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Brazil uses only 30% of the waterway economic potential

Many logistical and transport challenges for the little more than 19 thousand kilometers being used to transport production through the rivers. Amazonian Arc ports stand out in production flow of soy and corn.

Alice Martins


Brazil uses only about 30% of its total waterway potential of approximately 64 thousand km, for economic purposes. It means to say, just over 19,000 km are used – 81% of which (15,500 km) corresponds the Amazon rivers hydric routes. The survey was carried out by National Transport Confederation (CNT), based on data from National Waterway Transport Agency (Antaq).

For this potential to be better exploited, CNT and Antaq point out that it is necessary to invest in signaling, expansion of ports and improvement of infrastructure of waterway terminals, among other measures, as mentioned by Antaq's general director, Eduardo Nery. “Even with all the waterways economic appeal in the region, we still have a long way to go. We, at Antaq, are currently developing studies to assemble a solid, consistent plan to direct investments towards improvements in waterway infrastructure throughout Brazil, including the Amazon region”, he explains.

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Eduardo Nery, general director of Antaq - Photo: Marcos Oliveira

According to the general director, among the demands already identified, the Madeira River waterway - located between the states of Rondônia and Amazonas – is highlighted. It needs beaconing and demolition interventions, besides other services, in order to safely expand its capacity and achieve year-round operation, without interruption. According to Nery, this is one of the outstanding interventions for the Amazon region, considering that the Madeira Waterway is one of the most important transport routes in the so-called Arco Norte, or Northern Logistics Corridor. 

“Despite the need for improvements and the geographical difficulties, the Amazon region was responsible for more than 51% of all the soybeans and corn flow – two important export products in the first half of 2022” – says Nery. This percentage was a historic milestone, as, for the first time, the ports of the North region and the port of Itaqui, from the so-called Amazonian Arc, had a higher movement compared to the rest of the country. According to the Antaq report, 41.5 million tons of soybeans and corn were transported through Amazonian Arch, while the other ports in the country registered 40 million tons of commodities.

“In addition to soybeans and corn, iron ore is also a very important product, especially in the states of Pará and Amapá. In Amazonas, however, there is a meaningful movement of containers to supply the industrial district of Manaus”, adds Nery.

Integration of modes may facilitate the flow of production


In addition to investing in navigation improvements, the general director of Antaq emphasizes that one of the main challenges to reach the full potential of Amazonian waterways is to overcome the geographical difficulties of navigation. Underlying such difficulties is the territorial dimension of the Legal Amazon corresponding to almost 59% of the Brazilian territory, that is, more than 5 million square kilometers, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

Until today, the road system, covered in the first report of this series by Liberal Amazon, is the most used mode. Still, the highways in the Amazon are the worst in the country. “Today, substantial part of the products gets to the ports by highways. Even so, the Amazon region has progressively developed each year and the trend is to keep growing. If the railroad projects were implemented in the region, we would have more interesting logistics alternatives which would consequently lead to the implementation of the flow of grains through the Amazon river basin”, explains Eduardo Nery.

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Photo: Tarso Sarraf

Railways are still poorly explored in the region

Despite the history of railroads in the Amazon beginning at the end of the 19th century, the potential of this mode is also underused. According to Fábio Carlos da Silva – professor at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA) and doctor in Economic History – likewise in the rubber cycle, when railroads appeared within that time context, as the most economical and fastest way to transport the product, currently, the railway mode turns again to be a crucial subject of debates among different sectors, as highways exceed their capacities and face a series of challenges to be overcome in order to meet the demands for movement of cargo and passengers in the Amazon.

“We realize that the cycle is recurrent. Although the main objective in the construction of railways is the transport of cargo, the expectation is that, eventually, the railways will also become a transport option for passengers, as it was in the rubber era”, he evaluates.

Elaine Radel, the Executive Manager of Transport Development at CNT, affirms this is one of the factors that justifies the urgency for investing and expanding both the rivers and trains routes. “In terms of railways, basically what we have in the region is the Ferrovia Norte-Sul [North-South Railroad], which aims at connecting the five regions of the country and serving as an outflow alternative for agricultural production”, he quotes.

The construction of Ferrovia Norte-Sul began in 1987, and the project underwent several changes over the following decades until it reached the current proposal, which is to go from the state of Pará, in the North, to Rio Grande do Sul. However, so far it has not been fully completed, with sections still under construction and others still being planned.

“Having new railroads in the Amazon would be essential to boost the economy, being an alternative to transport agricultural production to closer ports, since at the moment, this flow is mostly moved through the ports of the South and Southeast”, summarizes Radel.

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Ferrogrão project still has no expected return to the STF agenda - Photo: Rosinei Coutinho

New projects x sustainable development

A project that is currently undergoing legal procedures at the Federal Supreme Court (STF) is that of EF-170 railway, known as “Ferrogrão”, which aims to meet the specific demand of agribusiness, “connecting a very dense agricultural production area in the Central-West region to the ports of Arco Norte, thus, allowing a faster and more economical flow”, explains Elaine Radel, manager of CNT.

This is one of the largest railway infrastructure projects in the country. It has been discussed for more than five years with the goal of interconnecting the municipalities from Sinop (MT) to Miritituba, a district within the municipality of Itaituba (PA), where there is a port for flowing exports of agricultural products.

According to the Superintendent of the Industry Federation of Rondônia State (FIERO), Gilberto Baptista, there are few railroads in the Amazon and this scenario limits the possibilities for industry and agribusiness, besides increasing production costs. “The Amazon is one of the largest grain producers in the world, but it is not internationally competitive regarding logistics. Even employing the most modern technology available and being competent in production, when it comes to logistics, the cost raises and the competitiveness decreases”, he explains.

However, the impacts of the Ferrogrão project on the environment and traditional populations of the Amazon are a constant theme undergoing criticisms from various social segments. Vinícius Machado, anthropologist, lawyer and doctorate student at the Graduate Program in Laws at UFPA, published a research report and a documentary in 2021, about the impacts of large development projects on the Tapajós River, in the stretch located in the western region of Pará.

Based on the perspective of indigenous peoples, one of the projects focused on the research is that of Ferrogrão. “For this study, I interviewed 25 people of different indigenous ethnicities and their opinion was unanimous: these people are afraid that large projects like this will completely change the social dynamics of the place. The reason for such worry is that besides the change caused by the construction, there is also a population growth pressure resulting from the operation of the railroad", explains the researcher. After Ferrogrão construction, according to the study, a modification of the boundaries between the urban area and the indigenous territories is expected, not just geographically, but also culturally – an “imported one” to the region. "One of the interviewees said that it is as if the railroad passed through the middle of their living room", exemplifies the anthropologist.

The Ferrogrão project was suspended in March 2021 after Minister Alexandre de Moraes, from Federal Supreme Court (STF), accepted a request for a preliminary injunction filed by Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) suspending the effects of Law 13,452/2017, stemming from Provisional Measure 758/2016, which modifies the limits of Jamanxim National Park, in the state of Pará. Moraes considered that the route of the new railway would cross the park and that the modification of the area limits could not be decided by a provisional measure.

Ministry of Infrastructure (Minfra) published, in a note, that “the project (Ferrogrão) is waiting for approval from the Federal Supreme Court (STF) to be moved forward” and that “the railway is expected to move 48.6 million tons in 30 years”.

Five million people used waterway transport in Pará in 2021

Regiane and Juliano live in Marajó island and frequently need to use waterway terminals  - Photo: Igor Mota

In parallel with the discussions concerning the use of the waterway system for cargo in the Amazon, passenger transport stands out as another important issue, presenting several urgent needs. “Rivers are like streets for the population. Thus, in passenger transport, we need to offer a more adequate service, which provides more safety and more comfort”, states Eduardo Nery, from Antaq.

According to him, the infrastructure of the waterway terminals is the main focus of attention: “In the state of Pará, good quality waterway terminals are being constructed, but this is not a reality for the entire region. In some cities, apart from the capitals, we still find very precarious conditions for boarding passengers. We have been working on solutions to encourage municipal and state governments to improve this scenario,” he emphasizes.

In Pará alone, five million people have used intercity water transport, according to data from State Public Services Regulation and Control Agency (Arcon). This is the second largest state in Brazil, with 1,245,870.700 km². More than 300 vessels are registered to Arcon, allowing access to 50 municipalities geographically located on islands, in Pará. One of these cities is Salvaterra, in the Marajó archipelago, where the fishing couple Regiane de Vasconcelos, 46, and Juliano Rodrigues, 53, live. Throughout their lives, there were countless occasions when they needed to use navigation alternatives to reach the state capital, Belém. “Nowadays, it's kind of easier, because we travel by speedboat, with seat reservations and air conditioning. But, not long ago, the only option was the ship. We 'tied' a hammock and sometimes spent more than 10 hours traveling to reach Belém, that could be very uncomfortable", they racall. 

Education and Health - Waterway transport is part of the population routine and it is often the only alternative to commute from home to school, in the most difficult access communities in the region. Concerning health services, the rivers are used to transport medicines, personal protective equipment (PPE) and passengers, both in the capital-interior direction, and within the territories of the municipalities, to assist the riverine populations, including adapted boats for the format of ambulances (“ambulanchas”) and the River Basic Health Units (UBS), among other mechanisms. “Rivers are essential to assist dispersed populations. They are often the alternative we have to take medicines and vaccines, despite the challenges of moving quickly and safely”, says Charles Tocantins, president of the Council of Municipal Health Departments of Pará (Cosems/PA).

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Photo: Tarso Sarraf

Planning and transparency are keys to sustainability


Either for cargo or passengers, in order to be successful, it is important that transport modes are integrated to a sustainable development plan. According to the Anthropologist Vinicius Machado, listening to traditional peoples is essential. “The first step for a large project to be able to promote development without socio-environmental problems is to previously  listen to all the peoples that are bound to be affected by it, such as quilombolas, indigenous people and people who live next to the highways. This is a right guaranteed by Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization,” he points out.

José Alberto Tostes, Professor and Doctor at the Federal University of Amapá, an expert in Environmental Comfort Standards and Techniques, corroborates the statement. “The transport potential in the Amazon is very large and there are several paths that can be explored. But, in order to be sustainable, adequate planning and management are necessary, with greater transparency in the accountability to society in all spheres”, he emphasizes.

Concerning the waterways, the professor states that it is necessary to invest in greater infrastructure of the ports, more technological investment and more effective inspection and monitoring processes. “It's not just building, or just doing improvements. All affected communities need to be involved in the process, understanding it well and contributing to the impact evaluation. It must be a collaborative construction”, he reinforces.

The other modes of transport are also covered in the series of articles by Liberal Amazon. In the first edition, the theme was road transport. You can check it out at