Fordlândia: Henry Ford’s failed Amazonian utopia

. Jun 04, 2018
Fordlândia Fordlândia is today a ghost town.

Fordlândia is today a ghost town.  Photo: Ag.Pará

Rolling up the Rio Tapajós, one of the major tributaries of the Amazon River, is a peaceful yet monotonous journey. After passing the bustling city of Santarém at the river’s mouth, there is precious little else to see. To the west is the Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve (known locally as Resex), while the Tapajós National Forest (Flona) lies to the east. The lower Tapajós basin is so wide that it’s rare to be able to see both of its banks at the same time. While the dense rainforest is visually striking, after the first hundred kilometers it does start to get repetitive.

Twelve hours into the trip, however, the banks narrow and the clear waters of the Tapajós meander westward. And as if out of nowhere, a large water tower emerges from over the horizon, marked with the faded lettering of the Ford Motor Company. Approaching ever closer, the forest gives way to factory buildings, warehouses, and an old church. This is Fordlândia: a decaying monument to American industrialism, right in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon.

As unlikely as it may sound, Fordlândia was built in 1928 by notorious American industrialist Henry Ford, who had the daring idea of buying millions of acres of land from the Brazilian government and transforming them into a rubber plantation, hoping to serve as a source of the material for the Ford Motor Company back in the United States.

</p> <p>In typical Fordist style, however, the cultivation of rubber was only one part of his vision for Fordlândia. In addition to the plantation, Ford sought to create an idyllic community, not dissimilar from the Midwestern United States of his childhood, with schools, hospitals, and traditional American-style homes. In the end, Fordlândia turned out to be a complete failure and the town was almost totally abandoned in the late 1930s.</p> <div id="attachment_4777" style="width: 1010px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-4777" loading="lazy" class="size-full wp-image-4777" src="" alt="Fordlândia" width="1000" height="563" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><p id="caption-attachment-4777" class="wp-caption-text">The now-abandoned Fordlândia. Photo: Ag.Pará</p></div> <h3>Amazonian Rubber Boom</h3> <p>The story behind Fordlândia goes back to the turn of the 20th century and the changing global trade of rubber, once Brazil&#8217;s greatest export. The European Industrial Revolution caused a huge demand for rubber, which back then could only be found in the <a href="">Amazon Basin</a> and extracted by tapping rubber trees (<em>Hevea brasiliensis</em>, or <em>“seringueira,”</em> in Portuguese) for latex, which was a dangerous, back-breaking labor.</p> <p>Brazil&#8217;s monopoly over this prized substance sparked the so-called Amazonian Rubber Boom, which led northern cities such as Manaus and Belém to be transformed into thriving metropoles, filled with lavish and ornate neoclassical architecture.</p> <p>Everything changed when British explorer Henry Wickham, a somewhat comical figure who bounced from failed business to failed business in 1870s Latin America, managed to smuggle tens of thousands of rubber tree seeds back to London. Britain then took the seeds to its colonies in Southeast <a href="">Asia</a>, where the trees thrived, without the blight and <a href="">pests found in the Amazon</a>. Brazil’s stranglehold on the world’s rubber production had been broken.</p> <div id="attachment_4779" style="width: 1034px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-4779" loading="lazy" class="size-large wp-image-4779" src="" alt="Fordlândia" width="1024" height="683" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 2048w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><p id="caption-attachment-4779" class="wp-caption-text">The Fordlândia golf course has been swallowed by the Amazon forest. Photo: Ag.Pará</p></div> <p>With London now in control of the rubber trade, talks began regarding the creation of a cartel of European powers, including Britain, which would regulate and oversee the production of rubber, setting prices much higher than they had been before. This troubled Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company, which relied heavily on rubber for automobile parts. Ford himself was deeply critical of contemporary industrial capitalism (which, ironically, he helped to create), seeing it as out of control, and saw this rubber cartel power grab as inadmissible.</p> <h3>The Fordist way of life</h3> <p>In the 1920s, Henry Ford sent his emissaries to the north of Brazil to procure an expanse of land in which to build his new town. Local government, desperate to make money from rubber again, jumped at the chance to host the Ford Motor Company, and Ford himself was already seen as a sort of heroic, divine figure among the Brazilian public. The local press referred to him both as the “Jesus Christ of Industry” and – curious, considering Ford’s notorious anti-Semitism – a “New World Moses.&#8221;</p> <p>The Fordlândia project, however, wasn&#8217;t the success Brazil was hoping it would be. A large part of Ford’s ethos of industry revolves around the idea that happy workers living wholesome lives make for a more productive and loyal workforce. So, besides paying the Fordlândia workers remarkably high wages and giving them free access to schools, hospitals, and other basic services, Ford also forced <em>his</em> idea of a wholesome lifestyle on his local population. This meant no meat (Ford was a strict vegetarian), alcohol or prostitution, which made his men desperately unsatisfied.</p> <p>A worker’s riot even broke out when the Ford Company managers did away with waiters in the cafeteria.</p> <div id="attachment_4780" style="width: 1034px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-4780" loading="lazy" class="size-large wp-image-4780" src="" alt="Fordlândia" width="1024" height="683" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 2048w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><p id="caption-attachment-4780" class="wp-caption-text">Fordlândia remains&#8230; in ruins. Photo: Ag.Pará</p></div> <p>If his goal to create a loyal and productive workforce didn&#8217;t quite go as planned, then Ford&#8217;s main objective of cultivating rubber was a complete disaster. Ford routinely dismissed expert advice and it came back to haunt him on a number of occasions. In one of many inexplicable examples of bad planning, the plantation area was initially cleared during the Amazonian wet season, leaving piles of waste wood that were sodden and could not be easily burned. In order to effectively clear the area, massive amounts of kerosene were used to create a huge blaze, which took over large parts of primary forest and left the earth scorched and near useless.</p> <p>When the time came to plant the trees, it was already the hot and dry season, and the first batch of rubber trees perished miserably. While it is true that rubber trees thrive all year round in the Amazon, it is only because they are grown in the wild, surrounded by jungle foliage which guarantees a steady distribution of water throughout the dry season.</p> <p>Growing rubber trees in close-knit rows, as was done in plantations in southeast Asia, caused another serious problem in Brazil: bugs. Britain’s <a href="">colonial</a> rubber farms worked so well precisely because the insects who feasted on the trees’ leaves were nowhere to be found in Asia. In Fordlândia, closely packed rubber trees created a haven for fungi and insects, which destroyed the trees time and time again.</p> <p>Though it had been abandoned long before, the Ford Company formally closed Fordlândia in 1945, later selling the land back to the Brazilian government at a huge loss. Despite controlling everything to do with the town&#8217;s construction and operation, Henry Ford never once visited Fordlândia.</p> <div id="attachment_4778" style="width: 1034px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-4778" loading="lazy" class="size-large wp-image-4778" src="" alt="Fordlândia" width="1024" height="683" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 2048w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><p id="caption-attachment-4778" class="wp-caption-text">Fordlândia&#8217;s water tower. Photo: Ag.Pará</p></div> <p>The best part of a century later, Fordlândia still exists. After being left almost completely empty for periods, today an estimated 3,000 people live there in what is an apparently normal, yet poor, rural Brazilian town. The houses of the American Village, though with dangerously overgrown gardens and signs of precarious structural decay, are now almost all inhabited. The Pará state government operates a plant nursery in the old Ford sawmill, while most of the local industry is based on cattle farming – which is ironic as Henry Ford himself despised cows, calling them &#8220;the crudest machine in the world.”</p> <p>However, the ghosts of the Ford Motor Company and the failed promise of humane industrial capitalism in a sleepy rural town still haunt Fordlândia&#8217;s streets. Roads, signposted in English, are full of potholes and shrinking against the advancing undergrowth. Swarms of wasps have overrun the iconic water tower.</p> <p>The ruins of the old Henry Ford Hospital are now too unsafe to visit – the remaining structures could collapse at any moment and the rubble is home to venomous pit vipers. At the local cemetery, a pile of decayed headstones is propped up against an equally sickly mango tree.</p> <p>Though he promised to do so many times, Henry Ford never visited Fordlândia, and New York University professor Greg Grandin ends his superb book &#8220;Fordlândia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford&#8217;s Forgotten Jungle City&#8221; by affirming that the residents of Fordlândia are still waiting for him to arrive.

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Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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