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A missionária Dorothy Stang e a floresta amazônica ao fundo (imagem ilustrativa). Fotomontagem: Pablo Albarenga/SUMAÚMA

“The earth was bathed in Dorothy’s blood. There was so much of it, from so many struggles. Her blood soaked into the ground below us because it was pouring rain that day, and it took the police several hours to get there and move her body. She lay on the ground from seven in the morning to four in the afternoon. Her blood traveled a great distance, dragged into our streams by the rain and fertilizing all the land of PDS (Sustainable Development Project) Esperança.”

Dona Tonica (Antonia Silva Lima, 67), leader of PDS Esperança in Anapu, western Pará

These are the words Dona Tonica used to explain the murder of her partner-in-struggle, US missionary Dorothy Stang. Eighteen years later, on the anniversary of Dorothy Stang’s death, small farmers, settlers, and squatters from Anapu—many of whose lives have been endangered by the fight to take back land lost to grileiros, or land-grabbers—will gather at her grave to honor the memory of her martyrdom. Planted like a seed, Dorothy grows in blood-drenched earth. At times as an encantada—a being transformed into another—and at others as a saint.

Dorothy arrived in Brazil in 1966 with other Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, all from the United States. In the 1970s, during the height of Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964 – 1985), the north of Brazil underwent enormous change, with the construction of federal highways, farms and lumberyards, and an influx of rural workers lured to the Amazon by the promise of free and fertile land. The consequent conflict and destruction led Sister Dorothy to move to the Trans-Amazonian area to work at a basic ecclesial community (BEC) and as a public educator.

Inspired by the injustices she witnessed, Sister Dorothy conceived of a new model for rural settlement called Sustainable Development Projects (PDS), settlements formalized by the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (Incra) and organized through sustainable farming done in harmony with the forest. At least 20% of the land is allocated for family agriculture. The remaining 80% is communal and used for green extractivism.

PDS Esperança, where Sister Dorothy died from six gunshot wounds, is composed of former territories earmarked for ranches and farms through the so-called Contracts for the Transfer of Land Ownership (CATP). Many of these plots of land were abandoned or sold illegally, then gradually taken over by squatters or migrants. Much of the land theft in the region today is a consequence of the dictatorship-led occupation that took place during the construction of the Trans-Amazonian highway, which prioritized large landowners. But instead of building ranches and farms, these landowners sold public land as though it were privately owned. When peasants occupied plots for subsistence farming, the new “owners” sent armed militias to massacre them. It’s still like this to this day.

The conflict that culminated in Sister Dorothy’s assassination in February 2005 makes plain the ways in which the management of public land and abuse of regulations can lead to violence and theft. In 2005, Lot 55 was allocated to five families of small farmers. At the same time, another farmer in the region claimed to have bought that same land from a third party—this is a form of land-grabbing, as there are no title deeds to public land that would allow them to be traded. But by then the conflict had been cemented.

As a crime committed against a foreign missionary, Sister Dorothy’s murder was exceptionally high-profile. Despite this, her murder remains inextricable from broader instances of violence against peasants and their leaders, as well as Indigenous peoples and ribeirinhos (members of traditional forest communities) who live in the forest, rural areas, or the outskirts of nearby cities. Among these acts of violence are expropriations of occupied land, intimidation, threats, murders for hire, larceny, and the imprisonment of leaders based on accusations that are at worst patently false and at best controversial. In 2022 alone, the last year of Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency, two families in lot 96 of Anapu were held hostage by gunmen for hours before having their homes burned to the ground. A few months later, the children’s school was also burned down. The region’s primary leader, Erasmo Theofilo, has been in hiding since last year. The last threat his family received warned of the murder of his four small children.

Every February 12 and forest procession turns Dorothy Stang into a martyr and encantada; she is still present in the struggle of the people of the forest. Photo: Juliana Pesqueira

Since July 2005, the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) has organized an annual forest procession honoring Sister Dorothy. One of the goals of the procession is to raise awareness of the threats and murders that continue to assail the leaders of Anapu’s rural communities to this day. Every February 12, a public ceremony is held to mark the assassination and subsequent martyrdom of Dorothy Stang. Both events are emblematic in that they bring people together not only to remember the nun’s execution but also to highlight the countless leaders who are still threatened, intimidated, coerced, and murdered for defending a project that aims to make sustainable use of the forest.

In the public ceremony on February 12 and during the procession, Dorothy Stang is transformed into a martyr of the forest as well as an encantada. Her violent, first-degree murder justifies her martyrdom, an act that is viewed as Dorothy giving her life to support the cause of the people of the forest. In the stories of the hundreds of walkers who take part in the procession, the missionary’s death is re-signified as life, which is like saying Dorothy is still “present in the procession and the struggle.”

The main criterion for turning Dorothy into a martyr of the forest doesn’t meet the standards of ecclesiastical law or the Vatican’s requirements for sanctification. But it does conform to popular demand. Dorothy is a martyr because she gave her strength as well as her gift for articulating the social, political, and religious needs of those communities.

On that three-day, 34-mile-long walk from where her body was “seeded” (not buried, or she couldn’t be reborn) to the place where she was murdered, it’s as if Dorothy Stang were still alive. A tombstone honoring the leader-martyr also stands at the site of her murder, a memorial that acts as a reminder of the crime perpetrated against her. Every year, a cross is raised at this symbolic location bearing the names of those who died in the struggle for land and forest. The list seems to grow longer every year, particularly since 2015.

The itinerary of the forest procession, which starts at her grave and ends at the site of her murder, seems to suggest an anti-route (or hyper-route), the inversion of events hinting at a rejection of death as the end of struggle while also highlighting the power of life that surges in the walkers. People do not say Dorothy died, for example, but that she fell in battle and was planted, that she became seed. To become seed also means to have strength, to hold the potential to fertilize—both symbolically, in the sense of fertilizing the struggle, and biologically, in the sense of fertilizing the earth the martyr walked on. The bullets of the hired gunmen bred forms of resistance that would have been unimaginable to the men who ordered and executed the crime.

Translating death into sacrifice, martyrdom, and encantamento is a key function of the language of struggle and resistance in the Brazilian Amazon. In the Amazon, encantar-se, literally to become charmed or bewitched but which in this case entails a metaphysical transformation, is to become flora, fauna, and water, or to inhabit these places as a tutelary spirit of the rivers and jungle, as well as the animals and people who live there. In the ritual spaces of accusation and memory production, the stories our songs tell can be seen as foundational myths for a kind of political resistance. Take this stanza from “Bendito dos Romeiros” by musician Zé Vicente: “To the promised land / marched the people of God / Moses led the procession / Today when we stand up to the oppressor / we are Moses.”

By using this language of ritual struggle, the walkers are updating their forms of resistance in the face of conflicts that are felt in Anapu to this day. They are transforming Sister Dorothy into a martyr of the forest and therefore into a model of action for new confrontations, be it against the state or against large-scale hydroelectric and agricultural ventures, and most of all, against powerful land-grabbers in the region, active members of Bolsonaro’s base during his time in government.

During the ceremony and ritual procession, a series of ideas about the world are created around the concept of suffering and sacrifice, which are in themselves tied to the manifestation of divine, supernatural, or parahuman forces. The farmers of PDS Esperança and agents of Anapu’s Pastoral Land Commission believe that when Dorothy is turned into a martyr, she becomes one with the rocks, plants, water, earth, and animals, and is incorporated into the cosmology of the forest struggle. She also becomes the forest, in a syncretic union between Catholic martyrdom and the tradition of encantados. On one occasion, for example, I was told she had been spotted near the site of her execution in PDS Esperança in the form of a jaguar. In the terms used in the Amazon and other parts of Brazil where nature still holds, we would say that Dorothy had become encantada “as a jaguar.”

These manifold transformations—into martyr, saint, encantada, and jaguar—are formulations specific to the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon, who express themselves according to the agency of water, plants and animals. In the Amazon, all creatures are people with intentions and ways of being in the world, even with intangible entities, which is something the Amerindian perspectivism of anthropologists like Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Tânia Stolze makes clear. The Catholic beliefs of peasant migrants and missionaries have brought martyrs and saints to the depths of the forest. Dorothy inhabits this environment, not as one thing or another, but as both jaguar and saint. The forest serves as the home of contradiction and synthesis.

Edimilson Rodrigues de Souza is an anthropologist, ethnographer, and professor of Ethnomusicology at the School of Music of Espírito Santo, as well as a research associate at the Harvard University’s Afro-Latin American Research Institute. Since 2011, he has been conducting ethnographic research on agro-extractive communities and the Indigenous peoples of central and Upper Xingu, in the states of Pará and Mato Grosso in Brazil.

Translated by Julia Sanches

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