Infrastructure in the Pan Amazon: Waterway options

Infrastructure in the Pan Amazon: Waterway options

  • Mongabay has begun publishing a new edition of the book, “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon,” in short installments and in three languages: Spanish, English and Portuguese.
  • Author Timothy J. Killeen is an academic and expert who, since the 1980s, has studied the rainforests of Brazil and Bolivia, where he lived for more than 35 years.
  • Chronicling the efforts of nine Amazonian countries to curb deforestation, this edition provides an overview of the topics most relevant to the conservation of the region’s biodiversity, ecosystem services and Indigenous cultures, as well as a description of the conventional and sustainable development models that are vying for space within the regional economy.
  • Click the “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” link atop this page to see chapters 1-13 as they are published during 2023.

The main stem of the Amazon River has provided access to ocean-going cargo ships for centuries, including modern container ships that service the manufacturing sector in Manaus and ore-carriers that haul bauxite from near Oriximiná (Pará) and iron ore and manganese from Santana (Amapá).

The first modern grain terminal, built at Itacoatiara in 1998 across from the mouth of the Madeira River (Amazonas), was followed in 2003 by one at Santarem (Pará) at the mouth of the Tapajós, in 2014 at Barcarena near Belem (Pará) at the mouth of the Tocantins, and in 2016 at Santana (Amapá) on the north side of the Amazon delta. These terminals are currently receiving grain from barge loading facilities located at the top of the three major transportation corridors, each of which has developed or hopes to expand an industrial waterway, known as a hidrovía.

Above Manaus, on the section of the river known as the Solimões, river traffic declines by several orders of magnitude because there are no industrial mines or agricultural landscapes producing commodities at scales required to support a bulk transport system. A few ocean-going cargo ships hauling timber are known to operate sporadically from Iquitos (Peru) or deliver heavy machinery required by the oil and gas industry at Coari (Amazonas) and Iquitos. River traffic consists largely of riverboats providing fuel and consumer goods to riparian communities (HML #3), cruise liners catering to tourists on the Rio Negro and timber for the manufacturing sector in Manaus or for export to overseas markets. There is an uptick in activity on the tri-border area around Tabatinga (Brazil), Leticia (Colombia) and Santa Rosa de Yavarí (Peru).
The Amazon Waterway is a transportation corridor with a service sector based in Manaus that caters to dozens of communities. Photo: © Caio Pederneiras /

The aspiration of creating an industrial waterway between Brazil and the Andean republics is a major component of the IIRSA investment portfolio, which includes eighteen projects organized in four groups with a total budget of $US 530 million. This basket of proposed and completed projects represents a laudable effort to provide sustainable transportation options that minimize the need for roads. Unfortunately, most river port investments on the Andean piedmont are akin to the Field of Dreams approach to infrastructure planning: If you build it, they will come.

There is no commercially relevant bulk cargo in either direction between Brazil and the Andean nations, while the manufactured goods produced in Manaus are not likely to be competitive with similar products from East Asia. That does not mean, however, that these are not ‘good’ investments. They provide essential services to many isolated communities of the region that are being denied road access in the name of forest conservation. As such, their development should not be viewed as an investment that will pay for itself but as a subsidy to support nature-based livelihoods.

Ironically, the one example where a waterway might be able to support a self-sufficient commercial transportation system is opposed by environmental and social advocates: the Hidrovía Amazónica between Iquitos, Yurimaguas, Pucallpa and Saramariza in Peru. Resistance is based, in part, on the impacts caused by dredging operations on problematic sections of the river but also from current operators and inhabitants, including indigenous communities, who fear they will be exploited by the concessionaire that has been awarded the contract to upgrade and operate the waterway.
The grain terminal at Santarem is one of several ports that export soy and maize cultivated in the Southern Amazon. Photo: © Caio Pederneiras /

Río Madeira

The largest tributary of the Amazon has functioned as fluvial corridor for millennia and was a major commercial artery during the rubber booms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since 1998, it has experienced a commercial revival due to the transport of soy and maize, and Porto Velho is now one of the busiest ports in the Amazon.

Historically, navigation between the Madeira and its tributaries of the upper watershed (Itenez/Guaporé, Mamoré, Beni and Madre de Dios) were blocked by multiple rock outcrops distributed along approximately 200 kilometers between Porto Velho and Guajará-Mirim. About half of these rapids have been flooded by the dams built at Santo Antonio y Jirau, while the rest would be flooded by the two dams that have been proposed for future construction.

In 2013, the Brazilian Transportation Ministry evaluated the feasibility of extending the Madeira waterway beyond Porto Velho and confirmed that the construction of the two additional dams would resolve the physical blockages that impede navigation. If all four dams were enhanced by the construction of locks, navigation via the Madeira waterway would extend fluvial transportation to central Mato Grosso (1,200 kilometers via the Guaporé), the agricultural frontiers of the Chapare and the Guayaros (1,000 kilometers via the Mamoré), the Bolivian Yungas (500 kilometers via the Rio Beni), and southern Peru (1,000 kilometers via the Madre de Dios).
Aerial view of the Madeira River. In the background, the capital of Rondônia, Porto Velho. Photo: Wilson Dias/ABr – Agência Brasil.

The agency that manages Brazil’s commercial waterways, Agência Nacional de Transportes Aquaviários (ANTAQ), considers the Guaporé to be an economically important waterway and has, on occasion, supported its extension. However, the 2013 feasibility study identified physical attributes, such as seasonally shallow water and excessive sinuosity, that limit its utility as an industrial waterway while highlighting the presence of indigenous territories in Bolivia and Rondônia that would complicate its development. The agribusiness sector shows no interest in developing the Guaporé as a bulk transport waterway, presumably because it would not be cost competitive with rail.

The most enthusiastic supporters of a greater Madeira-Mamoré waterway have always been Bolivian politicians who dream of converting their lowland provinces into agricultural breadbaskets. This aspiration may be another example of the if-you-build-it-they-will-come syndrome; however, the regional government of Beni has approved a new land-use planning framework that legalizes the conversion of one million hectares of savanna habitat for the cultivation of soy, corn and rice, which has the support of both the central government and the agribusiness sector of Santa Cruz.

Río Tapajós

The Brazilian Transportation Ministry and the agribusiness sector view the Tapajós River as a strategically important waterway located between the most productive farmlands of Mato Grosso and grain terminals on the Amazon River. It is, however, a technically challenging river with multiple rapids that limit its navigability during twelve months of the year. The Tapajós can be used as an industrial waterway only if a series of dams (between three and six) are constructed to create lakes that flood the most problematic rapids and regulate water flows necessary to ensure transit by barge.

The waterway was selected for priority development in the late 2010s, and construction was initiated on four dams on the upper the basin: Teles-Pires, São Manual, Sinop and Colíder. The environmental licensing process was initiated for São Miguel do Tapajós, the lowest and largest dam, while development of the two dams located on the mid-section of the river (Chacarão and Jatoba) were placed on the docket for future evaluation.
The Teles Pires or São Manuel River (Brazil) is 1370 km long. It flows through the state of Mato Grosso and its lower part is the border between the states of Mato Grosso and Pará. Photo: Francisco Aragão /

Following the political backlash that accompanied the constriction of the Belo Monte hydropower complex and the corruption scandals that marred the dams on the Rio Madeira, political support for the São Miguel project declined, and the environmental authorities successfully denied approval of its environmental license. This determination has effectively killed the Tapajós – Tele Pires waterway project because the three lower dams are all keystone elements, and if any one of them is eliminated, the waterway is rendered nonfunctional.

Currently, the Tapajós is navigable for 300 kilometers between its mouth and the twin towns of Itaituba and Miritituba, located across from each other at the top of a naturally inundated valley situated at the base of the northern border of the Brazilian Shield. Itaituba is the larger of the two towns and capital of the municipality, but Miritituba is located near the intersection of BR-163 and BR-230, making it the preferred site for building logistical facilities for loading barges for trans-shipment to grain terminals on the main stem of the Amazon River.

Unless the Brazilian Congress acts to create a legal mechanism that overrides the 1988 Constitution or the Murunduku indigenous people modifies its opposition to dams, the Tapajós waterway will be limited to the section between Miritituba and the Amazon River.

Tocantins and Araguaia

These two parallel rivers drain the landscapes between the highlands of central Mato Grosso and western Bahía; consequently, they are strategically located to provide a transportation option for two of Brazil’s most important agricultural landscapes. Both are candidates for waterway development but differ in their physical characteristics and the complexity of the social and environmental challenges that accompany the development of an industrial waterway. The two rivers come together at Marabá, then flow north toward Tucuruí Dam, which was outfitted with locks in 2010, creating the first essential asset on the Araguaía –Tocantins waterway system.
The lock at the Tucuruí dam, built between 2007 and 2010, has opened the Tocantins Waterway for future development. Photo: PAC collection at

The Araguaía requires less investment in dams and locks (Santa Isabela and Araguanã) but suffers from seasonally low water levels due to its broad flat floodplain. In contrast, the Tocantins has a relatively confined river valley but with numerous rock outcrops that require the construction of several dams and their associated locks.

In 2013, the transportation ministry decided to limit its waterway investments to the Tocantins, in part, because of the existence of two dams (Estreito and Lajeado) and the planned construction of three additional hydropower units (Marabá, Serra Quebrada, and Tuperintins). The decision not to pursue the Araguaía waterway avoided the inevitable confrontation over the operation of an industrial waterway on the border of a large indigenous territory (TI Araguaía) and two protected areas (PN Araguaía and PE Cantão).

The inevitable confrontation with environmental advocates began with the difficulty in obtaining an environmental license to modify the channel of the Rio Tocantins at the Pedral do Lourenço, a massive rock outcrop situated between the Tucuruí Reservoir and the city of Marabá. This stretch of the lower Tocantins is navigable during highwater seasons, but an industrial waterway must be open twelve months of the year to be economically viable.

Proposals to dynamite a channel through the Pedral would impact the nesting habitat of two species of aquatic turtles, an endemic species of dolphin and migratory catfish that have already suffered population declines caused by the construction of the Tucuruí Dam. Delay in the approval of the license has frozen the use of the waterway for almost ten years, in spite of strong support from both national and state authorities and the demands of private investors who have committed significant financial capital in developing port facilities in Barcarena, Marabá and Imperatriz (Tocantins).
If the government’s plans come to fruition, the run-of-river dam at Estreito will be modified to incorporate a lock that would extend the waterway several hundred kilometers upstream. Photo: PAC collection at

Development of the Tocantins waterway above Marabá is less than certain. To reach the border with the state of Goiás – the goal of the transportation ministry – would require the construction of three more large-scale dams at the cost of between $US 5 and $10 billion, and the installation of locks at all five hydropower facilities at approximately $US 100 million each. Other impediments include the need to build access roads between the farms in Mato Grosso and the waterway, which would entail building a highway across an enormous wetland complex (Ilha de Bananal) that is part of the Araguaía indigenous territory.

Paraná – Paraguay

This non-Amazonian waterway is navigable between Corumbá (Mato Grosso do Sul) and ports in Argentina and Uruguay; it is used by mining companies operating near Corumbá but is not an export corridor for agricultural commodities from Brazil. It is, however, an essential transportation asset for Bolivia’s agroindustry, whose producers in Santa Cruz are 2,000 kilometers from the nearest Atlantic port.

Pacific ports are closer at 1,500 kilometers but they are also situated on the other side of a 5,000-meter pass via roads that are not designed for high-capacity grain trucks. Bolivia’s soybean producers are absolutely dependent upon the Paraguay River and a legacy railroad system, without which they would be unable to compete in global markets.

“A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” is a book by Timothy Killeen and contains the author’s viewpoints and analysis. The second edition was published by The White Horse in 2021, under the terms of a Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0 license).

Read the other excerpted portions of chapter 2 here:

Chapter 2. Infrastructure defines the future

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