Go a thousand or so miles up the Amazon River from its mouth on the Atlantic Ocean and you'll see a floating port dedicated to loading and unloading soybeans.
It's on the left, just before you hit the tiny town of Itacoatiara, where the Madeira River joins the Amazon. At this point, the river channel is wide and deep enough for ocean-going vessels. Anything that can get through the Panama Canal can navigate the Amazon to this port.
Soybeans loaded onto these ocean-going vessels have made a long journey from the fields of Mato Grosso. For example, it takes at least 26 hours of driving for beans harvested in the region of Sapezal, Mato Grosso, to make the 500-mile trip to Porto Velho, on the Madeira River, where they're loaded onto barges. Then it's at least 52 hours down the Madeira to the Amazon and the port.
Hermasa Navegação is the company that owns the ports at Porto Velho and Itacoatiara, along with the 50 or so vessels (barges and tows, mostly) used in shipping soybeans from Mato Grosso to the Amazon. Its officials say the system represents a 30% reduction in transportation costs compared with shipping the soybeans all the way to the southern Brazil ports of Santos or Paranaguá.
Since the Itacoatiara Port opened in 1997, it's handled ever greater amounts of Mato Grosso soybeans. That first year of operation saw 321,000 metric tons of soybeans shipped through the truck/barge/ship system. By the end of last year's harvest, that amount had more than tripled to 1.2 million metric tons.
“Today we've got more than 650 associates (working for Hermasa Navegação),” says Petronio Róque Novaes, assistant to the president of the company. “That's 115 in Porto Velho and 400 in Itacoatiara.” Plus, he says, another 150 employees are working on a separate project to haul wood to a paper mill on ocean-going barges.
Hermasa Navegação is owned by the Grupo Amaggi holding company, itself wholly owned by the Maggi family of Mato Grosso. Blairo Maggi, one of the owners, is governor of Mato Grosso state, and reportedly the largest soybean farmer in the world.
Novaes says the port's grain-holding facilities, two enormous flat storage buildings, can hold up to 200,000 metric tons. A third 100,000-metric-ton storage building is scheduled to be built this year.