants who used to live in more sustainable relationships with the land -- the sorts of communities that Sr. Dorothy defended. In a broader sense, the costs of deforestation are also borne by the global community of life, because the abundant plant life of the Amazon is an essential "carbon sink" that helps to buffer the human-caused rise in greenhouse gasses.

The situation in the Amazon is complex, of course. The region serves as a social safety valve in the face of Brazil's rapidly growing population of urban poor, people in need of jobs and resources. There is heated debate about whether paving roads into the rainforest helps bring health care and reduces poverty through expanded trade, or whether those roads increase lawless logging and the uncontrolled destruction of the forest.

Sr. Dorothy's death brought global attention to the intertwined human and ecological disaster there. But the destruction of the forest continues. So, too, does the killing of those who defend the peasants and the forest.

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There is a too-often-repeated lie that the poor don't care about the environment.

Sr. Dorothy and the popular movement for sustainable use of the Amazon expose that lie. The poor of the Amazon are passionate in their care about the environment. They have risked -- and many have lost -- their lives because the environment is not a luxury for them. The health of the rainforest is essential for their survival.

Sr. Dorothy lived her life among the poor in the rainforest. She joined with them to demand justice, and to maintain a sustainable environment in the Amazon. The American nun -- along with 1,380 others through the last 20 years -- died at the hands of those who see "the environment" only as a thing to be possessed and exploited for short term gain.

May we, who live far from the Amazon, learn from those martyrs about the importance of healthy, sustainable ecosystems as a foundation for justice and peace. May we, too, come to understand the environment as a system to be treasured, not a thing to be possessed. And may we -- in our prayers, our politics, and out economic choices -- embody solidarity with those who are most immediately impacted by environmental destruction.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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