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French priest defends landless peasants in Brazil's Amazon region

XINGUARA, Brazil—As the sunlight began to fade, Henri des Roziers, a French Roman Catholic priest, stood next to a grave in a town near here and admitted that the killings that characterize land disputes deep in the Amazon sometimes cause him to question his faith in God.

It's no idle thought for him.

In the wake of the cold-blooded murder of an American nun, Sister Dorothy Stang, des Roziers, 75, who doubles as an attorney for landless peasants, has emerged as the next most likely target of big landowners bent on destroying the rain forest to create cattle pastures.

The price for killing him, according to local news accounts: 100,000 Brazilian reais, about $38,000. That's double the amount that's thought to have been paid for Stang's murder.

"In Brazil, more than anywhere else I've lived, death plays a more prominent role in life," said des Roziers, standing beside a concrete slab that marks the resting place of a rural workers leader who was murdered 14 years ago. Des Roziers, who serves as the people's lawyer in these parts, has badgered authorities without pause to bring the man's killers to justice.

"Here, people kill for nothing. There are a lot of risks here. You know you could die at any time. I have identified the groups that want to eliminate me."

Brazil's Amazon resembles the Wild West. It's a place where settlers desperate for a second lease on life seek a new beginning in the cleared spaces. It's a place where exactly who has title to swatches of land remains in question, and where landless workers unwittingly get in hock to unscrupulous landowners, a form of modern-day enslavement.

Those who attempt to thwart the large landowners put their lives on the line. The government has little presence here. Disputes are settled with guns, and powerful criminals rarely face justice.

Stang, 73, had received many death threats over the years as she helped organize landless peasants to occupy unused pastures on big farms. On Feb. 12, two gunmen confronted her as she walked near the town of Anapu. They pumped six bullets into her body.

Authorities have arrested four men, including the landowner who is thought to have ordered the killing.

The arrests are unlikely to stop the killings. The church-based Pastoral Land Commission says more people have been killed over land disputes in the state of Para, home to Stang and des Roziers, than any other state in Brazil.

Six days after Stang was murdered, a newspaper in Para reported that des Roziers had the biggest bounty of anyone who was challenging the state's big landowners. Coincidentally, it was his birthday.

"Landowners with illegitimate land titles, landowners who employ forced or slave laborers and those who use illegal violence to settle land disputes have every reason to fear Friar Henri," said Jim Cavallaro, who directs a human rights program at Harvard University while working for the Brazil-based Global Justice Center. "He is their worst nightmare."

Des Roziers seemed destined for a brilliant career as a law professor when a mandatory call to military service in 1954 derailed his plans. Serving as a second lieutenant in northern African countries fighting to end French colonialism, des Roziers began to identify with those who wanted freedom. After living through the Nazis' occupation of France, he understood those hopes and dreams.

In 1958, des Roziers, then 28, gave up his law career and became a Dominican priest. He served in various posts in France for 20 years.

His interest in Brazil was piqued when he met several Brazilian priests who had been exiled to France by their military government. Hearing of their struggles convinced des Roziers that he belonged in Brazil.

Within three years of his arrival in 1978, he received his first death threat. He was undeterred and later moved to Xinguara, home to some of the worst land conflicts, because that's where he thought he could best be of service.

Like just about everyone else in tropical Xinguara, des Roziers typically wears flip-flops, jeans and a short-sleeve shirt.

He operates as a human rights lawyer out of a small, one-story building on a dirt street near the center of town. Banana plants stand outside his office window. So does a bodyguard with a pistol tucked into his jeans, the security the government provided after Sister Dorothy died.

Des Roziers makes light of the death threats, joking that given the price on his head, "my neck down is worth zero."

The French and Brazilian governments have honored him with human rights awards, and a nonprofit group gave him an award named after Chico Mendes, a rural labor leader who was murdered.

The landowners think he's a communist. They think Stang was, too.

"He's very much of an agitator," said Jimmy Simpson, a Brazilian son of Scottish immigrants who is treasurer of the Rural Producers Union in Maraba, the biggest city near Xinguara. "The priests should concentrate on taking care of people in the church."

The poor people admire him. "I pray to God that he will give him lots of years of good health," said Maria Jose Macedo Souza, whose husband, Expedito, was a leader of the landless poor when he was murdered 14 years ago. Des Roziers has filed legal brief after brief to push authorities to punish Expedito's killers, who have been convicted of the crime but have remained free during years of appeals.

Des Roziers said he had his own conversations with God.

"I've had moments of doubt," des Roziers said, as Souza brushed dirt off her husband's grave. "But I'm renewed by the fight for justice, that the death of some will help awaken the bad people here so they can learn they are on the wrong path."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BRAZIL-AMAZON

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