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Week of 3.6.09

Transcript: Who Killed Sister Dorothy?

BRANCACCIO: I'm here to make the case that it's worth moving our collective gaze beyond the economic shockwaves that are crashing on
us - if only for a few minutes. Look into the future with me, at what is shaping up to be a major theme of the twenty first century—a global battle over the limited resources of land and water.
Filmmaker Daniel Junge spent three years going back and forth to the Brazilian Amazon to explore a mystery: who was so opposed to saving the rainforest that he or she would order a gangland style killing of an environmentalist —an American nun —as she walked down a forest path.

Well, Daniel Junge, this is one gripping documentary that you've made.

JUNGE: Thank you. Well, it was a privilege to tell this story.

BRANCACCIO: I gotta say, you know where people's heads are right now. It's not the Brazilian rainforest. It's probably will they have a job in the U.S. economy? How can you make the case that we should spend time in the Wild West of Brazil talking about an environmental issue?

JUNGE: "Save the rainforest" was a mantra that we heard as children. We know that that's a unique ecosystem that is being destroyed very quickly. But now we know that the issue is much greater than this. This is tied into—to the huge environmental problems in the world.

BRANCACCIO: Talking about global warming, aren't you?

JUNGE: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: I saw some data from the environmental group Greenpeace. And apparently if you look at the chopping down of rainforests around the world, not just in Brazil, it accounts for more of the greenhouse gases than all of global transportation, cars and trains and planes, together.

JUNGE: That's right. I read that, too. It's not surprising that the number one and number two offenders on there are the U.S. and China. But number three and number four, Indonesia and Brazil. And, of course, this is because of the—the burning of the rainforest.

BRANCACCIO: But your film isn't really—the view from 30,000 feet over an environmental issue like An Inconvenient Truth was, Al Gore's film. It's a very personal story involving, at the heart of it, a courtroom drama but also a family.

NARRATION: On February 12, 2005, at a place in the Brazilian Amazon called "Esperanca" or "Hope", they killed Sister Dorothy, a 73 year-old Catholic nun from Dayton, Ohio.

PROSECUTOR: She didn't know that place was destined to be the place of her death. You have the courage to kill this old woman? She read Saint Matthews to you and turned her back and walked away. And he said, "Sister, if you haven't resolved this by now, you never will." And he shot her. She fell and he approached her and emptied the gun into her.

JUNGE: It's ultimately a murder story. It's a murder mystery. And—our—our vehicle for this story is David Stang, the brother of Dorothy Stang, who's—who's killed in the film. We traveled with him ten days after she was murdered. He was looking into the—the details behind her death.

STANG: Dot and I were very close. Umm.. We were both missionaries. We both had the same sense of activism, of love and compassion for those who have nothing. And she went to Brazil because I went to Africa first and that ticked her off. Her younger brother went to the missions first. She never forgave me for that. Dorothy was in Brazil from 1967. She loved Brazil so much she became a Brazilian. She took on the citizenship of Brazil. Because of all the work that she did with the poor, migrants, peasants, farmers, people truly in need that had no power. Those people called her, the Angel of the Amazon.

BRANCACCIO: You never had occasion, of course, to meet Sister Dorothy. But you spent a lot of time with every piece of archive footage you could find. You spent a lot of time with her brother. What do you think drove her forward?

JUNGE: You know, I—I feel like I know her through the footage and through—through David. David told me time and again about how they were raised with her respect for the land, and how their father taught them organic farming. And I think that they—they were raised in the Catholic faith, where you stood up for the—the underprivileged, but also with this profound respect for nature. And I think those two things fused together when she arrived in Brazil, to not only help the underprivileged and to help their fight, but also to see that sustaining the land was—was part of God's work, I think.

BRANCACCIO: She's passionate about this work, but she also must realize it's dangerous. People have died in this quest before in Brazil.

JUNGE: Sure. She was told time and again there was a price on her head for the work that she did, because it runs completely counter to the status quo in the Amazon.

BRANCACCIO: I remember in the film the brother, David, is depicted talking about a weird phone call that he got from his sister in Brazil.

STANG: The night before my sister died, she called me up. It was four o'clock in the morning. And she said to me, "It's getting more difficult for me to deal with this." And so, for someone who's so positive all the time, that conversation told me a lot. And I said, I wonder if she's thinking something is going to happen on this trip.

BRANCACCIO: So what is it, Daniel? Like a day later when his sister, Dorothy, ends up dead?

JUNGE: Literally a day—day later. And so—so two days later he gets a call. And he hears that his—his sister was found dead on a muddy Amazon road with—with six bullet holes in her.

BRANCACCIO: It's not a huge mystery who was actually there that day with a gun in their hand.

JUNGE: That's right. And there's—there's no mystery of who pulled the trigger. We know who pulled the trigger. But what the film becomes is—is an examination of why she was killed and who else was involved. And what's revealed ultimately is a greater consortium which involves the powers that be and the Amazon, loggers and ranchers. And—and ultimately also a larger problem which is what's happened in the Amazon, the systemic problems which led to her death.

BRANCACCIO: Let's talk about that. Why would anybody wanna gun down a nun on a road?

JUNGE: Well, they probably wouldn't if she had only stayed in church and said her prayers. But she—she was involved in—in much more important stuff.
When she arrives in Brazil, in the '60s—rather than just handing out food baskets and—and praying with the poor, she—she decides, very quickly, that her mission is to—to help find justice for the poor as well. And that's what she did over most of the time when she was in Brazil. It was in maybe the last decade of her life that she, like a lot of people living in that environment, saw the incredible destruction that was happening. And so her attention turned not only to—to helping the disadvantaged, but also doing it in a way which would protect the environment.
She started—well, she, with the Brazilian government, she started the sustainable development project, which essentially allowed landless farmers to work on—on the land and only farm 20 percent of it, leaving 80 percent of the first standing. And, of course, this system is very scary to the powers that be in the Amazon because the loggers and ranchers wanna clear cut.

BRANCACCIO: And the way Sister Dorothy herself frames the issue, this is about helping the have-nots instead of the haves. Let's take a look.

DOROTHY: The more and more that I'm here, I've been seeing the damage that's being done to the Amazon forest. And here in Brazil we have much accumulated land in the hands of a few. And these peasant people are the heavy workers. They don't have a chance to share in the riches that the planet can offer because some people are taking off so much of the pleasures of this world, and there's only so much to go around.

BRANCACCIO: Sister Dorothy's helping to pioneer this blueprint for saving the rainforest, 20 percent for formerly landless peasants, but preserve the rest.

JUNGE: That's right.

BRANCACCIO: Now, it helps those landless peasants, but it doesn't help everybody. I mean, the ranchers want the land to raise cattle on. But also there are—I think Brazil's a developing country. There are a lot of people that wanna work on cutting the trees down or on the ranches.

JUNGE: It's true. It's—it's a complicated issue. And—and, in fact, you see in the film, you see crowds of people amass when things got very tense before she died. Crowds of people amassed who are—are actually speaking out against the PDS.

BRANCACCIO: The PDS is this approach to preserving the land.

JUNGE: The sustainable development project. And I think—I can only say anecdotally when I was on the ground there I—I think that there—there might have been half the people who were for this and half the people that are against this because these are people who are desperately poor. And they—they—they want jobs. But, of course, in the same clip you see—see them say, "We want jobs. And we came here for jobs. We came to tame the land." Well, even that language, "tame the land," indicates what they—what they think the model of development is, which is to—to—to torch and burn the land.
The PDS is miniscule. It's—it's like 200 square miles. It's—it's smaller than most counties in America. And yet, still, even that small project of an idealized version of what can happen in the rainforest, couldn't be met because of the land disputes, because of the ambiguity of who owned the land. And I think that's endemic of what's happening throughout the Amazon. It's just that the attention is called to this, because Dorothy died there.

BRANCACCIO: A lot of twists and turns in this film. But a big section is the brother, David, observing the trial of a rancher, not the lower-level folks accused of being triggermen, but the rancher who's accused of being one of the masterminds of the murder. This rancher, what's his nickname? Bida?

JUNGE: Bida. Bida, for short.

BRANCACCIO: And he says he has nothing to do with any of this.

JUNGE: Of course not.

BRANCACCIO: But he hires quite a legal team.

JUNGE: Yeah, his—his lawyer is—if—if you wrote this guy as fiction, you wouldn't believe it. He's larger than life. His name's Americo Leal. And he defends—he's a notorious law—lawyer who defends a lot of the ranchers in the region.

BRANCACCIO: Notorious in the nicest possible sense of the word. Well, he has this big beard. He has dark glasses in a lot of the shots. But how in the world did you get access to him? And your camera's right in there as he's plotting legal strategy.

JUNGE: Yeah, well, I was surprised when I asked him if we could the first day I asked him if we could shoot him in his office, he said, "No, but you can shoot me on my Harley-Davidson in the rainforest," which goes to show what kind of guy he is. I was surprised at our access to him as well, which is pretty unfettered. And I think that this speaks to the fact that the impunity in the Amazon, I don't think there's any recourse against him being extremely bombastic and saying the things that he says in the film.
And also I think that the story's been greatly sensationalized both in the international press but certainly in the Brazilian press. And when I said I'm giving you a chance to—to say it as you see it and there won't be any overt commentary in the film, that you get—you get your say, I think he jumped at that opportunity.

BRANCACCIO: He's had quite a task, though. I mean, his client is accused of masterminding the death of, let me remind you, a nun. So how does he try to pull that off? What could he possibly say?

JUNGE: He has a couple of really potent tools in his tool case, and those are nationalism and xenophobia. In the Amazon there's a lot of fear of international entities and the U.S. taking over parts of the Amazon. So if he can stir that pot and—and somehow implicate Dorothy in that, this—this woman who was doing benign things and working with the Brazilian government, if he can—if he can fool the jury and convince her that she's an interloper doing nefarious things then perhaps he can make his case.

BRANCACCIO: This American-born nun. I mean, that's what he really goes after.

JUNGE: That's right.

BRANCACCIO: The people he argues, in court, that brought you the killing of over a million Iraqi people, he says, the people that brought you Guantanamo he tells the jury, the place where Brazilian police go to learn how torture Brazilians..."this is the DNA that created Dorothy, the DNA of violence", he says.

JUNGE: Yeah, when—when it's in relation to a 73-year-old Catholic nun, it sounds preposterous. But, of course, this rhetoric works because a lot of it is true, isn't it? I mean, it's a sad statement that—that our foreign policy—makes stuff like this wash in Brazil.

BRANCACCIO: What people have to understand is this is a raw nerve.

JUNGE: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: The United States meddling in Brazilian affairs.

JUNGE: Well, first of all, the Brazilians don't have a—a short memory. It's Americo that reminded me time and again that we supported a dictatorship into the '70s in that country. It also brings in the question, the presence of the FBI, who actually intervened in this case. The very fact their presence can be brought up in a courtroom and used simply by virtue of them being there as nefarious, is troubling.

BRANCACCIO: One of the guys who was there at the murder scene when the nun is killed—and he reveals in court that—oh, yeah. He was interviewed by the FBI of the United States. It's shocking. In the middle of this Brazilian courtroom, the FBI. What are they doing there?

JUNGE: And did you believe that when you first heard that?

BRANCACCIO: No. I thought he was making it up. I thought it was a strategy. Was it true?

JUNGE: I didn't think it was true as well, when I was in the courtroom. Lo and behold, it was. We learned very quickly from another witness that they were there, and they were there taking statements. Now, I don't want to cast aspersions on whether the FBI should or shouldn't have been there.

BRANCACCIO: But some people said it helped the case; some people said it hurt the case.

JUNGE: That's right. But the very fact that because of our foreign policy and because of what we do in the world, all of this is called into question. And in this case, it worked against Dorothy.

BRANCACCIO: I don't want to be a spoiler. We're not gonna let everybody know what happens to the rancher in the film. But I think it's fair to say that the wheels of Brazilian justice continue to turn even now, in 2009, right?

JUNGE: Yeah. Without telling you what happens to Bida and the—the main rancher involved in the murder, I can tell you that—that the other rancher involved in—in the murder, he's been in jail and out of jail. And now, he's—he's free. It's the revolving door of Brazilian justice.

BRANCACCIO: Now, politically in Brazil, things seem to be going, toward development and away from preservation. The government of Luis Inacio da Silva in Brazil was first known as pro environment.

JUNGE: Yeah. That's true. In fact, President Lula's doing some good things into policy. He shut down logging immediately after Dorothy's death. He set up some new reserves. He supported the PDS, at least in terms of rhetoric. He's progressive. Often the progressive movement is associated with environmentalism. But he has to promote jobs. And he has promoted development in the region. And, in fact, his Minister of the Environment resigned because she felt he wasn't aggressive enough in protecting the environment.

BRANCACCIO: This happened last spring. I remember there was this member of his Cabinet who was crusading on environmental issues. And I think she quit in disgust.

JUNGE: Yeah. And this came after the murder of Dorothy when more land was supposed to be set aside for reserves. And there was supposedly a moratorium against logging and yet the problems continued.

BRANCACCIO: And that's exactly the conundrum that you face when you talk about reining in the causes of climate change, which is in developing countries, lots of poor people. You wanna lift those people up. But that can also produce electric power plants and other effects like deforestation that can hurt the Earth in other ways.

JUNGE: Yeah. And—deforestation right now is high. I can say that most recently, because of these alarming statistics that we've talked about, they've announced a—a new program which will—will limit deforestation by seventy percent, I think. It's a very ambitious program. But the question is, is will it be enforced? Will it have teeth in it? And because Lula can make these laws, but on the other hand, he has to support development and workers it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

BRANCACCIO: This is why your film so crucial right now, this year. Major debate over future policy on climate change. There's gonna be another big conference in Copenhagen at the end of the year. There's a lot of meetings in the run up to that. You also have the incoming Obama administration embracing some of these—climate change policy goals. But world leaders are gonna have to deal with these developing countries, countries like Brazil, countries like China, countries like India, where there are these conflicts between development and keeping the carbon out of the atmosphere.

JUNGE: Yeah. And I think Dorothy herself was never anti-development. I think—I think that kind of rhetoric wouldn't have earned her any points there. But I think that—that she was very cautious about defining what—what development is positive. And the slash and burn, which we see in the Amazon for ranching, lumber and Soya, just isn't sustainable in the Amazon. We mentioned Greenpeace earlier. Dorothy actually worked hand in hand with Greenpeace. And I think Greenpeace has the most comprehensive programs and the—the most knowledge of what's happened in the Amazon. And I think that through a market plan and hopefully through some diplomatic measures Brazil will start enforcing their environmental laws, and we'll see a decline in deforestation.

BRANCACCIO: Sister Dorothy's work, to pioneer this blueprint for helping to save the rainforest and put some peasants into a more secure economic situation—did that die with her on that day, on the dirt road?

JUNGE: No, it didn't. When she was murdered, there was some fear that the PDS wouldn't survive. It's surviving now. It's struggling to survive because of powers that be in the Amazon that you see in the film are still working against it.
Dorothy was a martyr. Most Catholics now would classify her as a martyr. And martyrs are someone who died for a cause. In this case, who brought a lot of attention to the issue. Her death, by virtue of this film and a lot of news media coverage, people are gonna know about her murder, and therefore know about why she was killed, and what the—the reasons behind her death. And I think in that case, it wasn't futile.

BRANCACCIO: Daniel Junge, director of They Killed Sister Dorothy—thank you very much.

JUNGE: The pleasure was mine. Thank you.

BRANCACCIO: If you want to see Daniel's film, you won't have to wait long; "They Killed Sister Dorothy" premiers on HBO at 8pm March 25.
Go to our website to learn more about what actually happened to Sister Dorothy and, as long as you're there, check out our interviews with other important filmmakers.

If you and I can talk for just a second...please remember that if you like shows like ours, and you want to see more programs like this, now is the time to tell us that, by financially supporting this public television station.
And that's it for NOW. from New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you again next week.

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