Brazil congestion delays export of record soybean crop
- 20 April 2013
- From the section Latin America & Caribbean
Every week, Brazilian truck driver Ronaldo Benedito Miguel drives more than 1,000km (620 miles) from the western agricultural state of Mato Grosso to the port city of Santos with a load of 38 tonnes of soybeans.
The 42-year-old has been doing this since he was 19, but he says the journeys have never taken so long, or been this stressful.
"It's the worst I've seen in all these years," he says.
"You spend 24 hours in line, with no food, no bathroom, nothing. It's chaos,"
Mr Miguel is one of thousands of lorry drivers who make a living transporting grain to Santos, Brazil's main port.
A quarter of the country's foreign trade flows through Santos.
But in the past few weeks, this vital route has been clogged up as a result of the record amount of grain on its way to the port.
Soybean and corn harvests here have reached all-time highs this year and Brazil looks set to become the world's top exporter of soybean.
Most of Brazil's soybean harvest goes to China, where it is fed to chickens and used to make tofu, soy mince and soy milk.
But attempts to deliver the grain have exposed the shortcomings of Brazil's infrastructure.
"The production is growing very fast but the infrastructure doesn't react with the same speed," says Sergio Mendes, director of the National Association of Cereal Exporters.
The port of Santos has tripled its capacity in the past two decades. It now handles more than 100 million tonnes of goods every year - not just soybeans but also Brazil's other top exports such as sugar, cars and fuel.
But there just have not been enough improvements.
The only road leading to the grain terminal is narrow and dusty. Lorries have to get into a single file to pass through it.
A railway track crosses its path. If a cargo train passes, the lorries have to stop and wait.
"I was stuck for 30 hours in traffic without sleep," says driver Wagner Oliveira.
He says the congestion problem is not new, but it is getting worse by the year, and many of his colleagues are thinking of quitting.
Santos Port Authority Director Renato Barco says this year has seen the worst congestion so far.
He says the recent rainy season has only made matters worse. Crops cannot be unloaded in wet weather so ships have had to wait even longer to take the produce to their buyers.
Many have been out at sea for two weeks waiting to file into the port.
The government is aware of the challenges.
In December, President Dilma Rousseff's government announced a $26bn (£17bn) package to modernise the country's ports.
In Santos, roads and flyovers are being built to improve access, and a new bridge will let trucks get to the port without having to wait for trains to pass.
But congested ports are not the only problem.
Brazil is now an agricultural superpower and needs a transportation system to match it.
But there is no agreement on how to achieve it.
"We need fewer trucks and more railways," says Mr Barco of the Santos Port Authority.
However, Mr Mendes of the Cereal Exporters Association believes the answer to the country's infrastructure problems lies in its rivers.
"Using trucks takes five times longer than using rivers," he says.
According to Mr Mendes, grain producers and exporters in Brazil lose $4bn every year on logistical costs, much more than their counterparts in the United States and Argentina.
He says its poor infrastructure also damages Brazil's image abroad, exposing it as less efficient than its rivals.
Its heavy reliance on lorries to transport goods is often blamed for getting in the way of Brazil's ambitions to become the "breadbasket of the world".
And it is easy to see why - they are expensive and highly polluting. But for now, Brazil has little choice but to rely on hardworking drivers like Ronaldo Benedito Miguel.
Until alternative ways of transport are developed, it will be down to them to help meet demand for Brazil's growing harvests.