A “Megascops stangiae” — a screech owl discovered recently in the Amazon region and named for slain Sister Dorothy Stang, who was murdered for her work in the rainforest — is seen in this undated photo. (CNS photo/Douglas Fernandes, courtesy Global Sisters Report)
By Lise Alves Catholic News Service
SÃO PAULO (CNS) — Researchers from Brazil, Finland and the United States recently discovered a new species of screech owl in the Amazon forest. Dubbed the Xingu screech owl, the little creature was given a scientific name of “Megascops stangiae” in honor of the late Sister Dorothy Stang, a U.S.-born Sister of Notre Dame de Namur.
Sister Stang was assassinated in 2005 in Anapu, Brazil, while fighting for the Amazon forest and its people. Her congregation as well as the researchers who discovered the new species say naming the owl after the woman who dedicated most of her life to the people of the Amazon region is befitting.
“It is fantastic that after 15 years, these scientists had this enlightenment to call this owl by the name of Dorothy,” Sister Judith Clemens, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur and a friend of Sister Stang’s, told Global Sisters Report.
“She liked everything about nature, but at night, we would sit outside the house, look up at the sky and listen to the music of nature,” Sister Clemens said. “I think it is so beautiful that an owl, which is a nocturnal animal and a symbol of great wisdom, be the animal to honor her. Dorothy had that kind of wisdom.”
“The tribute is symbolic of her life, her insistence on (fighting) deforestation and what deforestation did to all animals. She used to cry when she heard a monkey crying because there was no forest for them anymore,” added Sister Clemens, who met Sister Stang when they were both working in Brazil, even though they both are from Dayton, Ohio.
For Sister Jane Dwyer, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur who has lived in Anapu since 1999, the tribute is a way to warn people that they must keep the forest standing if they want to have animals and nature.
“We are nature, we are forest, we are Earth. If we kill all of this, we kill ourselves,” she said.
The biologists who discovered the small bird say Sister Stang’s fight to preserve the forest made her a natural choice for the tribute.
“It is a way to honor (Stang) and her work and to bring attention to her fight to preserve the Amazon,” biologist Sidnei Dantas told Global Sisters Report.
Dantas used part of a four-year study on owls in the Amazon and Atlantic forest regions as his doctoral thesis. The biologist said that, like Sister Stang, the newly discovered species is threatened by the current deforestation of the region.
“This particular owl needs the forest to survive. Where the forest is still untouched, it is commonly found, but Anapu is located in what is known as the ‘Arc of Deforestation,’ the agricultural frontier of the Amazon, an area being deforested rapidly,” he said.
Dantas said he hoped the naming of the species would help those trying to preserve the rainforest.
“It gives visibility,” he said. “I think it’s cool for the people who continue to work in the area, who carry on Dorothy Stang’s fight, to know that there is a species named after her.”
Although there were four researchers in the study, it was the professor overseeing the investigation, Alexandre Aleixo, who suggested the tribute. In 2005, when Sister Stang was assassinated, Aleixo lived in Belém, the capital of Pará state.
“Because this owl is prevalent to the region where Dorothy worked, nothing is more appropriate than paying this tribute to her. It is also a way to immortalize Dorothy’s legacy,” Aleixo said, adding: “By confronting everything and everyone that went against the forest, she ended up paying with her life.”
On Feb. 12, 2005, powerful ranchers from the region, upset with Sister Stang’s actions, hired two men to kill her as she walked along a dirt road in Anapu.
Aleixo said Sister Stang’s work went beyond that of the church.
“Although she was a religious, she was an Amazonida (one who is born or lives in the Amazon region); she was not a native, but she chose to be an Amazonida and became involved in these environmental issues,” said Aleixo, who currently works as a curator at the Finnish Museum of Natural History in Helsinki.
Aleixo said Sister Stang’s work has inspired those beyond the Amazon region.
“It is clear that her message still inspires a much larger circle of people who are living off the land,” he said. “Even scientists who are working with biodiversity and discover new species want to associate the species’ names with hers because it is a common cause.”
Sister Teresita Weind, congregational leader for the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, agreed that Sister Stang has become an international symbol: “While Dorothy is from the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, she does not belong to us exclusively. We feel that Dorothy has outgrown the parameters of Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and belongs to the world.”
Sister Weind said Sister Stang labored “uninterruptedly” for the rights of the family farmers harassed by illegal loggers and illegal ranchers.
“She was faithful and steady. She was unrelenting. She wanted the farmers to have what was their right (to have),” she said.
Sister Stang arrived in the Anapu region in 1982, almost 20 years after the roads to that part of the forest had been cleared. Sister Dwyer told Global Sisters Report that, at that time, many residents wanted to leave the area, as they felt the government had abandoned them.
“They were dying of malaria, starving, without school, without health care, without anything,” Sister Dwyer said. “But when (Sister Stang) arrived, she started to gather the people. She gave a lot of priority to education. If she had not arrived in ’82 and done so, these people would be far away today.”
Sister Dwyer said she couldn’t help but smile at the fact that her friend’s name was now linked to that of a screech owl.
“Dorothy at that time was the voice of those people when it came to dealing with the authorities. She went (to authorities) and she talked, and she screamed, and she demanded,” she said.
“It is said that God heard the cry of his people. Today, it is the people who cry out and complain, but back then, it was Dorothy who did the complaining,” Sister Dwyer said.
In 2008, the United Nations recognized Sister Stang’s contributions to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms and honored her posthumously with the U.N. Prize in the Field of Human Rights.
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Alves is a freelance journalist based in São Paulo.