Thursday, June 17, 2010

Spotlight: Fordlândia

Fordlândia ("Ford-land") is a now-abandoned, prefabricated industrial town established in the Amazon Rainforest in 1928 by American industrialist Henry Ford for the purpose of securing a source of cultivated rubber for the automobile manufacturing operations of the Ford Motor Company in the United States. Ford had negotiated a deal with the Brazilian government granting his newly formed Companhia Industrial do Brasil a concession of 10,000 km² of land on the banks of the Rio Tapajós near the city of Santarém, Brazil, in exchange for a nine percent interest in the profits generated.

Ford intended to use Fordlândia to provide his company with a source of rubber for the tires on Ford cars, avoiding the dependence on British (Malayan) rubber. The land was hilly, rocky and infertile. None of Ford's managers had the requisite knowledge of tropical agriculture. The rubber trees, packed closely together in plantations, as opposed to being widely spaced in the jungle, were easy prey for tree blight and insects, a problem avoided by the Asian rubber plantations where transplanted Amazonian rubber trees faced no such natural predators.

Henry Ford’s miniature America in the jungle attracted a slew of workers. Local laborers were offered a wage of thirty-seven cents a day to work on the fields of Fordlândia, which was about double the normal rate for that line of work. But the indigenous workers, given unfamiliar food such as hamburgers and forced to live in American-style housing, disliked the way they were treated, and would often refuse to work. They had to wear ID badges and work midday hours under the tropical sun. They were also required to attend squeaky-clean American festivities on weekends, such as poetry readings, square-dancing, and English-language sing-alongs.

Ford forbade alcohol and tobacco within the town, including inside the workers' own homes, on pain of immediate termination. The inhabitants circumvented this prohibition by paddling out to merchant riverboats moored beyond town jurisdiction and a settlement was established five miles upstream on the "Island of Innocence" with bars, nightclubs and brothels.

In December of 1930, the native workers revolted against the managers, many of whom fled into the jungle for a few days until the Brazilian Army arrived and the revolt ended. A British journalist writing for the Indian Rubber Journal visited in 1931, and wrote, “In a long history of tropical agriculture, never has such a vast scheme been entered in such a lavish manner, and with so little to show for the money. Mr. Ford’s scheme is doomed to failure.”

In 1933, after three years with no appreciable quantity of rubber to show for the investment, Henry Ford finally hired a botanist to assess the situation. The botanist tried to coax some fertile rubber trees from the pitiful soil, but he was ultimately forced to conclude that the land was simply unequal to the task.

Never one to surrender to circumstance, Ford purchased a new tract of land fifty miles downstream, establishing the town of Belterra. It was more flat and less damp, making it much more suitable for the finicky rubber trees. He also imported some grafts from the East Asian plantations, where the trees had been bred for resistance to the leaf blight. Starting from scratch, the new enterprise showed more promise than its predecessor, but progress was slow. For ten years Ford’s workers labored to transform soil into rubber, yielding a peak output of 750 tons of latex in 1942– far short of that year’s goal of 38,000 tons.

Be that as it may, Ford’s perseverance might have eventually paid off if it were not for the fact that scientists developed economical synthetic rubber just as Belterra was establishing itself. In 1945, Ford retired from the rubbering trade, having lost over $20 million ($200 million in today's dollars) in Brazil without ever having set foot there.

The solid structures of Fordlândia and Belterra were left largely empty for the decades following the towns’ demise. Teams of Brazilian workers were tasked with maintaining the areas to preserve the buildings, but their remote locations left the Brazilian government wondering how it could possibly take advantage of the modern facilities. Today the plantation towns are being marketed as stops on Amazon tours. Much of the plantation land is now used for local agriculture, producing crops such as beans, rice, and corn. Many of the towns’ residents today are squatters.

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