Amazon priest who championed land rights for Brazil’s poor is arrested

Father Amaro Lopes, a follower of Dorothy Stang, killed in 2005, could faces charges of extortion, land intrusion and sexual harassment

Brazilian police have arrested a clergyman in the Amazon who championed the rights of smallholders against powerful agricultural interests.

Father Amaro Lopes is the best-known adherent of the American-born nun, Dorothy Stang, who was murdered in 2005 in a killing orchestrated by landowners during a dispute that continues today.

Police in the jungle city of Anapu accuse Lopes of extortion and sexual harassment, but in denying the charges, his followers say they have been trumped up to stillnes an influential opponent of plans to clear woods and small farms.

” It’s the landowners and the crooks ,” told Jane Dwyer, a nun in Anapu.” They are trying to criminalise their adversaries. This always happens .”

In an interview with the Guardian two weeks before his arrest, Lopes said he had been advised he was a target.

” We’re all threatened for protecting the rights of the poor against people in power ,” he told.” They’re working on a plan to get rid of me. It won’t be a shooting because I am a clergyman- and they don’t want the same fuss that followed the assassination of Dorothy. But they’ll arrange an accident or something .”

The police operation to arrest Lopes involved 15 policemen, a large number for a single priest- and a sharp contrast to the resources devoted to investigating the 10 killings carried out in Anapu since 2015.


The small municipality of 27,076 people has one of the highest slaying rates in the country.

Anapu’s police chief, Rubens Mattoso Ribeiro, said Lopes had been under investigation for a year and could face charges of” extortion, intimidation, sexual harassment and leadership of land intrusions “.

He said the evidence against Lopes included depositions from local landowners who claim the latter are extorted, bank records and an audio recording of a human allegedly forced to have sex with the clergyman in the parish house.

Lopes and the two nuns who worked with him- Dwyer and Katia Webster- had recently advised the authorities to investigate the murder of Valdemir Resplandes, a land activist who was shot on 10 January after receiving menaces over a land disagreement with a local businessman.

Like Stang- whose community leadership role he adopted after her death- Lopes advocated forest protection, tree-planting, and sustained utilize of land by small farmers rather than clearance by agribusiness or miners. This set him and his congregation up against powerful interests.

Tensions over land have never been far away from the surface in this frontier community- and they have grown as a result of the influx of workers and businesses that followed the construction of the nearby Belo Monte dam.

The violence ebbed after Stang’s death, which prompted an international outcry and spurred the then Workers Party government to fill local justice postures with officials who were more sympathetic to the Landless Workers Movement.

But activists say the pendulum has swayed against them since Michel Temer, who is more closely aligned with the ruralista agribusiness hall, assumed the presidency.

Father Amaro Lopes:’ When we insure violence, we naturally have dread. But we will carry on since we are defenders of human rights and our land.’ Photograph: handout

” National politics genuinely makes a difference. This is a moment in Brazil where the ruralistas are getting more powerful so the fight has become worse. The murderous violence has returned ,” told Webster, a nun in the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

Webster said some big landowners now utilized more sophisticated tactics. She said that instead of killing adversaries in the countryside- which would probably be classified as political assassinations- the fear is that they now arrange for assassinations in cities, which are more likely to be dismissed as common crimes.

At a mass shortly before his arrest in a small rural church, Lopes spoke from the altar to the dozen or so congregants about the recent killings and security threats they all faced.

” When we assure violence, we naturally have fear. When we find the security forces, we are not reassured because we don’t believe they will protect us. But we will carry on because we are defenders of human rights and our land .”

Those assembled then joined him in singing” We’ll overcome the violence .”

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