By Chris Arsenault
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 law."
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 territory.
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 Watch said.
The National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the Brazilian government agency responsible for demarcating and protecting indigenous land rights, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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 group said.