• 18/12/2020
  • 12 minutes

The Port of Santos is one of the pillars of the national infrastructure, with terminals that receive goods from all over the country, handling a significant portion of Brazilian exports and imports. 

Brazil was discovered in Porto Seguro, but it was in São Vicente, next to Santos, that the Portuguese first docked and started the trade routes. Thus, in 1527, Santos’ customs began to tax products. It was the beginning of the largest port in Brazil, which concentrates more than 65% of the country’s GDP. However, its relevance goes far beyond.

To understand the panorama of this connection point with the world, we spoke with Philip Leslie, manager of our Santos branch. The Wilson Sons specialist brought a macro view to the present day and analyzed what the post-pandemic scenario will be like. Embark on the history of the Port of Santos!

The Port of Santos 

The Port of Santos is managed by the Santos Port Authority (SPA). The public company is linked to the Ministry of Infrastructure, working together with areas under private administration.

Porto is notable for its size and privileged location, being the largest in Latin America. To give an accurate notion, according to official data, about 134 million tons of goods were handled in the complex in 2019. 


Regarding exports, the volume exceeded 94.3 million tons. Soy (18.7 million), corn (16.5 million) and sugar (12.4 million) were the main highlights. The outflows of these products abroad accounted for about 37% of all exports in the complex.


In turn, national imports stood at 39.6 million tons. Fertilizers (5.6 million), diesel (2.5 million) and sulfur (1.7 million) accounted for the largest volume.

Size of the complex 

To accommodate the large volume of trade, the current structure has 55 maritime and dockside terminals, with a usable area of 7.8 million square meters, according to the institutional page.  

In this sense, the complex surpasses other important structures, such as Port of Açu and Port of Ponta Madeira. In addition, more than 33 thousand workers are employed, which demonstrates the robustness of the infrastructure. 

The importance of this port for Brazilian trade 

The relevance to the national economy, above all, is historical. Although it was organized in 1892, with a structure of 260 meters of built pier, the locality was already active in commerce and maritime navigation, albeit with rudimentary structures for vessels. 

Organization of the Port of Santos 

The organization of the Port of Santos began in 1808. On the banks of the natural estuary, which makes up Port, the system of trapiches was replaced at that time, after the opening of the ports to friendly nations. 

The organization of the locality, whose landmark is 1892, also had an impact on Brazilian culture and society. With successive waves of immigrants, thanks to the proximity to fields and industries on the plateau of São Paulo and Baixada Santista, the Port became the path of arrival for those who would try to live on this soil. 

Modernization of ports 

Another milestone was the beginning of the modernization process of the ports, in 1993. In the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, the Port of Santos expanded its operational capacity by almost 5 times, from 25 million tons per year to 115 million tons. “The Port of Santos demonstrates a remarkable capacity for adaptation”, adds Philip. 

Location and logistical importance 

The importance within the logistics system meant that the logistics infrastructure was built and modified according to the Port of Santos. For example, after the Pinheiros and Tietê Roads ceased to be peripheral roads, there was the construction of the Second Ring Road (2002), and access can pass “away from” São Paulo, bringing more efficiency in the coming and going of cargo. 

The trip from Santos to São Paulo, which, in the 16th century, could take more than a month, currently takes just over an hour. That, not to mention the convenience of not facing clouds of mosquitoes, wild animals, unfriendly tribes, mangroves with varying depths and torrential rains. 

Another important adjustment occurred in 2005. In the mid-2000s, concern about the discipline of truck traffic in the Port began. From there, we had numerous changes that contributed to the logistics: 

  • construction of the perimeter avenue; 
  • creation of large truck parking areas in Cubatão, which allows them to leave only when it is about time to perform the service; 
  • structuring truck access in the “just in time” system, which eliminated endless lines;
  • harmonization, albeit in a discreet way, of the railway network with peak times. 

More recently, the prospect is to continue expanding capacity. For example, with the termination, on May 20, 2020, of the lease of the facilities of the old LIBRA terminal and new bidding from the Federal Government, the prime location, due to the draft above 13 meters, will have an important role, as it should turn to the pulp and grain trade. 

In addition, although the Barnabé-Bagres project, which provided for the construction of about 22 new mooring berths, has not progressed, DPW has completed berth number 4, whose priority is cellulose, which should leverage this segment. 

Perspectives for the future of the Port of Santos 

In the specialist’s view, the Port of Santos is going through an interesting moment. Without falling into the common sense of embracing any novelty, innovation has been developing in the complex without accommodation or perpetuation of old practices when they need to be realigned. 

The speed of change, however, varies according to the type of administration. In the Port of Santos, parts under the command of the public sector and parts attributed to the private sector coexist, so changes obey the characteristics of these different environments. 

In the first, the adjustments are more agile, good practices, suggestions for improvements and perceptions are echoed in the management of ports, gaining momentum to be implemented. 

In turn, in the public sector, changes require hierarchical rituals, compliance with legal requirements and control of the autonomy of managers. Thus, there are a series of steps so that public servants have security to promote adjustments. 

“The challenge is to find a middle ground, maintaining and taking advantage of the good lessons from the past and merging with new operational structures”, comments Philip.  

Post-pandemic outlook

In the current scenario, the future is open, as the reflections in the Port are not exactly glimpsed. Covid-19 is the most significant historical event since the explosion of the twin towers or even the end of World War II, creating a scenario of uncertainty.

In operational terms, the Port of Santos was already improving the relationship between the volume handled and period while ships are alongside the berth, seeking productivity and reducing the ships’ stay in the port. 

For the future, shipowners (or “carriers”), terminals, port operators and cargo owners will have to go “in search of lost time”. The stay will have to be optimized, in order to reduce costs and allowing ships to make more voyages in less time.  

“From the point when the pandemic loses strength and becomes an endemic, it is projected that it will take 9 to 18 months before port activities return to the level of mid-December 2019”, predicts Philip. 

It is good to remember, however, that adaptation is one of the great historical forces of the Port of Santos, very much driven by a population with a vocation for the segment.

“With the port managers’ sense of vision, we can counterbalance this great misfortune, which has been taking the lives of thousands of people, with a focus on Port’s productivity, seeking to remove logistical bottlenecks and, thus, contributing to the effective reconstruction of our country”, says Leslie.

Thus, the Port of Santos will play an essential role in our future, supporting the recovery of the economy. In the words of the expert, “Brazil passed through Santos and will pass again”. 

To deepen your knowledge of our country’s infrastructure, get to know the 10 largest Brazilian port complexes!