The long, brutal haul from farm to port in Brazil

Thu Nov 1, 2012 1:59pm EDT
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By Peter Murphy

RONDONOPOLIS, 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 stifling bureaucracy that increasingly slow goods and services across Latin America's largest country.

Overwhelmed infrastructure is one of the biggest challenges facing Brazil, the world's sixth-biggest economy and a global breadbasket that could next year displace the United States as the world's top soybean producer.

Transporters estimate road haulage rates will rise about 30 percent 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 and photographer hitched a ride with Mendonça on a recent journey. A 27-year-old father of two and fan of Brazilian country music, he 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. Our 1,600 km (995 miles) stretch of his 2,100 km (1,300 miles) journey took us over broken asphalt, past points of deadly smashes, and on a nightly search for a rest stop with space for a last truck.

The trip, from the western farm state of Mato Grosso, across Brazil's central savannah and southeast to the Atlantic port of Santos, highlighted rigors 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.   Continued...

A truck (C) drives past two others stuck on highway BR-364, beside a cotton farm, in Alto Garcas, Mato Grosso state, September 17, 2012. With its rail and river networks underdeveloped, Brazil depends heavily on trucking to move its valuable commodities to port. But traffic bottlenecks, backlogs at port, bureaucracy, and high fuel and labor costs amount to a handicap for the country in its ambitions as a global breadbasket. Picture taken September 17, 2012. REUTERS/Nacho Doce