RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Large
farm owners in Brazil are forming private militias to attack
land rights campaigners, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday, as
rural violence in Latin America's largest country hits its worst
levels in a decade.
At least 54 people were killed in rural land conflicts in
Brazil in 2016, said a Human Rights Watch (HRW) campaigner,
citing the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), a Brazilian
organisation linked the Catholic Church.
This is highest level of rural bloodshed in Brazil since
2003 when 71 people were murdered, the CPT said.
"Those who use violence to maintain control of the land can
act with impunity; they can kill," HRW campaigner César Muñoz
told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Nearly five million families across South America's largest
country are landless, according a 2016 study from the University
of Windsor in Canada.
One percent of Brazil's population owns about 45 percent of
the country's land, the study said.
Brazil's government says it is working to improve land
distribution but conflicting claims over different pieces of
land and unclear titles in rural areas have slowed the process.
Rural violence has increased as Latin America's largest
country suffers both its worst recession since the 1930s and a
series of political corruption scandals.
"When one of these killings occurs, we have not seen
effective investigations in many cases," Muñoz said in an
interview following the launch of Human Rights Watch's annual
report in Rio de Janeiro.
"In some areas militias have been created by landowners ...
in many areas of the countryside in Brazil there is basically no
Brazilian security officials did not immediately respond to
requests for comment on Thursday's report.
State officials, rather than federal authorities, are
usually responsible for investigating attacks on rural land
activists, Muñoz said.
With Brazil facing a severe recession, state governments
often do not have the resources or the political will to
properly investigate killings in remote areas, he said.
Indigenous land campaigners are particularly impacted by
rural violence, Muñoz said, and federal authorities are
responsible for guaranteeing their security if they are living
on formally demarcated territories.
When land is formally demarcated, indigenous people are
better protected from outside encroachment and cattle ranchers
or farmers have a harder time gaining control over the
This process of land demarcation, however, has stalled since
August, according to the former president of the Brazilian
government's indigenous agency.
United Nations officials have been pushing Brazilian
officials to speed up indigenous land demarcation so residents
have formal rights to their ancestral territory, Human Rights
The National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the Brazilian
government agency responsible for demarcating and protecting
indigenous land rights, did not immediately respond to requests
In addition to concerns over increasing attacks on land
rights activists and impunity, Human Rights Watch highlighted
problems facing Brazilian prisons and security forces.
Brazilian police officers killed more than 3,300 people in
2015, according to government data cited by the international
human rights group.
Some of these killings resulted from a legitimate use of
force, while others were extrajudicial executions, the rights
(Reporting by Chris Arsenault @chrisarsenaul, Editing by
Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation,
the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate
change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)