Fordlândia: Ford’s Lost America in the Heart of Brazil

A small town imitating the Northern Michigan of the 1930s, Fordlândia has been frozen in time deep in the heart of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. This remote piece of America was established in 1928 by the motor company Ford in an attempt to create the largest rubber plantation on the planet. Although a promising idea and a major investment, the project turned out to be a complete failure. We explore the reasons to why, and what has become of this now-abandoned miniature Midwest factory town.

Henry Ford was officially the richest man in the world during the 1920s and had set his sights to build a rubber plantation and to provide a better way of life for the Brazilian workforce. Situated on the banks of the Rio Tapajós near the city of Santarém, Brazil, Fordlândia was the centerpiece town of a land grant concession, consisting of two and a half million acres, the size of a small American state such as Connecticut or Delaware, often compared to Tennessee. The plantations were testaments to the innovations of agriculture and industry related to commercial growth within the jungle, but they were also marked with failures such as not understanding native culture and trying to impose a Dearborn-like work schedule and life on the native Brazilians.

This project started in the 1920s, when Fords’ motor company began to struggle with the supply of rubber to meet its huge demands. The company was expanding quickly and so far had been purchasing the raw materials from established rubber lords, which proved costly. At that time the sole source of rubber was the South American tree Hevea brasiliensis, whose sap is natural latex and as a result of this, Ford proposed to build Fordlândia as the perfect solution, avoiding the dependence on British (Malayan) rubber. At first, Brazil seemed the ideal choice considering that the trees in question were native to the region, and the rubber harvest could be shipped to the tire factories in the US by land rather than by sea. Feeling no need to hire any botanists in the development of Fordlândia’s rubber tree fields, his managers had none of the required knowledge of tropical agriculture and ended up packing the trees closely together in plantations, as opposed to being widely spaced in the jungle. This resulted in the trees becoming an easy prey for tree blight, sauva ants, lace bugs, red spiders, and leaf caterpillars. This is a particular problem absent from the Asian rubber plantations, where transplanted Amazonian rubber trees faced no natural predators.

Henry Ford’s miniature American town in the jungle at first became a thriving community, and included a power plant, a modern hospital, a library, a golf course, a hotel, and rows of white clapboard houses. As the town’s population grew, all manner of businesses followed, including tailors, shops, bakeries, butcher shops, restaurants and shoemakers. The overall concept of Fordlândia attracted local workers, offering a decent wage of 37 cents a day (about double the normal rate for that line of work).

The town was presented as a success to the rest of the world during its short lifespan, and was visited by Ford’s famous associates including Walt Disney (interestingly Ford never attempted to visit Fordlândia himself). In 1944 Disney was asked by the US Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, Office of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA), to make an educational film about the Amazon Basin, which resulted in the 1944 animated short The Amazon Awakens based on his visit. Although unsuccessful, there is evidence that some of the attractions in Disneyland in California were actually based on his experience in Fordlândia, such as the Tropical Belle steamship ride or riverboat ride.

Despite these promising first impressions, Fordlândia’s closure was down to two major factors. One was Ford’s rule on the workers lifestyle, what he called ‘the healthy lifestyle’. This caused a culture clash amongst the Brazilian locals, who were forced to obey mandatory ‘American’ lifestyle and values. The plantation’s cafeterias were self-serve, which was not the local custom, and they provided only American food such as hamburgers. Living in American-style houses may have been bearable to a degree, but the workers were also each assigned a number that was worn on an id badge (the cost of which was deducted from their first pay check). Brazilian labourers were also required to attend American festivities on weekends, such as poetry readings, square-dancing and English-language sing-alongs, alien to their own customs.

Soon, the tiny rubber tree saplings on the plantations failed to grow due to the hilly terrain, leaving infertile, rocky soil behind. Those trees which were able to survive were soon stricken with a leaf blight that ate away the leaves and left the trees stunted and useless. Ford’s managers were not armed with the necessary knowledge of horticulture, and despite their major efforts, failed to stop the damage.

The workers ended up rebelling against the attempts to impose Ford-style regimentation. Ford had banned anything that wasn’t ‘clean’ along his ‘healthy lifestyle’ regime, including alcohol and women (including in the workers’ homes). Workers were denied their own customs, and this forced them to smuggle in businesses of ill repute beyond the outskirts of town, allowing workers to exchange their generous pay for the comforts of rum and women. The workers’ unhappiness grew as the unproductive months passed; the American 9 to 5 work hours wreaked havoc on their health as they were accustomed to working before sunrise and after sunset to avoid the heat of the day. In December 1930, riots escalated (one worker described it as resisting being turned into 365-day machines). This was the start of the end for Ford’s investment. Second attempts to resurrect the site again failed due to the unruly terrain. Never one to surrender, Ford purchased a new tract of land 50 miles downstream, establishing the town of Belterra. It was more flat and less damp, making it much more suitable.

Today Fordlândia is a modern ruin in the Brazilian jungle that illustrates the limits of globalisation, long before this word became in vogue. It is a spectacular, almost completely deserted and decaying town in the jungle that reveals the limits of the American dream.

Recommended reading about Fordlandia is Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City.

By Eleanor Cunningham