The long, brutal haul from farm to port in Brazil

Reuters / When Marcondes Mendonça hauls corn from Brazil’s Farm Belt to port in the distant south, the young trucker prays for protection from gaping potholes and dangerous drivers, and dreads the squalid toilets on the seven-day journey ahead. He also braces for other hassles: traffic bottlenecks, backlogs at port and a stifling bureaucracy.

Overwhelmed infrastructure is one of the biggest challenges facing Brazil, the world’s sixth-biggest economy and a global breadbasket.

Transporters estimate road haulage rates will rise about 30 per cent once the grains crop is harvested, with a shortage of drivers and new legislation that will keep trucks off the road for longer by requiring minimum rest periods for drivers.

To see the problems up close, a Reuters reporter recently hitched a ride with Mendonça — a 27-year-old father of two and fan of Brazilian country music who hauls freight for a truckers’ collective and doubles as an instructor for aspiring drivers.

“May God protect us,” he said, above a hiss of the air brakes at the start of his 2,100-kilometre journey. The trip, from the western farm state of Mato Grosso, across Brazil’s central savannah and southeast to the Atlantic Port of Santos, highlighted rigours of the road familiar to truckers anywhere — long hours, loneliness and bad meals.

But it also made clear how Brazil’s ambition of supplying more of the world’s food is being hampered by inefficiency. The cost of Mendonça’s haul amounted to nearly 40 per cent of what the 37 tonnes of corn sold for in Santos. Transport across a similar distance in the United States, mostly by barge, amounts to only 10 per cent of the price of U.S. corn at port. Goods can also take three times as long to move a given distance as they do in China, a country that has used its run of economic success to invest heavily in roads, rail and ports.

“Logistics are jammed up,” says Glauber Silveira, head of Mato Grosso’s association of soy growers, who lose a quarter of their revenue to transport. “The buyer is losing out and the producer is losing out.”

The rising costs are forcing commodities traders to bid higher for Brazilian soy just to make sure growers keep planting. It’s also prompted President Dilma Rousseff to search for $66 billion in private investment for roads, rail and other facilities.

Off the rails

The cabin of Mendonça’s Scania truck affords ample views of the chasm between Brazil’s first-world ambitions and the much humbler reality on the ground.

After a three-day round trip north to load his double trailer, Mendonça sets off from Rondonopolis, a dusty logistics hub in southern Mato Grosso. It’s just a three-hour drive to the town of Alto Araguaia, which has a direct rail link to Santos, the country’s biggest port. An 80-rail-car train carries as much corn as 230 rigs like Mendonça’s, and burns the diesel of just 40 of them. However, slow loading at terminals along the way means shipping by rail is no faster, and at harvest time, the trains run full and at prices producers say don’t save much money.

Brazil’s rail network, spanning 29,000 kilometres, is now smaller than it was 90 years ago. And while two new rail lines, which will cost $11 billion, are under construction, it will be at least five years before they open.

So Mendonça drove on, towards Mato Grosso do Sul, the next state down. He talked of crashes caused by reckless driving, fatigue, and long-haul truckers using cocaine or an amphetamine derivative known as “rebite” to stay awake.

More than 1,200 truckers died on Brazil’s federal highways last year, which prompted the government to recently mandate rest periods for truckers for the first time — no more than eight hours of driving for employees of trucking firms and up to 13 for the self-employed.

Few disagree with the law’s aims, but some complain it makes it harder to meet demand and raises costs. And “if they don’t let us drive overnight there won’t be enough trucks,” said Marcelo Galbati, a self-employed trucker.

On the evening of his sixth day, Mendonça bypassed Sao Paulo, South America’s biggest city, and traffic thickened as trucks from across Brazil funnel onto the two highways to Santos, 80 kilometres away.

The lack of rest areas was painfully clear. Mendonça paid a 150-reais ($74) toll for one highway but had to circle back and repay after leaving the road, only to find all rest stops were full. He’d gone beyond his legal driving time but had nowhere to stop.

At 2 a.m., as he descended through Atlantic rainforest, a wreck halted traffic. An hour later, he reached a rest stop.

The next morning, Mendonça waited for clearance to proceed to the Santos terminal just 20 kilometres away from his destination, an ADM elevator. It would be 4 p.m. before he unloaded $10,200 worth of corn. The cost of the haul: $3,800.

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