Cargo transport by navigation in the Amazon increases 235% in ten years

A study by the National Waterway Transport Agency reveals that the matrix of waterways in Brazil has changed axis, placing them as Amazonian waterways with triple the cargo handled in relation to other waterways in the country

Thiago Vilarins and Caio Oliveira/O Liberal - Translated by Bruce Morais/CCAA Belém

The use of navigation to transport cargo in Brazil has increased considerably in the last decade, mainly driven by the intensity of waterway transport in the Amazon region. In 2019, the production of this type of transport reached 58,905 million useful tons (T), with the Amazon waterway corridors accounting for 75% of this movement.


The amount transported in the three waterways in the region - the Solimões-Amazonas, Madeira and Tocantins-Araguaia rivers - reached 44.175 million tons in 2019, an increase of 235% in relation to the movement noted ten years earlier: 13,183 million tons. On the other hand, the other three waterway corridors in the country where commercial navigation took place - Paraguay, Paraná-Tietê and Hidrovias do Sul - reached 14,730 million tons in 2019, the lowest volume in the same period.

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In 2010, the total transported by these corridors amounted to 53% of the volume handled throughout the country (14.868 million T). However, contrary to the evolution observed in the Amazon corridors, what has been seen over these ten years was a setback of 0.92%, which has worsened in recent years.

image (Divulgation / Unitapajós)

From 2018 to 2019, for example, the three Amazonian waterways increased the volume of cargo transported by 30,992 thousand tons, which represented an increase of 28.9%. In this same period of time, the other waterways reduced the total cargo transported by 7.68% - a reduction of 1.225 million tons in just one year.

This inversion of the Brazilian waterway matrix in the last decade, with intense growth of the Amazon corridors at the expense of the waterways of the center-south axis, is in the study "X-Ray of Cargo Transport in Cabotage and Inland Navigation in Brazil through Simplified Studies ", of the National Waterway Transport Agency (Antaq).

It is even more striking that this leadership takes place over a period of scarce investments. The demolition of Pedral do Lourenço, for example, which will facilitate vessel traffic and increase the navigability of barges and larger loads on the Tocantins River from Marabá to the Port of Vila do Conde, in Barcarena, is still a project that only exists in the paper.

The federal government's prevision was that the project would have started at the end of last year, however, the issuance of the previous licensing (EIA/RIMA) has not yet come out. The expectation is that the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Natural Resources (Ibama) will issue the RIMA in the second half of this year. Without investments, the growth of cargo transport on the rivers of the Amazon is solely a matter of the market.

"Companies are trying their best to reduce costs, regardless of navigation conditions. And to reduce costs is going out through the Amazon, through Pará. The Ministry of Infrastructure is seeing this, so much so that it is investing in highways in the state and is willing to begin the demolition of Pedral this year. The golden age of rubber and wood is over, and now we are entering a development cycle, through the Brazil Cost, and the flow through the Amazon, through Pará, is the cheapest ", analyzed the congressman leader of the federal government, deputy Joaquim Passarinho (PSD-PA).

image (Divulgation / Unitapajós)

According to the parliamentarian, who is the vice leader of the federal government in the National Congress, the minister of Infrastructure, Tarcísio de Freitas, guaranteed that the work should start this year and that the entire waterway to Barcarena will be completed by 2023.

Study reveals potential of Amazon waterways

Antaq's survey reveals that the Solimões-Amazonas waterway is the country's main cargo transportation route. In 2019, it alone accounted for 41.5% of waterway freight transport in the national territory. There were 24.437 million tons, which indicates a robust increase of 30.3% compared to the total volume transported on the waterway in 2018, and 201.69% compared to 2010 (8.102 million T).

The length and depth of the road, the vast network of affluents and the concentration of important production centers are some of the factors that contribute to the expressiveness of waterway freight transport in the region. The Tapajós River, like the Madeira River, has emerged as a new route for the export of agricultural products from the Center-West region.

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Through it, the grains travel by road (BR-163) to Itaituba, in the southwest of Pará, where they are transferred at the various existing Cargo Transshipment Stations - ETC to barges that follow the Tapajós waterway to the existing port facilities in the municipality of Santarém (which can also follow the Amazonas Waterway to Barcarena or Santana, in Amapá), from where they are finally embarked on long-haul ships to other continents.

The preponderant flow of products transported in the Solimões-Amazonas waterway, consisting of plant bulks from the soy complex (7.753 million tons) and cereals
(7.222 million tons), totaled about 15 million tons transported in 2019, corresponding to 61.3% of the total moved in the waterway.

With 3.376 million tons transported in 2019, fuel and mineral oil flows approached the level reached in 2017 (3.479 million tons). The transport of this type of merchandise is widely dispersed in the Amazon region and serves several purposes, including the demand from thermoelectric power plants.

The research highlights the Madeira waterway as one of the main current ways of transporting agricultural production in the Brazilian Midwest, transported by road to the municipality of Porto Velho (RO), where the main authorized port facilities are located. The stretch covered on the Madeira waterway is part of the logistics of exporting agricultural products from the Midwest that are transferred to long-haul ships at the Itacoatiara waterway terminal, on the Amazon River, or at the port of Santarém, on the Tapajós River.

Through the Madeira waterway, 9.342 million tons of cargo were transported in 2019 (+32.7% compared to 2018 and +199.7% to 2010). Of this total, about 7.016 million tons were vegetable grains, being grains of the soy complex (4.327 million tons) and cereals (2.688 million tons).

Movement in Tocantins-Araguaia sped off in 2017

The study points to a growth in cargo transportation on the Tocantins-Araguaia waterway as of 2017, from 4.413 million tons a year earlier to 7.791 million tons that year. According to Antaq, the year was marked by the emergence of the flow of cereals, with an absolute predominance of corn, on the route from Itaituba to Barcarena.

"The transport of this class of goods gave a notable boost to navigation on the Tocantins-Araguaia waterway, already in that year surpassing the volume of the bulk of the soy complex, seeds and oleaginous fruits, which regained its hegemonic position in 2018, but when it decreased 8,69% in 2019, to 3.487 million tons, gave this place to the cereals group, whose transported volume rose 34.3% and reached the mark of 4.264 million tons", analyzes the study.

image PA-481 (Divulgation)

Taken together, the flows of vegetable bulk from the soybean and cereals complex are approaching the mark of 80.0% of the total goods transported on the Tocantins-Araguaia waterway: 76.9% in 2017, 82.6% in 2018 , and 74.6%, in 2019. The survey records that the authorized port facilities on the Tocantins-Araguaia waterway are located mainly in the municipalities of Belém and Barcarena, in the Marajó Bay, at the mouth of the Tocantins River estuary.

Other relevant facts observed in the research indicate that the total volume of goods transported, in 2019, by navigation on the Tocantins-Araguaia waterway reached 10.395 million tons, corresponding to a significant increase of 22.7% in the year and 429.4% in December years old. The volume of fuels and mineral oils, which in 2015 was 949 thousand tons, has been decreasing, year by year, until reaching 132,000 tons in 2018, and had a remarkable growth in 2019, of 333%, when it reached the mark of 570 a thousand tons.

The way out for development is along the rivers of the Amazon

For Flávio Acatauassu, president of the Association of Port Terminals and Cargo Transshipment Stations in the Amazon Basin (Amport), the economic development of the region navigates our rivers towards an unprecedented horizon of growth. However, for these perspectives to materialize, greater support from the government is needed for problems to be overcome since local producers began to look to the river as the most viable solution for transport in the region.

image Flávio Acatauassu (Tarso Sarraf / O Liberal)

According to Acatauassu, it was from the 1990s onwards that this inversion in the flow of cargoes that was destined for the Southeastern ports through the ports of Arco Norte was idealized. At that time, the constant traffic jams in the ports on the south-southeast axis, especially those in Santos (SP) and Paranaguá (PR), led businessmen to think about solutions.

“The possibility of the trucks changing their route and, instead of going down, going up the BR-364, up to the Madeira River, was envisioned. Despite being winding and a very shallow river during the dry season, in the first half of the year, the Madeira is a river that rises a lot, which coincides with the soybean harvest”, recalls Acatauassu. “So, back in the 1990s, the first insight into the inversion of the logistical flow of transport was through the Madeira corridor: via the BR-364 highway and following the Madeira River to the Port of Itacoatiara (AM)”, he explains.

In order to better analyze this data, we need to understand that the so-called Arco Norte, whose concept was consolidated in 2010. The arch is a logistics line that goes from the Port of Ilhéus, in Bahia, to Porto Velho, in Rondônia; everything below this “risk on the map” is called Arco Sul – with emphasis on the production transported via the ports of Tubarão (ES), Santos and Paranaguá. With this division, it was established that everything produced above the 16º South Parallel - dividing mark between the two arcs - should leave through the North Arc, to generate revenue, jobs and taxes for the States there.

“So, it was just a matter of time for people to see that the channel was up here. It's cheaper and easier to get out here, because most of the infrastructure chain above Arco Norte is in the waterway mode, which is the cheapest. So, even taking a longer route, the cost drops”, the president of Amport is proud.

However, to be fair to the frank economic expansion driven by production transported by the ports of Northern Brazil, the concept of the Amazonian Arc was created, which includes the port complexes of Porto Velho (RO), Manaus/Itacoatiara (AM), Santarém (PA), Itaituba/Miritituba (PA), Belém/Barcarena-Vila do Conde (PA), Santana (AP) and Itaqui (MA). In other words, the set of infrastructures that enable the flow of production through ports in the Amazon Region.

image Vila do Conde (Divulgation)

“Today, within the Amazonian Arc, we have three corridors in the North region that are the most vigorous: the one formed by the BR-364/Rio Madeira, the BR-163/Rio Tapajós and the BR-155 and BR-158/Rio Tocantins”, explains Flavio Acatauassu, stressing that, although the natural conditions do not make our region prone to the transport of processed goods (which are transported in containers), it is the flow of inputs that highlights the Amazon.

“I can even dare to say that the vocation of the ports of the so-called Amazonian Arc are plant and mineral bulk, both for export and import. Large ports that operate with containers need large drafts [designation given to the depth at which the lowest point of a vessel's keel is, in relation to the waterline]. We have limitations, but our ports already perfectly meet this draft for bulk,” he emphasizes.

Waterway transport is cheaper and less polluting

Still emphasizing the Amazon's natural vocation to use its rivers as oxygenation routes for the economy, Flávio Acatauassu paraphrases the poet from Pará, Ruy Barata, emphasizing that “our rivers are our streets” and, therefore, they are the most obvious paths for everything that is produced on here.

“You usually fight the war with the weapons you have. So, today in the Amazon biome, opening a highway is unlikely. For you to open a railroad - which is already a mitigating action for the highway - other problems are created. So, nothing is more natural than using the river that is there and making it perennial. So, it would be very interesting that, when Brazil wakes up and sees that waterway transport is more environmentally correct, the most efficient and what nature has already given us, we have to perpetuate our waterways so that they become, in fact, waterways”, he projects.

For Acatauassu, waterway transport is not only less polluting - with less emission of gases than alternatives on land - but it is also more energy efficient. “With a liter of fuel, you carry more load capacity for a longer distance than a kilometer. If you have a fluvial/waterway route in your logistics chain, your logistics course will certainly be cheaper. This is generating this vocation for the ports here in the Amazonian Arc: almost 50% of our logistics chain is all in the water”, he explains.

In order to achieve the full potential that the ports and waterways of the Amazon have, Amport believes that a series of challenges must be overcome, with three highlights: improvement of the infrastructure for access to ports, with emphasis on the construction of railways and maintenance of highways; facilitation and speed of environmental licensing, with equality between the treatment of authorizations issued by municipal and state powers; and harmony between the decisions taken by the maritime entities, since, according to the president of the Association, there are discrepancies between the navigation laws of the naval districts of the Navy that monitor the Amazon, preventing the ship that sails through a region from having difficulties in crossing the same river in another jurisdiction.

“It all depends on the government. A cargo ship can only arrive at a port if it has infrastructure, which are road and rail access,” argues Acatauassu. According to him, the most urgent points for the continuity of growth are related to the oxygenation of the ports by land, which include: the regularization of the concession foreseen for the federal highways, in particular, BR-163 and BR-364; the adaptation of the PA-483 and PA-151 highways and the implementation of the Ferrogrão railway project (EF-170), a railway that would link Sinop, in Mato Grosso, to the Port of Miritituba, in Pará. the homework to reach the ports, the private entity does its part, which is efficiency and improvement to further boost production at a lower cost and generating employment and income in the region”, concludes Flavio Acatauassu.

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