“Don Quixote” of River Transport Starting to Win Battles

Mario Osava

HAVANA TIMES, Jan 22 (IPS) — It is mere ignorance that stands in the way of Brazil having a broad network of navigable waterways and leads to the wasted potential of the country’s great rivers, laments José Alex de Oliva, superintendent of inland navigation at Brazil’s national waterways transport regulator (ANTAQ).

Oliva, who has been actively advocating greater use of waterways like the Madeira river in northwest Brazil for over three decades, dreams of a “strategic South American hub,” linking the basins of the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers and the Río de la Plata (River Plate) — the estuary of the Paraná and Uruguay Rivers — and running southwards from Venezuela through Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay.

But his persistent struggle to strengthen river transport, which has earned him the nickname of “Don Quixote” of the waterways, has failed to keep river transportation from falling behind highways.

The Tucuruí locks on the Tocantins River in the northern state of Pará did not begin to operate until last November, 29 years after the start of construction, which was interrupted several times over the years.

The final cost, of one billion dollars, was three times what it would have taken to build the sluices simultaneously with the hydroelectric dam in operation there since 1984, Oliva said.

Ignorance about the importance of river traffic on the part of society, the government and the business community in Brazil has limited investment in river transportation, even though it is cheaper than using roads in a country this size, the official told IPS.

“We need to educate people and fight their prejudices,” he said.

People are unaware that ships can have a useful life of 50 years on rivers, two times longer than on the oceans, and that technological advances make it possible to haul heavy loads even on shallow rivers, he pointed out.

“All rivers are navigable, depending on the use to which you want to put them, even rocky rivers, which can be used for sports,” he said.

Because railways are also scarce in Brazil, 60 percent of national freight transportation is by road, which drives up production costs and increases pollution.

Expanding the country’s network of roads and increasing the number of motor vehicles were priorities in Brazil’s development strategy in the second half of the 20th century.

But now there is “a major movement” in favor of waterways, in contrast with the past, when “no sector was fighting for them,” said Olivier Girardi, one of the partners in the Macrologística consultancy.

“This is a crucial moment” for expanding the river transport model, the expert said. The opportunity has come with the boom in agricultural production in west-central Brazil and the major expansion of farming in other regions as well, that are distant from the country’s Atlantic Ocean ports. The growth in agriculture has accentuated the impact of the country’s lack of logistics infrastructure.

In the past, there was no production in areas far from the Atlantic coast on the scale that would make river or rail transport — generally used for heavy, bulky products with little value-added — indispensable.

The exception was minerals, which justified the construction of several railways, in order to transport the products for export.

For that reason, the delays in the construction of the Tucuruí locks did not unleash uncontainable pressure. The Tocantins River, of which the last 700 km are now navigable, links central Brazil, which is beginning to gain economic density, with an ocean port to the north.

West-central Brazil is also currently experiencing strong economic growth. As a result, transportation costs for agribusiness rose 147 percent between 2003 and 2009, according to the National Association of Grain Exporters (ANEC), which estimates that 70 percent of grains are transported by truck.

In its study “Competitive North”, which it drew up for industry, Macrologística states that waterways are the best alternative for correcting the logistics problems of the Amazon jungle region and surrounding areas.

“Railroads are the second option,” because the high cost of building them requires that demand is guaranteed to be as high as the investment, Girard said.

Industrialized countries have vast rural and urban railroad networks, built in the early 20th century or earlier, when labor power was cheap and the environmental and labor requirements and regulations of today did not exist, he told IPS.

The National Plan of Logistics and Transport adopted by the Ministry of Transport in 2007 projects an increase in river transport from 13 percent of the total in 2005 to 29 percent in 2025.

Advocates of waterways like Oliva blame the energy industry for the small share of freight transportation represented by rivers in inland Brazil. The use of rivers was left in the hands of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, given the urgent need to generate more electricity.

The companies that won the contracts to build hydroelectric complexes should also put in locks, since the dams represented a new obstacle to navigation. Besides, the cost is much lower if they are built simultaneously with the dams.

But hydropower projects have generally not included the construction of locks, to avoid driving up the cost of the energy. Keeping down electricity costs is decisive in winning government tenders for contracts for projects on rivers.

The transportation industry won the support of Brazil’s national water regulatory agency (ANA), which defends multiple uses for water resources. But the battle is still being waged.

In cases like that of the Tapajós River, which is a tributary of the Amazon, Girard recommends that transport authorities create a navigable waterway before making plans for hydroelectric plants, to avoid being held hostage by the energy industry and to avoid transferring the cost of the future sluices to the power companies.

River transport also faces institutional hurdles. In the past, disdain for this mode of transportation was reflected by the lack of a specific government agency to manage it, Oliva said.

For a time, waterways were confused with ports, which mixed marine and river terminals. Later they were put in the hands of state companies that administered ports in a decentralized fashion, eliminating the possibility of a national policy.

The funds dedicated to river infrastructure had to pass through the hands of different agencies and institutions that did not work closely together, aggravating the bureaucratic obstacles and uncertainty, all of which discouraged private investment in this kind of transportation, the ANTAQ official said.

In the Ministry of Transport, “which spends 90 percent of its time taking care of roads” according to Oliva, the issue also was passed among different secretariats and departments.

ANTAQ, the regulating agency founded in 2001, created the Superintendence of Inland Navigation which, given the vacuum in the formulation of policies on waterways, is driving the debate on the issue through seminars, and approving regulations that are forging a path for river transportation.

River transport also faces opposition from many environmentalists, who protest the elimination of rapids, the dredging of rivers, and other activities that modify the flow and course of rivers, affecting biodiversity.