Sister Dorothy Stang was born in Dayton, Ohio, one of nine children. She was raised on a farm in a traditional Catholic family and decided early on that she would give her life to God. She entered the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur community in 1948 and professed final vows in 1956. From 1951 to 1966 she taught elementary classes at St. Victor School in Calumet City, IL; St. Alexander School in Villa Park, IL; and Most Holy Trinity School in Phoenix, AZ. She began her ministry in Brazil in 1966, in Coroata in the state of Maranhao, where she worked to help poor farmers build independent futures for their families until her murder in 2005.
In early 1970 the Brazilian government offered land in the Amazon interior to poor farmers willing to move there and farm in a sustainable way. Sister Dorothy moved into the rainforest in the region of Pará to be with the farmers and instruct them in sustainable farming and recycling the resources of the forest. A citizen of Brazil and the United States, Sister Dorothy worked with the Pastoral Land Commission, an organization of the Catholic Church that fights for the rights of rural workers and peasants, and defends land reforms in Brazil. Loggers and ranchers who wanted to take the land the farmers were trying to protect, began an aggressive campaign of intimidation and threats against the farmers and their advocate, Stang. Complaints were filed with the government and local authorities, but to little effect. Stang had no intention of going away. She said shortly before her death, “I am grateful to Notre Dame for not asking me to leave. This shows we are aware of the needs of the poor."
“The death of the forest is the end of our life.”
The Amazon rain forest is one of the largest remaining virgin forests on earth. Its original trees and vegetation comprise 40% of all the tropical rainforests in the world. The forest hosts 50% of the world's plant species and is home to 20 million people. In addition, 20% of the earth's fresh water reserve runs through the Amazon River basin. Over the years, people discovered what the Amazon rain forest had to offer in terms of natural resources and started to plan ways to capitalize on them. Loggers, ranchers, land speculators, and agribusiness became the dominant forces in the region, victimizing the poorer farmers and destroying the rain forest. The work became progressively more dangerous for the Sisters in Brazil and for the farmers and their families.
Sister Dorothy fought hard to protect the rain forest, the earth's lungs, and knew the important role it plays in the planet’s atmosphere. Witnessing the destruction of this natural resource so vital to her people's and the planet's future made her feel frustrated. She saw first hand how illegal loggers, land speculators and cattle ranchers took advantage of the forest and its people, all for financial gain. And political leaders even allowed for the destruction to continue.
Sister Dorothy´s aim was to protect the rain forest by encouraging sustainable farming techniques which presented a threat to loggers, land speculators, and agribusiness companies in the region. For this reason in the late 90s she was put on a "death list" that comprised of several human rights advocates, environmentalists, and farmers. At that time, killings of these people accounted for one-third of the deaths in the region each year and the main goal was to eliminate opposition to the clear-cutting and burning of the forest so that fields of soy beans could be planted, trees could be logged, and cattle could graze. Another goal of the killings was to eliminate those who empowered and educated the peasants; and finally the killings were meant to intimidate the farmers.
Sister Dorothy repeatedly asked the city, state and national government for protection for the people but she was always refused. On February 12, 2005, she walked along a dirt road at the Boa Esperanca settlement in a rural area in Pará in the heart of Brazil's Amazon. She was on her way to a community meeting to speak about the rights for the Amazon. As she was walking, two hired assassins blocked her way. When asked if she had a weapon, she responded that the the only weapon would be her Bible. She opened it and began to read aloud: "Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Blessed are the peacemakers ..." Then, she said, "God bless you, my sons." The hired gunmen shot her in the stomach and head and killed Sister Dorothy.
At her funeral two thousand people marched."Today, we are not going to bury Dorothy. We are going to plant her," her community said. A few days after he death, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio da Silva put nearly 20,000 of the Amazon's 1.6 million square miles under federal environmental protection and suspended logging in the areas where Sister Dorothy lived and worked.
Before her murder, Sister Dorothy was named "Woman of the Year" by the state of Pará for her work in the Amazon region. She also received the Humanitarian of the Year award from the Brazilian Bar Association for her work helping the local rural workers. Since her death, Sister Dorothy has been widely honored for her life and work by the United States Congress and by a number of colleges and universities across the United States. She was posthumously awarded the 2008 United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights. Several books, movies, documentaries and an opera have been made about her. She has also been formally recognized by the Vatican as a modern day martyr.