Growing Container Throughput in Latin America


Published Jun 7, 2016 12:46 PM by Octavio Doerr

By Octavio Doerr, Ports and logistic at the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Cepal)

The movement of cargo in containers in Latin American and Caribbean ports grew 1.7 percent during 2015, according to figures unveiled in the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean’s new edition of its ranking of container port throughput. These figures confirm two trends observed during the last years in the region: the slowdown of foreign trade shown by container terminals and great heterogeneity of the growth rates inside the region.

The regional average of 1.7 percent is higher than the rate recorded in 2014 (0.8 percent) and 2013 (0.7 percent). However, it is still down from 2012 figures which were 5.9 percent. The slow dynamism of 2015 was determined mainly by the fall in the port activity of five countries: Brazil, Peru, Puerto Rico, Trinidad & Tobago and Venezuela. 

The total volume of activity in 2015 was approximately 48 million TEU. The first 40 ports in the ranking accounted for nearly 90 percent of the operations this type of cargo in the region, while another 98 smaller ports divided up the remaining 5.9 million TEU (equivalent to 10 percent) among themselves.

The figures reveal great heterogeneity in the performance of port movements, both at a sub-regional level as well as by country. In 2015, East Coast South America’s activity reduction reached 1.4 percent, this especially considering the lower expansion of throughput in Brazilian ports, where the port movements fell by 2.1 percent compared to the previous year. 

West Coast South America results suggest a slight increase in container throughput, with a positive variation of 1.1 percent. The stagnation of the container ports in Chile (0.1 percent) and the negative variation of Peruvian ports (-3.6 percent) counterbalances the growth rate in Ecuador (6.3 percent) and the Port of Buenaventura in the Pacific Coast of Colombia (6.6 percent). Central America dropped 0.1 percent reaching 3.4 percent last year versus a growth of 3.5 percent in 2014, whilst the throughput figures of the Caribbean ports remained flat with only +0.1 percent change.

At a country level, six countries stood out: Colombia (13.1 percent), Nicaragua (24.4 percent), Barbados (10.3 percent), St. Vincent and the Grenadines (11.3 percent), Monserrat (11.7 percent), and Anguilla (27.7 percent), while other six countries from the region have showed an important slowdown in their activity: Argentina (-0.3 percent), Brazil (-2.1 percent), Peru (-3.6 percent), Puerto Rico (-8.3 percent), Trinidad & Tobago (-12.4 percent),and Venezuela (-22.2 percent). 

Mexico increased its port activity considering the 3.8 percent figure of 2014 to 7.4 percent in 2015. In Central America, the reduced growth of Panamanian ports during 2015 hides and important rise in the port activity of some countries of the sub-region. Throughput increased in El Salvador (6.4 percent), Guatemala (6.9 percent), Honduras (8.9 percent) and Nicaragua (24.4 percent).

At an individual level, the ports that registered a relatively better performance during 2015 were: Santos (3,645,448 TEU), Colón (3,577,427 TEU), Balboa (3,294,113 TEU), Cartagena (2,606,945 TEU), Manzanillo (2,458,135 TEU), El Callao (1,900,444 TEU), Guayaquil (1,764,937 TEU), Kingston (1,653,272 TEU), Buenos Aires (1,433,053 TEU) and Freeport (1,400,000 TEU). 

Just as in previous periods, the reasons behind growth, deceleration or an outright decrease in port activity are varied. For example,  the ports of Cartagena 16.6 percent (Colombia), Colón 8.8 percent (Panama), Guayaquil 8.9 percent (Ecuador), Manzanillo 4.4 percent (Mexico), Veracruz 9.9 percent (Mexico), and San Antonio 7.0 percent (Chile) registered positive figures due to the success of their projects and commercial management, while others were affected by low trade performance in general as in the case of El Callao -4.6 percent (Peru), Puerto Cabello -19.2 percent (Venezuela), Valparaíso -10.7 percent (Chile), San Juan -8.8 percent (Puerto Rico),  Río de Janeiro -28.0 percent (Brazil) and Balboa -5.0 percent (Panama).

On a global scale, during 2015, the containers traffic in ports also had a low dynamism. The global container throughput grew by only 1.1 percent in 2015, according to Alphaliner’s estimates based on a preliminary survey of over 400 ports worldwide. Last year’s global throughput growth logged the second lowest annual growth rate ever recorded for the industry, surpassed only by the record low of 2009 when it declined by -8.4 percent due to the global financial crisis.

In relation to the causes, several factors have contributed to the lower container throughput growth in recent years, including: 

•    the impact of the technological change of conversion from breakbulk to a containerized mode of transportation has plateaued; 
•    increased share of manufactured goods versus raw materials transported by containers 

•    a corresponding trend of miniaturization of manufactured goods; 
•    the rate of offshoring of manufactured activities to Asia and especially to China has slowed; 
•    changes in the imbalances of trade: the decelerated growth of laden container volumes in one direction leads to the lower volume of container goods, as well as to the reduced empty container handling; 
•    reduced incidence of container transshipment as more ports are served directly. 

Additionally, various ports in Southeast Asia, Latin America or Africa that were previously connected mainly by feeder or relay services have attracted mainline calls as volumes increased while port facilities have been improved.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.