Sister Dorothy Stang dedicated her life to fighting for justice for the poor and landless in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil.
As an advocate for sustainable development and human rights, Dorothy stood up to the powerful logging and cattle ranching interests who were destroying the rainforest and displacing its people.
Though she faced threats to her own safety, Dorothy never wavered in her commitment to nonviolent resistance and empowering the marginalized.
Early Life and Ministry
Dorothy Stang was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1931. As a young woman, she felt called to missionary work, writing on her application to become a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur that she wanted to serve in China. Ultimately, Dorothy spent nearly 40 years as a missionary in Brazil.
When Dorothy first arrived in Brazil in 1966, she focused on language learning and training lay leaders. It soon became clear that the people suffered from oppression and violence, especially small farmers who were losing their land. Dorothy began to incorporate human rights education into her ministry.
By the 1970s, Dorothy had relocated to the state of Pará in the Amazon region. She worked with impoverished families that the government had encouraged to settle there, only to abandon them to predatory land grabbers.
Even when these farmers moved deeper into the rainforest to try to claim land, Dorothy went with them to provide support through education, healthcare, and helping organize communities.
Courageous Resistance in Anapu
In 1982, Dorothy moved to Anapu in Pará, where she would spend the rest of her ministry. She helped the people gain legal rights to their land and develop sustainable farms and small businesses.
Dorothy trained agricultural technicians, supported schools, and empowered women to generate income for their families for the first time.
However, large corporations wanted to develop the region for logging, ranching, and industrial mining. Dorothy organized nonviolent resistance to this encroachment on the people’s land and destruction of the rainforest.
She pressured government officials to uphold the law, continuing despite being threatened herself.
In 2005, Dorothy was awarded Woman of the Year in Pará for her human rights work. However, land conflict was intensifying, with numerous killings over disputes.
Dorothy knew she was at risk but refused protection for herself, only requesting it for others.
Murdered for Her Cause
On February 12, 2005, at age 73, Dorothy was murdered while on the road to help some peasant farmers whose homes had been burned down.
She was shot at close range by two hired gunmen.
It is believed the ranchers and loggers who wanted access to the land put out a bounty for her murder. The brazen killing of this American nun gained worldwide attention and outrage.
In response, Brazil’s president established new environmental protections over the land Dorothy died defending.
However, bringing Dorothy’s killers to full justice has been an uphill battle due to corruption in the region.
Legacy of Courage and Justice
Dorothy Stang gave her life for the poor farmers and rainforests she loved so much. She lived in utter simplicity and poverty alongside the people, challenging injustice through gospel-centered nonviolence.
Dorothy’s courageous example continues to inspire the human rights movement in Brazil and beyond.
Though small in stature, Dorothy stood tall against powerful forces of greed. She walked steadily forward on the path of justice, even when she knew it could mean martyrdom.
Dorothy’s voice was temporarily silenced by gunshots in the jungle, but it echoes more loudly than ever in the conscience of the world.