Hakai Magazine

Cargo ship arriving Rio de Janeiro
Only a small proportion of the domestic freight in Brazil currently moves by sea—something a new bill looks set to change. Photo by Zoonar GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo

Brazil Looks Set for a Shipping Boom—Leaving Some Concerned about a Lack of Oversight

For coastal environments, the country’s pending push to increase how much freight is carried by sea may be one step forward, two steps back.

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by Eduardo Campos Lima

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Since he first took office in 2019, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has prioritized transforming the country’s logistics network for transporting domestic goods. Historically highway-centric, the shipping of goods around the country by truck is a major source of congestion and carbon dioxide pollution. In the next few weeks, the Brazilian Congress looks set to approve a bill that will encourage the transportation of goods by sea. But the bill has environmentalists, and even some government employees, alarmed as it does little to address the potential impacts on marine ecosystems that would result from a sharp increase in shipping.

Named BR do Mar (essentially, highways of the sea), the bill loosens the country’s restrictions on cabotage—the ability for shipping companies from other countries to operate in Brazil’s waters, transporting goods between Brazilian ports.

At the moment, existing legislation aims to incentivize the national shipping industry by creating several obstacles for companies that want to charter a foreign vessel to transport freight between Brazilian ports. The new bill would do away with most of those obstacles.

The Bolsonaro administration hopes the change will increase the amount of goods transported by ship in Brazil’s domestic trade from 11 percent to 40 percent within three years. Today, trucks transport around 65 percent of Brazil’s freight.

According to Newton Narciso Pereira, an engineer at Fluminense Federal University in Brazil, the bill would have positive environmental impacts. Transporting goods by sea instead of road “certainly reduces the amount of carbon dioxide emissions per tonne of cargo,” says Pereira. The bill also won’t trigger an instant growth in the number of ships operating in the country, he says, as that would depend on market dynamics. Pereira also doesn’t think the shift would pose any major risks to the marine environment.

“There’s a refined control of the operations that take place inside the country’s exclusive economic zone,” Pereira says. “We already have a substantial transportation of oil by Transpetro,” the logistics branch of the state oil company, Petrobras, “and we haven’t seen many accidents in the sea in the past years,” he adds.

However, many fear that the new law may bring undesirable consequences for coastal ecosystems and communities.

Increasing the number of ships operating between Brazilian ports could lead to demand for more port infrastructure, says Alexander Turra, an oceanographer at the University of São Paulo in Brazil who coordinates the UNESCO Chair on Ocean Sustainability.

“Brazil has seen major conflicts lately involving coastal communities and port projects, with consequences for ecosystems like mangroves,” he says.

Increasing port infrastructure would pose several risks for biodiversity and artisanal fishing, he adds. While there are ways to increase port capacity that can minimize environmental impacts, “if things are done the way they are done today, new or expanded ports may suppress relevant environments on the coast,” Turra says.

More transiting ships will also increase the risk of leaks of fuel oil, grease, or antifouling paint that may harm the port environment and nearby areas, Turra says. Ships’ crews may also dump garbage or drop part of their cargo into the ocean.

Such potential menaces are amplified by the ongoing weakening of environmental policies in Brazil, Turra adds. “In the current state of affairs, we can’t wait for an efficient control of such activities. The environmental agencies have been dismantled.”

Indeed, Brazil’s National Association of Environmental Specialists (Ascema Nacional) has for years been decrying the deficit in the number of employees and their lack of autonomy in conducting monitoring activities.

“The agencies [responsible for] environmental protection and monitoring are completely paralyzed due to the lack of resources and people, and to the creation of internal norms that make the inspectors’ work impracticable,” says Denis Rivas, the president of the association.

Rivas echoes Turra, saying that the increase in maritime transport that would be spurred by the new bill “will certainly not be accompanied by the necessary monitoring, and by the precautionary measures that should be taken.”

A spokesperson for the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) Brazil also raises concerns about the lack of an environmental plan, stating “no reference was done to any environmental norm or policy.”

WWF Brazil is worried about the possible impacts on marine animals. “We don’t know what the policy for migratory species will be. Will the ships be impeded to cross determinate routes during the migration of whales? A big flux of vessels during their reproductive journey would be very harmful,” the spokesperson says.

An employee with an environmental branch of the Brazilian government who asked to remain anonymous says there are fears that the government’s pivot to marine transport could lead to the destruction of corals to enhance navigability in certain areas, something that has been done in the past.

The employee says the bill doesn’t reference any international treaties concerning the protection of the environment that relate to cabotage. “Maybe [the bill’s] creators don’t even know that Brazil is a signatory of such treatises.”

While the bill is under debate, most of the emphasis has been on the protection of the national shipping industry and on truck drivers’ interests. On the Senate floor, the potential environmental effects of the bill are being largely overlooked.