FORDLANDIA HENRY FORD'S DREAMLAND IN THE AMAZON
A century ago; in the 1920s, a Brazilian rainforest was turned into a rubber plantation by the famous Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company (FMC). This land space was not only used to supply material for his business operation, but was also turned into a social experiment of sorts. Ford’s aim was to establish a picturesque American society. What seemed promising at the start quickly turned sour! Here’s how Fordlandia; Ford’s utopian city and industrial town, was founded before falling apart.
Hidden in Brazil’s Amazon rainforestrests the ruined remains of an old industrial town. Upon entering, one of the first things you should spot is a decrepit water tower with a faded Ford logo. In the 1920s, the amazon basin was the only source of rubber making it a perfect home for a Ford Motor Company colony.
Business was booming in the US, and FMC was selling great amounts of new cars using what seemed like an endless supply of Brazil rubber for their tyres. However, a British explorer; Henry Wickham, smuggled thousands of rubber seeds from Brazil to his country which then planted the seeds in their South East Asia colonies. Rubber crops in this part of the world flourished as they were free from the pests that plagued them in Brazil. All of a sudden, Britain had replaced Brazil as the leader in the rubber trade making Ford a very bothered man.
So, Henry Ford ended up buying millions of acres of land from the Brazilian government who were still trying to recover from being pushed out of the leading spot in the rubber trade industry. Out of this part of Amazonian rainforest, Fordlandia would be born; serving as his personal supply of rubber. He sent his delegates down in 1928 to oversee operations of the plantation and this is when Fordlandia was officially founded. A sawmill and a water tower with the Ford Motor logo was erected and forest was cleared to make room for rubber crops. Fords goal? To manufacture 38,000 tons of latex which would be shipped to his factories in Detroit, Michigan.
Now, Fordlandia wasn’t just a rubber plantation, it also became a little town. Workers and their brood lived in employee housing on-site that resembled houses in the Midwest that Ford was used to.
Brazilians who were hired to work in the factories also lived in these housing arrangements. Things were good. Ford paid his workers well and structured the settlement to have 8-hour working days. The children had the option to participate in the Boy Scouts and transportation was implemented to get residents from one side of town to another.
A cemetery was also built, along with a hospital that gave employees free medical care. Ford also gave the inhabitants access to amenities such as a swimming pool, golf course and a school for the children; which for many was a first time in experiencing an education. In doing this, Ford not only wanted to produce rubber for his new cars, he also wanted to develop a perfect American society solely based on his ideas and morals.
However, this is where things to turned sour and despite being a great set up in theory, it was reported by NPR that “the first failure of Fordlandia was social.”
It was expected that all workers abide by a strict set of rules and labour practises. Citizens of Fordlandia where fed a meatless diet (because Ford was a vego himself) consisting of brown rice, oats and whole wheat bread. They were pressured to appear at poetry readings and English only singing sessions. Ford fully expected his Brazilian workers to adapt to his societal expectations even going so far as to build a dance hall in the hopes that they could learn square dancing like he had. Alcohol and prostitution were also strictly prohibited. Needless to say, these rules didn’t sit well with many residents and some built a bar and brothel on a nearby island to blow of some steam after a hard day’s work. It was ironically dubbed “The Island of Innocence”.
Foreseeably, the workers just did not feel it was right that Ford had pushed his American views on them and the cherry on top of the cake happened in 1930, when the dining hall stopped its wait service and became self-serve cafeteria style. Riots ensued and the workers destroyed Fordlandia causing thousands of dollars in damage.
However, it wasn’t just the cultural differences that caused Fordlandias’ demise, but also problems with the trees. Despite rubber trees being native to Brazil, the plants failed to thrive and rumour has it that when Ford set out on this part of his journey, he failed to confer with a botanist when planting the trees. He was never meant to plant them in the hot and dry season and he planted them too close together away from a stable water flow giving pests and fungi free reign over those poor trees. Naturally, his trees had deteriorated and never produced more than 750 tons of latex (well below his 38, 000-ton goal) that never made it to any Ford cars.
Notwithstanding all this adversity, Ford didn’t intend to give up. He spent even more money on his project and moved the settlement downstream in 1933 to basically start over again. However, this too failed. Even Ford’s delegates could not cope in the hot and humid climate and the worker’s families couldn’t take the boredom of not having much to do any longer. The final wound in this project was the creation of synthetic rubber, making Fordlandia’s whole trade virtually useless.
In 1945, Ford sold the land back to the Brazilian government for $250,000 USD. His failure amounted to a whopping $200 million USD by todays standards. The funny thing is that Ford never stepped foot in his mini American society and ran this operation from his home in Michigan!
Now, a century later, a water tower with a faded Ford logo and dilapidated factory buildings stand as a reminder of the failure that is Fordlandia. The only occupants in these crumpling ruins? The bats. Fordlandia itself is now home to some 3,000 Brazilians who own local businesses or work in the cattle trade. If not for the ruins of the buildings, Fordlandia may seem like any other rural town in Brazil. Those who wish to visit Fordlandia can do so by staying in a hotel close to the former settlement.