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Dying for Land Rights: Dorothy Mae Stang Gunmen Sentenced, Prosecution of Ringleaders Proceeding

February 12, 2006 is the first anniversary of the death of Sister Dorothy Mae Stang, an American nun who was brutally assassinated because of her work as an advocate of peasants’ resources rights in the Brazilian Amazon. Sister Dorothy’s fate was the same of the hundreds of peasants, rural labor organizers and environmentalists, including Chico Mendes, who have been killed fighting for their economic, social and cultural rights in Brazil in the last four decades.

The work of Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos (www.social.org.br), a Grassroots International partner, was crucial to support the work of prosecutors in the case. For about a year, lawyers and researchers from Rede Social accompanied the case through meetings and local peasant leaders, assisting Sister Dorothy’s family delegation and providing complementary information to prosecutors.

Last month, the two gunmen, Rayfan da Neves Sales and Clodoaldo Carlos Batista, were sentenced to 27 and 17 years in jail, respectively. It’s a good start, but for the lawyers and activists following the case, it is just the first step, and the next phases will be the toughest part. The true measure of justice will be the successful prosecution of the intermediary and the two large landowners who hired the killers to take Sister Dorothy’s life.

According to the report of the Comisão Pastoral da Terra, a Brazilian Catholic organization dedicated to protecting the rights and livelihoods of rural Brazilians, in the last 41years, there were 775 murders of rural workers and advocates of land reform in Brazil. In only three cases were the «mandantes» who ordered the murders prosecuted. One good example is the case of Chico Mendes. With the same national and international notoriety, Chico Mendes’s murderers were brought to justice after several years, including the rich rancher who ordered the assassination.

Larger landowners are destroying the forest through a multi-billion dollar business of logging, followed by the creation of extensive cattle-raising farms on the cleared land. The land concentration in Pará state, where Sister Dorothy lived, is one of the highest in the country. More than 50% of the land in Pará, which is almost twice the size of Texas, is controlled by 1% of landowners.

In order to keep control over the region’s resources, those landowners too often use a combination of brutal force and their connections with corrupt police members, judges and politicians. As a result of their impunity, the number of victims grows every year. Fifty-eight people involved in the struggle for resources rights of peasants and other minorities were murdered in 2003 and 2004 in Brazil, including 23 people in the state of Pará alone.

On the same day of the murder of Sister Dorothy, Soares da Costa, President of Rural Labor Union of Parauapebas, and Claúdio Dantas Muniz, a peasant of Anapu, were also killed.

The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights (www.rfkmemorial.org) and the Washington Office on Latin America (wola.org) will be hosting a commemoration of the one-year anniversary of Sister Dorothy on Sunday, 12 February 2006 outside of the chapel on the campus of Trinity University in Washington, DC. The candlelight vigil will be held at 4:30 p.m. and feature brief remarks on Sister Dorothy’s life and work, as well as the entrenched structural challenges she fought. One of the speakers will be Pedro Christoffoli of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST — www.mstbrazil.org).Grassroots is bringing Pedro to Washington for a meeting on food sovereignty that we are helping the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC — www.nffc.net) organize.

At the same time that we commemorate the tragic loss of the life of Sister Dorothy, we would like to acknowledge the dedication and courage of all of the local activists who are fighting for their rights at the grassroots. Grassroots is proud to support the MST and Rede Social and all of our other partners who are building the global movement for social justice, fighting for the human rights and for an end to impunity.