The Second Death of Dorothy Stang

Emboldened by Bolsonaro, Land-Hungry Ranchers Are Destroying a Pioneering Project to Help the Poor and Save the Amazon

Illustration: Rodrigo Bento/The Intercept Brasil; Photos: AP

On the morning of February 12, 2005, American missionary Dorothy Stang was walking by the side of the road in the Brazilian Amazon when she was approached by two gunmen. She was alone. But she shouldn’t have been.

Doti, as she was known, had been receiving death threats since the early 2000s. The 73-year-old Catholic nun, born in Dayton, Ohio, arrived in Brazil in 1966. At the time of her death, she was fighting for a program that set aside land for poor families, giving them a guaranteed income so long as they preserved the forest. The settlements, known as Sustainable Development Projects (or PDS, their Portuguese acronym), resisted for a decade after Stang’s murder. But now, the program runs the risk of collapsing, with the forest and settlers under threat and undefended by the Brazilian government. The situation has worsened under President Jair Bolsonaro, who, since taking office this January, has set about dismantling Brazil’s forest protection programs as part of an all-out assault on the environment.

Bolsonaro’s hostility to environmental efforts has quickly become his signature. In its first eight months, his government suspended agrarian reform efforts, paralyzed IBAMA — the agency in charge of enforcing laws against deforestation — and canceled an international preparatory meeting for COP25, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. His minister of foreign affairs is a climate change denier, and his minister of agriculture is notorious for loosening regulations on dangerous pesticides. This summer, the world watched, appalled, as fires — some of them started by ranchers and loggers who support Bolsonaro — laid waste to swaths of the Amazon.

Yet long before Bolsonaro’s rise, Stang’s philosophy clashed with the local culture in the Brazilian Amazon, where powerful ranchers view deforestation as the only path to economic prosperity. They see trees as valuable lumber and soil as space for cattle and soybeans. Stang wanted to counter the false dilemma presented by agribusiness, by offering an alternative economic model for the forest. But today, clear-cutting, land-hungry ranchers occupy the PDS settlements she founded and are pushing to terminate the entire project.

The ranchers have found ways to invade the lots set aside as PDS settlements, circumventing monitoring mechanisms and packing government agencies with political allies. “Land-grabbers,” or grileiros (a term that comes from an old practice of storing fake deeds in a box with a cricket, or grilo, whose feces would stain the papers yellow and make them look authentically aged), threatened Stang before her death and continue to menace those who are trying to uphold her legacy. Last year, Stang’s successor, Father José Amaro Lopes, was jailed for three months on charges that his supporters say were aimed at silencing him and his work on land rights and forest protection.

On February 11, 2005, the day before Stang’s encounter with the gunmen, she had a meeting with settlers at PDS Esperança (“hope” in Portuguese), one of the projects she helped create. The site is next to a highway and known for its abundant cocoa production. She should have been accompanied by police or officials from the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform, or INCRA, the Brazilian agency responsible for managing areas dedicated to land reform. At the last minute, however, INCRA didn’t send anyone with her. Stang decided to attend the meeting anyway.

Long before Bolsonaro’s rise, Stang’s philosophy clashed with powerful ranchers in the Amazon, who view deforestation as the only path to economic prosperity.

She climbed onto the back of a motorcycle and rode more than 25 miles through the quagmire typical of the rainy Amazonian winter to offer her support to settlers frightened by the constant threats from ranchers and land-grabbers. She crossed huge areas devastated by livestock until she reached a lush stretch of forest preserved within PDS Esperança.

It was a tense moment. Two months prior, the government had decided that anyone working a piece of land larger than 247 acres would need to prove ownership of it. The move sparked a revolt, as many ranchers and farmers had fake deeds or otherwise couldn’t show that the land was theirs. The new policy would result in the foreclosure of hundreds of title deeds — the lands, according to the federal government, were public.

Around 7:30 a.m. the next day, Rayfran das Neves Sales and Clodoaldo Batista drew close to Stang on the roadside and asked if she was armed. Sensing danger, she held up her Bible. She began reciting passages from the Gospel, witnesses later said. Sales heard, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” before he shot the missionary six times. One bullet struck her in the head; the other five pierced her thin body.

It was the first death of Sister Dorothy Stang. In it, she became a symbol in the struggle for agrarian reform and the protection of the Amazon.

People gather during the wake of Dorothy Stang whose casket is drapped in a Brazilian flag in Anapu on Saturday Feb. 15, 2005. Stang, 73, was shot dead on Feb. 12, 2005, in a dispute with an influential rancher in the eastern Amazon state of Para, on the frontier of forest and development, where powerful interests collide with the Amazon's poor. (AP Photo/Paulo Santos) **EFE OUT**

People gather for Dorothy Stang’s wake in Anapu, a city in the state of Pará, on Feb. 15, 2005.

Photo: Paulo Santos/AP

The Missionary’s Dream

Stang was a pioneer in popularizing the concept of sustainability in the far reaches of the Amazon. Since the 1980s, she had united female rural leaders, encouraged the organization of settlers into collectives, and taught sustainable forest management to workers with no formal education. She wasn’t content to let people starve while the federal government was the largest landowner in the country, and enormous areas were unused or barely occupied. The PDSs, for her, were a way to guarantee sustenance for impoverished families and protect the environment at the same time.

Such was Stang’s dedication to helping the poor that she often sheltered families in the blue-green house where she lived, right beside the church in Anapu, a city in the state of Pará. While she was working on establishing the PDSs, Stang sometimes slept in the corridors of INCRA’s offices to pressure them, INCRA employees say. Despite her advanced age, she would take a bus to meetings in Belém, a distant 372 miles from Anapu, and go by motorcycle to access remote corners of the forest. Noemi Miyasaka, a professor at the Federal University of Pará who had followed Stang’s efforts since 1999, told me, “She was tireless and never gave up.”

The missionary’s work was urgent — and remains so — because Pará, a state bigger than Texas and California put together, is the deforestation capital of the world’s largest tropical forest. The missionary chose Pará for two settlements, Esperança and Virola-Jatobá, comprising 260 square miles.

Pará, a state bigger than Texas and California put together, is the deforestation capital of the world’s largest tropical forest.

Locals describe Esperança and Virola-Jatobá as a green oasis amid the ravages that advance upon the Amazon. A local journalist, who wished to remain anonymous fearing threats to his life, said that “they are like a kind of gateway which acts as protection. If they are permanently invaded, the entire forest will come down.”

After international outcry over Stang’s assassination, the Brazilian government — then led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — took a series of measures to consolidate her legacy. Her murder was the catalyst for finally dealing with the longtime problem of land-grabbers, a group which, at that time, controlled 116,000 square miles in Pará alone.

The first measure was the formalization of the PDS system, which gave hundreds of families the right to use a parcel of land in the Amazon. In a PDS, each settler family is entitled to 50 acres where they can cultivate grains and vegetables for subsistence. The rest of the area is a forest preserve. Within this preserve, permanent preservation sites must be conserved. The remaining area can be channeled for collective use through a sustainable forest management plan, implemented following strict environmental rules. The money from the logging returns to the families as income.

The settlers can earn access to federal resources to help them farm and manage the forest sustainably, through projects channeled from INCRA and Embrapa, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. Potential sources include the Amazon Fund (a vehicle for international donations to conservation projects).

In the years following Stang’s death, 111 PDSs were created in the Amazon, encompassing 13,000 square miles. The area where Stang was killed became part of PDS Esperança. Beyond the settlements, Lula’s Environment Minister Marina Silva demarcated five new conservation areas, created satellite deforestation warning systems, and developed a project for public forest management that would ensure that protections endured as governments changed. In the 13 years following the missionary’s assassination, deforestation rates fell 72 percent in the Amazon, according to 2018 data from the environment ministry.

Stang’s killers were brought to justice: Sales and Batista were convicted of murder. A court later found that Vitalmiro “Bida” Bastos de Moura, who claimed ownership of the land where it happened, had ordered the killing, and sentenced him to 30 years.

For 12 years, the PDSs held firm against the land-grabbers’ advances. But on November 15, 2017, a band of 200 low-level land-grabbers affiliated with ranching interests took hold of PDS Virola-Jatobá.

That is where Dorothy Stang’s second death began.

The farmer Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura, accused of ordering the death of American missionary Dorothy Stang in Anapu southwestern region of Para, in 2005, goes on trial in jury Forum Criminal Belem, Para, northern Brazil, in September 19, 2013. Photo: TARSO SARRAF/ESTADAO CONTEUDO. (Agencia Estado via AP Images)

Vitalmiro “Bida” Bastos de Moura, accused of ordering Stang’s killing, on trial on Sept. 19, 2013.

Photo: Tarso Sarraf/Agencia Estado via AP

Invade and Destroy

Despite the government’s efforts, land-grabbers and invaders had never ceased to haunt the Amazon in the north of Pará. A few years after the missionary’s death, illegal logging started up in the area, often under the cover of illegitimate settlements.

An investigation by the Public Prosecutor’s Office initiated in 2007 halted 106 PDS projects, which they baptized as “ghost settlements.” The investigation determined that several of the settlements lacked necessary environmental permits, were located in conservation areas, or benefited loggers in contradiction to the PDS mission. In many cases, the settlements were created with nothing more than a three-page letter, disregarding the legal procedures and studies required to establish them.

Little by little, as accusations of fraud and mismanagement in the PDSs piled up alongside the economic, fiscal, and political crises of the 2010s in Brazil, the government of Dilma Rousseff (who succeeded Lula) lost interest in guaranteeing assistance and security to settlers. But the abandonment was more explicit under Michel Temer, Rousseff’s vice president, who assumed the presidency after she was impeached in 2016. It was under Temer that the invasion of Virola-Jatobá occurred. 

Today, almost two years since the invasion, land-grabbers and loggers in Virola-Jatobá continue to threaten settlers and ship out truckloads of lumber in the middle of the night, including valuable species such as acapu, cumaru and angelim-vermelho. Twice, following court orders, Federal Police have removed the invaders, but each time they have returned, prolonging a drama that relies on the complacency of INCRA, IBAMA, the Federal Police, and state security forces, as well as the sluggishness of the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the judiciary.

Land-grabbers and loggers continue to threaten settlers and ship out truckloads of lumber in the middle of the night.

It’s an exemplary case of government incompetence and neglect. INCRA is the official owner of the PDS lands and the agency that granted the settlers the right to use the land. However, when the gang invaded Virola-Jatobá in November 2017, the agency didn’t send anyone to the settlement. Faced with INCRA’s inaction, the settlers decided to press charges with the Anapu police. But the police refused to file a report, claiming that the area was federal and therefore outside its jurisdiction.

The Virola-Jatobá settlers had to appeal to the Pará Public Defender’s Office, which filed a repossession suit, arguing that the settlers had the right to demand the return of the land without waiting for INCRA to act.

Prosecutor Patricia Xavier, who worked on the case until last November, told me that “INCRA is becoming increasingly inert.” There was no justification, she added, for “the way it deals with one of the most conspicuously confrontational and violent municipalities in the country.”

It took INCRA five months to get on board, but at the end of March 2018, the agency jointly filed a lawsuit with the settlers. On May 28, 2018, Brazil’s Federal Court issued its first repossession order, which was followed by four months of meetings and misunderstandings between the police, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, INCRA, and Embrapa.

On September 21, 2018, when federal and civil police, firefighters, members of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and INCRA finally entered the PDS to carry out the repossession order and remove the invaders, officials celebrated the operation with an exchange of WhatsApp messages. But their happiness was short-lived: They found a bleak panorama when they arrived. Photos taken on site showed extensive cleared areas and felled trees.


Scenes of burned forest and felled trees as they were found by federal and civil police, firefighters, members of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and INCRA when they entered the PDS on Sept. 21, 2018.

Photos: Roberto Porro

The court had ordered the police to remain on location for a month to prevent the gang’s return. But they didn’t, and less than 10 days later, the invaders came back. They set fire to the headquarters of the forest-management project of the Viroa-Jatobá Association near the entrance to the PDS’s forest reserve, and part of the stockpiled wood used to fund the settlement burned in the flames.

With pressure from Embrapa researcher Roberto Porro, UFPA and Public Prosecutor’s Office, in January of this year, the court issued a new repossession order, again calling for a month of police protection. That order took five months to carry out, and this time, police spent 30 days in the area performing daily patrols. But it wasn’t enough.

“We are pretending to maintain possession and the loggers are pretending that they respect us,” an INCRA employee stated in a memo sent to IBAMA and the Public Prosecutor’s Office in June. “The Military Police rounds are made during the day. At that time, the loggers are sleeping! When we leave the PDS, in the late afternoon, they are informed and, from that moment on, start removing the wood.”

The court then stepped in again, ordering the police forces to tighten supervision of Virola-Jatobá. It’s a difficult task: The Amazon’s enormous dimensions and isolated, hard-to-reach areas make it easy to get away with illegal activity. Police operations depend upon coordinated action between various security agencies, which, in the case of Virola-Jatobá, took a year and a half to occur.

Ironically, it was Bolsonaro’s decision to fire the heads of INCRA in every state — fulfilling one of his campaign promises — that finally allowed employees to take back Virola-Jatobá. Since January, the state offices have been leaderless. With no one in charge, the agency’s permanent employees in Pará could prioritize the Virola-Jatobá reintegration, according to a source within INCRA who asked to remain anonymous. After two more months of back-and-forth, police launched a new operation on August 22. It worked. They seized huge logs, trucks, and tractors. The invaders fled. But settlers say it’s still insufficient.

Elvenício Anunciação dos Santos, a farmer since 2002 and chief of the Virola-Jatobá Association, said the logging raids continue. Loggers come in just to clear the forest, without installing themselves permanently, making it hard to catch them. “There is still land-grabbing,” he said. “There are still hidden invaders. It paused because of the [August] operation, but it continues.”

Santos laments the lack of institutional support for the PDS. He knew Dorothy Stang and misses the missionary’s aid. “She helped us a lot to reach the government,” he said.

“There is still land-grabbing. There are still hidden invaders.”

Activists and researchers involved with the settlements blame INCRA’s politicization for the ongoing invasions. In the region, INCRA postings come with control of vast amounts of federal land — and therefore, political power. During the Temer government, the Pará branch of INCRA was commanded by cohorts of Federal Deputy Wladimir Costa. Costa, known as “Wlad,” tattooed Temer’s name on his arm on the eve of Rousseff’s impeachment; when she was voted out, he threw confetti in the House chamber. Now, he’s aligned with Bolsonaro’s policies.

In June 2018, Wlad and his brother Mário Sérgio da Silva Costa were caught distributing individual land concessions within PDS lots, which is illegal (the government owns the land in a PDS; it issues use permits, but not land grants, to settlers). Wlad named Mário Sérgio the superintendent of INCRA’s Santarém office, and his friend Alderley da Silva and party colleague Andrei Viana de Castro in the same function in Altamira, overseeing the PDSs in Pará. “INCRA became an electoral platform for promoting Congressman Wladimir,” the Public Prosecutor’s Office later concluded. (Wlad lost his reelection race in 2018, and earlier this month, both brothers were convicted of administrative misconduct related to the illegal concessions, as well as for using INCRA for political gain. They did not respond to requests for comment.)

As INCRA’s Altamira representatives, Silva and Castro attended meetings about the Virola-Jatobá invasion, but they didn’t forward the internal orders necessary for the agency to head up the repossession effort. Porro, the Embrapa researcher, told me, “They acted like it wasn’t the institution interest to deal with.”

Defenders Under Threat

An INCRA report I obtained describes the land-grabbers’ movements in Virola-Jatobá. They entered at the end of 2017 through the main entrance of the PDS. Other invaders used access roads in a settlement boundary that had already been violated by farmers João and Renato Cintra Cruz. The father and son pair are named in the Pará public defender’s repossession case; according to the complaint, they reportedly sold land to farmers coming from southern Pará. Despite being aware of this history, INCRA took no action against them. (I tried to contact the Cruz family for this article, but couldn’t locate them.)

Once they gained access to the PDS, the gang hired surveyors to mark off more than 200 lots and began clearing the forest for pasture, felling trees by chainsaw to simply burn them and sow pasture. They created an entity called the People’s Freedom Association to give themselves a veneer of legitimacy and started making deals with loggers and land-grabbers interested in the Virola-Jatobá forest. (Attempts to contact the organization’s president were unsuccessful.)

In December 2018, I spoke with Ewerton Giovanni dos Santos, then the director for development at INCRA, stationed in the capital, Brasília. I asked him about the agency’s politicization in Pará, and he changed the subject. He recognized INCRA’s responsibility for the situation in Virola-Jatobá, but believed that the necessary solution went beyond the institution’s authority. “It’s a case of public safety,” he said. “INCRA employees are also threatened.” INCRA did not respond to numerous other requests for comment about their handling of the Virola-Jatobá invasion.

I also contacted the Pará Public Security Bureau, in charge of the state police who were supposed to patrol Virola-Jatobá. The press office notified me that the bureau was not involved because the repossession wasn’t mandated by court order, but rather by a request from the Public Prosecutor’s Office. This was incorrect: There was indeed a court order. I disputed the statement but obtained no further response. After a new court order was issued, the press office said it was awaiting a declaration from INCRA.

“The actual situation is a complete lack of coordination between the agencies, which seems deliberate.”

The Federal Police, who are in charge of the investigation into the invasion of Virola-Jatobá, still hasn’t finished its inquiry, nearly two years after the fact. “It’s a complex job,” said Agent Carlos Castelo, and the Federal Police station in the region handles an area of 89,962 square miles with just three agents. Without the police inquiry, the Public Prosecutor’s Office can’t indict the gang for an environmental crime or ask for them to be detained.

“The actual situation is a complete lack of coordination between the agencies, which seems deliberate,” said Embrapa’s Porro.

More than 13 years after the establishment of PDS Virola-Jatobá, just 55 of the 160 settler families living there have official paperwork from INCRA. Formalizing the settlers’ status “is one of INCRA’s basic obligations, but one it hasn’t fulfilled, instead offering ever-changing excuses,” Porro said. Without a formal concession, the settlers have become easy targets for land-grabbers. (Dos Santos, of INCRA, said that formalizing settlers’ status is difficult and dependent on available budgets and police support.)

The settlers and those who defend their interests are under constant threat, both legally and physically. A recent Human Rights Watch report tallied 28 murders and 44 attempted murders or death threats against people fighting illegal deforestation in Brazil, most of them since 2015. The majority of these cases never made it to court.

Nuns and priests from the Pastoral Land Commission (or CPT, its Portuguese acronym), an organ of the Brazilian Catholic Church focused on the rural poor, are tasked with facilitating dialogue between settlers and the government offices in charge of the PDSs. Carrying out her role as an intermediary for the CPT, Stang was threatened dozens of times. Testifying before a 2004 parliamentary commission investigation, she said, “I receive death threats, publicly, from ranchers and land-grabbers on public land. They dare to threaten me and request my expulsion from Anapu. All this because I cry for justice.”

José Batista Afonso, a lawyer with the CPT, says that accusing activists of crimes is the land-grabbers’ new method of silencing opposition. The strategy has been successful.

On March 27, 2018, as settlers tried to draw INCRA’s attention to the invasion of Virola-Jatobá, police arrested Stang’s successor, Father José Amaro Lopes. The religious leader and activist was accused of seven crimes, among them the wrongful possession of property. The investigation stemmed from a complaint filed by rancher Silvério Albano Fernandes, then president of the Anapu Rural Producers Union, in March 2018. Fernandes accused Amaro of leading a criminal organization behind the occupation of a farm in Anapu. Fernandes claimed ownership of the 7,600-acre lot, but a court has ruled that the lands be returned to the government to promote family settlements. Amaro served as an intermediary between the settlers, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and INCRA.

CPT lawyers had to appeal to higher courts to secure Amaro’s release. He is now free, but he is prohibited from speaking with the settlers and attending the meetings that made up his day-to-day activities as an activist. Afonso, who defends another 20 activists currently being prosecuted by ranchers, told me in a phone interview that the local justice system in Pará “criminalized social movements.” A local judge had opposed Amaro’s release “on the grounds that he posed a risk to public order by leading a criminal organization. The ones who pose a risk to public order are his accusers,” Afonso said. During a December 2018 event in which he was awarded a prize for human rights, Amaro said, “If I did something wrong, it was putting land into workers’ hands so they could make a living.”

Fernandes disagrees. He told me that “Father Amaro is largely responsible for the numerous invasions that occur in Anapu. Since he was arrested and prohibited from [attending] assemblies, there haven’t been any more invasions.”

Stang had once denounced Fernandes for threatening her. In a statement given to the federal police on December 28, 2002, the missionary said that Fernandes had once given her a ride. Along the way, he told Stang that anyone who tried to take his land would be “up to their shins in blood.” As reported by sources requesting anonymity, Stang had once pointed out Fernandes and his two brothers “as the PDSs’ principal adversaries.” (Fernandes did not respond to questions about Stang’s statement.)

I spoke with Fernandes over a video call as fires in the Amazon made headlines around the world in late August. He made a point of showing me that there was no fire around him, positioning the camera to reveal a bright green field, without a single tree visible on the horizon. His discussion of the fires echoed Bolsonaro: What was happening in the Amazon was a “project of NGOs that want to colonize it only with Indians,” “the NGOs are the villains,” and “everything that you see in the media is a big lie.”

An aerial view of a burned forest area next to a cattle ranch in the state of Pará in Altamira, Brazil, Aug. 31, 2019. A deal reached 10 years ago was meant to stop the setting of fires by ranchers and others, but the ecological arson continues as the Earth warms. (Victor Moriyama/The New York Times) (GDA via AP Images)

An aerial view of burned forest near a cattle ranch in the state of Pará, Brazil, on Aug. 31, 2019.

Photo: Victor Moriyama/The New York Times/GDA via AP

A Government Against the Amazon

Settlements make up about 7 percent of the area that Brazil legally defines as the Amazon. They total 139,000 square miles — an area larger than Germany under constant pressure from interests eager to use the land for cattle and mining and cut down the trees necessary to save the planet from climate catastrophe. An INCRA employee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, told me, “INCRA created the projects but didn’t invest in enforcement policies, infrastructure, or development.”

Take the PDS Terra Nossa, situated in Novo Progresso, in southern Pará. An INCRA report determined that 80 percent of its area had been occupied by land-grabbers. A mining company, Chapleau Exploração Mineral, prospected for gold in the section that had been granted to settlers. A spokesperson for the company’s current owner, Serabi Gold, said that it has no operational activity in the PDS area, but admits that there is “a staff of 25 professionals responsible for the conservation of the project area” at the location and that the company has “opened dialogue with INCRA to obtain definitive authorization to operate in the region.”

Notably, the mining company received permission from the state government and the National Department of Mineral Production without presenting an environmental impact study, as required by law. The Public Prosecutor’s Office filed a civil action seeking to revoke Chapleau’s license, but federal courts denied it. During that process, the mining company admitted to operating in the area since 2007 with INCRA’s knowledge, but said that the agency never contacted them. (INCRA did not respond to questions about Chapleau.)

Another investigation by the Public Prosecutor’s Office this year revealed that INCRA’s office in Santarem, Pará, illegally issued dozens of individual land grants inside a PDS in the western part of the state. On just one day in January 2018, INCRA issued 238 concessions in the PDS Eixo Forte. Several concessions were assigned to the same person, and some of the people listed as beneficiaries were deceased. According to an action by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, “the issuance of individual titles for the collective settlement modalities poses a serious threat to residents, by creating a point of entry for land-grabbers to buy the [concessions] and then threaten the local communities.” In other words, land ownership chaos feeds deforestation and violence.

Poor farmers lose out in the process of privatization.

Since the end of Rousseff’s presidency, the federal government has abandoned agrarian reform. From 2015 to 2019, the budget destined for land purchases related to reform fell 95 percent. Instead, Brasília has settled on a new form of occupation of the Amazon: handing out ownership titles. Issuance of these documents grew 502 percent from 2015 to 2016, and pro-agribusiness leaders in the Amazon are pressuring INCRA to resume “land normalization” in Pará, which, in practice, means giving land titles to land-grabbers.

Poor farmers lose out in the process of privatization. When a farmer gains ownership of the land they are using, they no longer receive INCRA assistance and need to seek their own line of credit. The resulting cycle of debt leads many of them to sell their land and go back to unemployment lines in the cities. In the settlement model, the settler doesn’t earn a title to the land, just the right of use. In exchange, they receive state assistance — a better deal for many farmers.

The settlement model came under further threat in July 2017 when Temer signed a law that changed the rules for occupying federal lands. Environmentalists see the legislation as a green light for land-grabbing; under the new law, the total area that can be privatized per lot has increased from 3,700 acres to 6,100 acres. In addition, people who had occupied land illegally before 2008 could still benefit (whereas before, the limit was 2004. In effect, this rewards more recent land-grabs). The law also permits the purchase of large, occupied areas for 50 percent of the minimum values established by INCRA. “This ends up stimulating new occupations, because they become profitable,” said Brenda Brito, an analyst from Imazon, a research institute specializing in landownership issues in the Amazon. “The government is one of the Amazon’s biggest enemies,” she said.

Things got much worse after Bolsonaro’s election. As the former military man took the lead in the polls, researchers and activists noticed a growing animosity in the field. A group of farmers who oppose the PDS modality in the settlement where Stang was murdered prevented INCRA technicians from doing an inspection, arguing that “it would no longer be a PDS after Jair Bolsonaro’s victory.” Well-known ranchers in the region posted billboards supporting Bolsonaro with his trademark gun-pointing gesture, and people were intimidated. Nuns Katia Webster and Jane Dwyer, two of Stang’s partners in defense of the PDS system, no longer give phone interviews. “People opposed to the PDS’s sustainable model have gained strength,” said Porro.

Bolsonaro’s appointments to government posts tend to oppose the values of the institutions they’re put in charge of. As secretary of land affairs, for example, the president nominated Luiz Antônio Nabhan Garcia, president of the Rural Democratic Union, traditionally a pro-agribusiness entity. At his inauguration, Nabhan Garcia called the Landless Workers Movement, or MST — which organizes the rural poor to occupy unused land — a “criminal organization,” and said he doesn’t negotiate with the landless. Earlier this year, The Intercept Brazil reported that Garcia was involved in hiring militias to threaten MST activists in the early 2000s. Now, Garcia is pushing to allow land to be privatized based on self-declarations of occupancy — and says that the government will verify the claims via satellite imagery. Scholars say that the rule change will give land-grabbers the chance to gain permanent ownership.

Bolsonaro had plans to make the Ministry of the Environment and INCRA subordinate to the Ministry of Agriculture, whose boss, Tereza Cristina, is a prominent advocate for agribusiness and has been labeled the “muse of poison” for her opposition to restrictions on noxious chemicals (to date, the new government has green-lit 410 pesticides). Bolsonaro later backed off the reorganization plan, but as for IBAMA (which is under the environment ministry), officials say they have no duties assigned to them, despite a sudden increase in deforestation and burning.

Since the start of the year, the Amazon has burned at an alarmingly increased rate.

The Ministry of the Environment is working, but backward. Its chief, Ricardo Salles, caused a diplomatic conflict when he ordered an inspection of projects financed by the Amazon Fund, bringing them to a standstill; 350 million reals are frozen, including resources that should be invested in PDSs and other initiatives that combine development and environmental protection. The German and Norwegian governments have suspended donations to the fund in response. Salles has also said that he doesn’t know who Chico Mendes is. Mendes, of course, was Brazil’s most famous environmentalist, murdered in 1988. (Stang was sometimes called “Chico Mendes in a dress.”)

In June, the United Nations classified Bolsonaro as the world’s worst leader when it comes to reducing the impact of climate change on the poor. The government’s contempt has already had a practical effect. Since the start of the year, the Amazon has burned at an alarmingly increased rate: On November 18, official data revealed that deforestation this year increased almost 30 percent, the highest percentage in a decade.

When fires detected by the monitoring radars of the National Institute for Space Research grabbed international attention, Bolsonaro fired the institute’s president, the renowned scientist Ricardo Galvão, and appointed a military man in his place. Bolsonaro attacked world leaders who expressed alarm and refused international help, accusing NGOs of starting the fires (without presenting any proof) and claiming that foreign countries want to take possession of the Amazon.

Bolsonaro’s assault on the Amazon is an acceleration of patterns that have been in place for decades. In 1999, Stang confided to Miyasaka her indignation at the Amazon settlement model as promoted by the government and private industry. “She said that the colonization scheme was doomed to re-concentrate land ownership and degrade the environment, and that they would have to implement a new proposal for environmentally friendly land reform,” Miyasaka recalled. And that was what she did, managing to win over reticent settlers who had never heard of making a living without cutting down the forest.

Dorothy Stang created a model for sustainable, socially conscious development for the Amazon. A model she defended with her own life. A model that is about to collapse.

This story was financed by the Brazil Human Rights Fund.

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