Three hours in, we reached Alto Araguaia, a town where Mr. Mendonca’s journey could easily end. That’s where America Latina Logistica SA, a rail operator, runs the one link from the farm belt directly to Santos, the country’s biggest port.
The company’s 80-railcar trains haul as much corn as 230 two-trailer rigs like Mr. Mendonca’s, but burn the diesel of just 40 of them. High demand after the harvest, though, means the trains run full and at prices producers say don’t save much money.
Besides, the train takes just as long, with extended loading times at several terminals along the track and a steep decline near Santos port that has to be taken at crawling speed.
Brazil’s rail network, spanning 29,000 kilometres, is now smaller than it was 90 years ago.
As part of her infrastructure plans, Ms. Rousseff’s government is spending 22.4 billion reais ($11-billion) to build two major new rail lines that should help the farm belt. One stretches north-south, the other runs east-west.
Commodities firms say the investments can’t come soon enough. In a survey by the Fundacao Dom Cabral business school of 126 large companies that churn out a quarter of Brazil’s GDP, the No. 1 proposed solution to cut freight costs was more rail.
Economists struggle to quantify the impact of Brazil’s infrastructure woes on the economy. But most agree that a poor transport network, saturated ports and other deficiencies prevent the economy from consistently growing more than 4 per cent a year, a rate analysts say must be sustained over time for Brazil to attain developed nation status.
Most new rail projects are still five years away, or more.
So Mr. Mendonca drove on. Before midnight, we pulled into a rest stop. Mr. Mendonca slept on a mattress at the rear of the cabin. The reporter and photographer made do with a bench and a hammock.
On Tuesday, we headed for Mato Grosso’s southern border, a swooping toucan and cluster of ostrich-like rheas breaking the monotony of the flat terrain of brown, harvested fields.
Mr. Mendonca passed the hours by telling his story. Born in nearby Goias state, his father and brother are also truckers. Itching to learn, he drove customers’ rigs around the yard at an uncle’s tire repair shop. “I had their permission,” he said.
In 2006, he moved to Rondonopolis and started work, earning about 3,000 reais ($1,500) a month. He put on 53 pounds in his first year at the wheel. He married.
The work is steady but trucking companies are struggling to find drivers. With unemployment near record lows, workers in Brazil have plenty of other, less demanding opportunities.
“There are no decent toilets or rest areas and so much dust everywhere,” complained Aguinaldo da Silva Tenorio, a 28-year-old trucker along the route. In the cab beside him were his wife, three-year-old daughter, and a month-old son. Taking them along, Mr. Tenorio said, is “the only option” for family time.
Truckers also complain of the dangers – occasional muggings and bad, congested roads. Driving across Mato Grosso do Sul, the next state down, Mr. Mendonca pointed to a spot where a drunk driver slammed into his cabin, killing the car driver’s girlfriend. “I can’t blame myself for something that wasn’t my fault,” he says.
Often, it’s fellow truckers that he worries about. In a rush to get to port – many are paid by the load – drivers make reckless efforts to pass. Many also take cocaine and an amphetamine derivative known as “rebite” to stay awake.
“When you’re sleepy, it sorts you out, but you can end up causing a huge mess,” says Ademir Pereira, a 36-year-old driver who admits to once popping the rebite pill.
Mr. Mendonca says he never takes drugs to stay awake.
More than 1,200 truckers died on Brazil’s federal highways last year, according to police data. To dissuade drug use and reduce the death toll, the government recently mandated rest periods for truckers for the first time.
Employed truckers who drive most of the truck miles covered in Brazil are now restricted to eight hours at the wheel per day, but self-employed truck owners can press on for 13.