Truckers staged nearly 100 road blocks across Brazil’s farm belt as protests stretched into their eighth day, though access to the country’s biggest port was cleared after police clashed with protesters who had briefly halted traffic there.
The steadily widening blockades have sparked growing fuel and supply shortages and disrupted the harvest of a record soybean crop across at least 10 of Brazil’s 26 states.
Officials were set to meet with truckers in Brasilia to seek an end to the protests, but a presidential spokesman rejected a key demand of the protests to reduce the price of diesel fuel.
The widespread protests come as President Dilma Rousseff’s popularity has slumped to an all-time low because of a massive corruption scandal at state-run oil company Petrobras and an economic downturn.
The truckers’ strike has added to the economic malaise, slowing the delivery of parts and raw materials to factories while also forcing some farmers to idle harvesting machinery because of a lack of diesel fuel.
“There’s a lot of concern from buyers (of soybeans), especially the Chinese,” said a local trader working for a large multinational commodities company.
Soybean futures traded down slightly at $10.14 a bushel on Wednesday but traders speculated whether international buyers might be forced to the U.S. market if the trucker strike dragged on longer in Brazil.
Independent truckers and trucking companies are demanding lower diesel and toll prices, changes to new regulations on drivers’ mandatory downtime during long hauls and better road conditions.
Federal highway police said the protests that began on Feb. 18 in a few towns in Brazil’s top soybean state of Mato Grosso have grown to 97 blockages across 10 states.
Brazilian police in shields and riot gear clashed with protesters before dispersing truckers blocking access to the country’s main port of Santos early Wednesday. Passage to the port was cleared, but police are concerned protesters could return to block access this afternoon.
Dairy farmers are pouring milk down drains for lack of delivery services in the south and fuel distributors have also warned of potential jet fuel shortages at major airports.
Stocks of soybeans at Paranagua, Brazil’s main grain port, could run out in as little as four days for lack of new deliveries by truck, port spokesman Ceres Battistelli said.
Brazil, which is entering the peak of the soy harvest, still transports 70 percent of its grains to port by truck. The country in 2014 was the world’s No. 1 soybean exporter.
“Most of our warehouses in Goias and Minas (Gerais) states were affected and are not receiving soy or corn,” said Hugo Okumoto, who oversees delivery of grains for Louis Dreyfus.
For now, trucks breaking the strike and driving past protesters are still potential targets of vandals.
“If a trucker decides to run a road block to deliver his load, guys run alongside his trailer and pull the drop gates so soybeans run out,” said Kory Melby, an agricultural consultant. (Reuters)