Author:Vargas, Pilar

After three years of slowdown, container traffic through the ports of Latin America and the Caribbean is recovering. A look at some of the leading ports in the Americas.

2017 was a great year for the ports of Latin America and the Caribbean. After three years of low or negative growth, cargo movements increased by about 6.1%, surpassing the 2016 level of 47 million TEUs (standard container measurement unit, equivalent to a 20-foot container) and rising to almost 51 million, according to the annual ports ranking by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) released in June.

The expansion is mainly thanks to the recovery of world trade. Globally, 2017 saw the movement of 722 million TEUs, a 5.9% increase over 2016. South America posted 6.6% growth, with the movement of 26 million TEUs.

Regionals growth also benefitted from the opening of the expanded Panama Canal. This enabled the Port of Colon, on Panama's Atlantic side, to become the largest mover of containers in Latin America, displacing Santos in Brazil, which had been top ranked for the previous two years.

The rise in traffic managed at the top 10 ports--among which there were no other changes in the rankings--averaged 7.9%, higher than the regional increase and a dramatic comeback from the 4% decline in 2016.


Within the ECLAC's top 40, the best performing ports were Caucedo (Dominican Republic), Veracruz (Mexico), Valparaiso (Chile), Altamira (Mexico), Suape (Brazil), Lirquen (Chile) and Itaguai/Sepetiba (Brazil), which grew by double digits.The expansion was thanks to a combination of international trade and higher productivity at these terminals, their role and location in maritime routes and commercial arrangements made with shipping lines, according to Ricardo J. Sanchez, Pablo Chauvet and Gabriel Perez of ECLAC's Infrastructure Services Unit, which puts together the annual ranking.

The countries where port container terminals showed the greatest increase in cargo volumes handled were the Dominican Republic (24%), Colombia (13.3%) Mexico (12.2%), Panama (10.1%) and Brazil (5%).

However, performance wasn't uniform. "There is a large variety of port markets in the region, which results in variances in performance of the ports, according to the context and conditions of each country," the ECLAC specialists say.

The change made five decades ago toward a landlord management model--in which the state cedes the operational and maintenance responsibilities of the terminal to a private operator--has been one of the main drivers of growth by incorporating private capital and greater operating efficiency.

"It has made possible improvements in the region's ports, along with higher productivity, greater investment in equipment and better efficiency in the processes, although with relatively minor physical expansion," according to the ECLAC specialists. However, major challenges persist. "The model and governance in which it [the port system] is immersed still show some shortcomings, given that they have not resolved certain problems in terms of the labor environment, tariffs and competition," they say.

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