In the 1920s The Ford Motor Company (Ford) controlled nearly all the raw materials that went into the making of a car, all except one rubber. Brazil had been the world’s principal supplier of rubber. This situation changed when a British explorer named Henry Wickham smuggled thousands of rubber plant seeds out of Brazil and unto a ship headed to England. The seeds were planted in the European colonies of Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. The plants thrived in the warm tropical climate. The new south Asian rubber plantations massively outperformed the traditional Brazilian rubber producers and Brazil lost its standing as rubber king.
The new European rubber barons were talking about setting up a rubber “cartel.” Henry Ford, the founder and head of Ford, didn’t like talks of a cartel, because it would have driven up prices on tires, gaskets and tubes. Those are important items in any automobile.
Henry Ford looked for alternatives to get around the cartel and came up with the idea to not only fid his own rubber production factory but also establish a colony. Ford settled on Brazil to be the site of this project. Brazil and Ford agreed Ford would receive 2.5 million acres of land to develop for rubber production.
Work on the area began in 1926. Poor logistics and diseases that affected the workers like yellow fever and malaria immediately hindered the project. No roads were available in the area, thus the area was only accessible by the Tapajos River. The site was developed as a planned community with different areas of the city being designated for the Brazilian workers and the American managers. American-style houses were built, as well as a hospital, school, library and hotel. The town also had a swimming pool, a playground, golf course, and a water tower. The town was named Fordlandia.
As you can tell from the title of this article, Fordlandia was an utter disaster. So what happened?
1. Stepford in the Amazon
Henry Ford viewed Fordlandia as his own Utopia. Ford loved square dancing and had an enormous dance hall built in Fordlandia, needless to say square dancing didn’t catch on with the Brazilians and the hall went mostly unused. The town also had a strict set of rules imposed by the managers. Alcohol, women, tobacco and even soccer were forbidden within the town. Inspectors would go from house to house to enforce these rules. When there are wants they will always be filled by some cunning entrepreneur. A small island was established upstream from Fordlandia called the island of innocence. The island had bars, nightclubs and brothels.
The workers were expected to work “American” style working hours of 9–5 and wear ID badges. Brazilian workers were accustomed to working in the early mornings, taking a break in the middle of the day, then resuming work in the evening to avoid the jungle heat. The Brazilian standard of living was quite lower than America’s, so workers would work a few weeks or months and then disappear for weeks or months at a time, the managers hated this and the workers hated the restrictions forced on them.
The workers were forced to eat unfamiliar American foods like hamburgers and canned food. Employees were enraged about a shift from restaurant stye lunch service to a cafeteria style self service. The workers started a riot and destroyed property, cut the telegraph wires and chased the managers and cook into the jungle for a few days. Eventually the town was retaken with the help of Brazilian security forces.
2, Is there a Botanist in the house?
Like, a lot of successful, rich men, Henry Ford, didn’t feel the need to consult with experts before making big decisions. None of Ford’s managers had any knowledge of tropical agriculture. The Ford company tried to replicate how rubber trees were grown in the European colonies. The style was more plantation style, with trees grown very close together. The issue was since the rubber tree was native to Brazil; it had a lot of of natural predators, unlike in southeast Asia, where the tree was new and had no predators. Since the trees were so close together, it made it easy prey for tree blight, sauva ants, lace bugs, red spiders and leaf caterpillars. The Ford company replanted the trees repeatedly, only to have them killed by pests. This cycle went on for years.
Fordlandia was abandoned by Ford in 1934, and the project was relocated downstream to Belterra. In 1945, synthetic rubber had been developed, reducing world demand for natural rubber. Ford’s investment in Fordlandia and Belterra yielded very little rubber for Ford, and Belterra was abandoned. In 1945, Henry Ford’s grandson, Henry Ford II, sold the area compromising both towns back to the Brazilian government for a loss of over US $20 million (equivalent to $284 million in 2019). Henry Ford never visited either of the towns.
Fordlandia sat mostly deserted until the early 2000s, when it saw an increase in population to around 3,000 in 2017. Most of the original facilities still stand.
Originally published at https://mwmblog.com on September 28, 2020.