Few things excite the residents of Brazil’s far western agricultural regions more than the prospect of new railway lines. Thousands of kilometres from the nation’s eastern seaboard, booming states like Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul have long been dependent on fleets of articulated trucks to move their produce — typically crops such as soyabeans and corn — to ports for export.

It is a process that is slow, expensive and environmentally destructive, involving tens of thousands of diesel-powered trucks spewing tonnes of carbon emissions as they ply the 2,000km-long route to the coast and back.

But it is a process that is poised for change. Under the guidance of Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas, minister of infrastructure, Brazil has laid out plans for a swath of new rail links to connect all parts of the continent-sized nation and end the logistics nightmare that haunts its farmers.

“The big thing happening now is no longer the highway, but the railway,” says Francisco Olavo Pugliesi de Castro, vice-president of Famato, a group that represents agricultural producers in the state. “It will impact the entire production of Mato Grosso — we will be able to transport 80 per cent of our soyabeans by rail.”

A driver hauling farm produce breaks his journey near Rurópolis, Pará state. Brazil’s agricultural sector relies on tens of thousands of trucks to cover the vast distances between the country’s interior and its ports

Foremost among a series of projects that would criss-cross Mato Grosso — a state nearly twice the size of Spain — is the so-called ferrogrão, or grainrail, which would link the agricultural city of Sinop with the port of Miritituba, located on a tributary of the Amazon upriver from the Atlantic Ocean.

It is currently the Brazilian government’s largest greenfield infrastructure project — and a tantalising prospect for the region’s farmers, who have long complained that they are hamstrung by the high costs and limited capacity of trucking.

According to one government feasibility study, the more than 900km rail link could ship 45m tonnes of grain after three years of operation — a 50 per cent increase on the amount that would be transported by the equivalent road connection in the same period.

This increase in capacity is crucial to keep pace with soaring production. Across Brazil, the production of grain has soared to 260m tonnes, from 83m tonnes, in the past 20 years — with half of that destined for export.

“By consolidating our railway network, we will boost our logistics, lowering the cost of transport to reach the ports and further improving our competitiveness,” says Mauro Mendes, the governor of Mato Grosso.

Angelo Carlos Maronezzi, an agricultural researcher in the region, puts it more starkly: “The issue of infrastructure is the most urgent. The government has to forcefully address it. It is OK at a time like this, when the prices of products are high. But, once commodities fall, God help us, because the costs are just too high.”

A harvest in progress in Mato Grosso. The state’s governor says better rail links will makes its food producers more competitive

The ministry of infrastructure expects the auction for private investment in the rail concession to be completed in the third quarter of this year and a contract to be signed before the end of the year. It anticipates that construction will begin next year and last for five years.

Many, however, think this timeline is overly optimistic, pointing to a systemic inertia in Brazilian infrastructure projects, arising from slow judicial processes and a lack of continuity in government policymaking.

Some express concern that the railway might never be completed, despite the voluble excitement from farmers and the federal government.

“Rail is important because it is always cheaper than trucking; it is especially important in the agricultural space,” says Federico Vega, chief executive of CargoX, a group using technology to improve logistics. “The problem is, historically, investments in infrastructure are very slow. We get promised that things will get done very quickly and nothing happens.”

Brazil’s ministries lack the institutional strength to pursue long-term projects, he adds.

“What happens in Brazil is when the government changes, sometimes plans are discontinued,” Vega says. “When you look at big infrastructure projects, usually it requires longer than the four-year government term.”

Fears for the future of the ferrogrão gained ground in March when a supreme court judge suspended the project, pending investigation of whether it could spur environmental destruction and encroachment on indigenous lands.

Prosecutors have also accused government officials of not properly consulting the indigenous communities, including the Munduruku people, that stand to lose some of their protected land if construction goes ahead.

Speaking out: members of the Kayapo tribe blockade a highway in Pará state in protest at deforestation and a lack of government support during the Covid-19 pandemic

Conservationists see the scheme as destructive in both the near and long term. Danicley de Aguiar, a campaigner with environmental group Greenpeace, says it could flatten at least 2,000 sq km of forest in the north of Mato Grosso and consolidate the advance of agriculture in the Amazon. “The construction of the ferrogrão will set a dangerous precedent for protected areas to be reduced in favour of infrastructure works related to agribusiness,” he says.

Ícaro Francio Severo, a city councillor from Sinop, says this is now the “big debate.” He points out that the rail line could make a detour, “but that would cost a lot of time and money.”

Martha Seillier, a government official spearheading the rail project, denies that the project would spur deforestation, arguing that the existing road infrastructure has already opened the state to environmental destruction wrought by loggers and farmers.

“With a smaller number of trucks on the highway, ferrogrão will promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,” she argues, estimating that the project would cut CO2 emissions by 800,000 tonnes annually.

“We really think making more road investments there is much worse for deforestation than the railway.”

Mato Grosso has the second-highest rate of deforestation within Brazil after the Amazonian state of Pará.

For many of the region’s farmers, however, this environmental question is secondary to improving efficiency. For them, the rail link is necessary to continue growing.

“The amount of trucks we have is now at the maximum. That is not just because the roads are old but because there are not enough roads,” says Vega. “If we want to improve [agricultural] production, they can build either more trains or more roads.”