Fordlandia


Fordlandia! Where civilisation conquers the wild and untamed heart of the great Amazon rainforest. A city forged in adversity, the triumph of will and the product of the daring imagination of Henry Ford. This is America’s new frontier; a wilderness transformed by technology, labour and innovation into the prosperous hub of the world’s rubber production.

To some it was a daring vision, a glimpse of the future from one of America’s, heck, the world’s most farsighted industrialists. To others it was another sign that the wheels were metaphorically and perhaps literally coming off a once great car-producing giant.

Fordlandia (WT-shared) Amitevron at wts wikivoyage [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The United States of America is a vast country, stretching from sea to shining sea, its land richly endowed with iron ore, coal, oil, timber and rich pasture. From these natural resources she has at her disposal all the elements for the wonder of the twentieth century – the automobile. Steel, wood panelling and leather were all sourced from home – a relentless flow of goods entering Detroit and other factory towns to be turned into cars, vans and lorries.

Yes, America was a perfect place to do business. Not only were all the natural resources on her own doorstep, but she also boasted a burgeoning population that was becoming richer and richer every year. Disposable income in a vastly expanding middle class was rising to make the USA the land of the automobile.

There was only one small problem in this otherwise perfect synthesis of resource, industry and markets. The one ingredient that America did not produce at home was one of the most essential – rubber. Rubber was at this time confined to the tropical jungles of Brazil and was a notoriously difficult plant to propagate, cultivate and harvest.

The great automobile manufacturers of America were entirely reliant on foreign imports of rubber. What was worse, these were almost entirely British imports. Imperial botanists had managed to secrete specimens of the rubber plant from Brazil and it had been tried out with great success in British Malaysia. Britain was so dominant in the production and supply of rubber that it was able to set the world prices.

Whilst this annoyed many of the producers, no one was quite as enraged by this as Henry Ford. Ford dreamed of self-reliance, for both the Ford Motor Company and for his beloved United States of America.

Henry Ford in 1919 By Hartsook, photographer. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The theory of autarky was gaining currency with those of right-wing or isolationist dispositions. It found a ready audience in Henry Ford. But Ford did not merely possess a passive interest. He was a practical man of action, and this was an issue that went to the heart of his beloved car industry.

Those bold ideas would find an even bolder manifestation in what Bill Bryson describes in ‘One Summer: America 1927’ as: “the most ambitious and ultimately foolish venture of his long life: Fordlandia”.

Ford negotiated with the Brazilian government and was granted a concession of 10,000 km² of Amazonian rainforest. Ford was thus given an area of land roughly comparable to the islands of Cyprus or Jamaica.  Brazil was so desperate for the concession to be successful it granted Ford’s Companhia Industrial do Brasil wide powers and various exemptions from taxation.

Ford was convinced he could work his Michigan magic in the jungle. American values and cultural norms were exported in their entirety. According to Bryson, clocks were set to Eastern Standard Time so as to be aligned with Detroit but a whole two hours behind the rest of eastern Brazil.

With the model housing and social facilities went 1920s American restrictions – prohibition was introduced and quickly became one of the most hated aspects of the regime. An unwillingness to bend to local conditions and climate meant that “no one at Fordlandia was ever comfortable.”

Fordlandia - By Méduse (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

All of this would have been worthwhile if the plantations had produced rubber at a competitive price and if demand had remained high. Neither proved to be the case. Brazilian plantations were surprisingly ill-suited to their native rubber trees. The capricious crop proved to be more reliable, productive and profitable once furtively transplanted to British Malaysia. At the same time, the Great Depression saw a sharp drop in demand and prices.

Many foresaw the demise of the project. In 1931 the India Rubber Journal gave the following gloomy prognosis:

“Mr. Ford’s presumed object is to grow his own rubber, but it only requires a few months’ stay on the concession to realize that, although rubber may eventually be grown there, the cost, both of bringing the area into bearing and producing the rubber will be so fantastically enormous, that the whole scheme from a commercial point of view is doomed to failure. At any rate, it is the writer’s contention that the Eastern planter need not worry from any competition from rubber produced by the Ford Company on the Amazon for at least another hundred years – that is, judging by the rate of progress made up to date.”

The death knell for Fordlandia was sounded in the general din of the Second World War. A sharp rebound in demand for rubber for war industries could have saved the project. Instead, allied scientists developed synthetic substitutes that quickly ended any prospect of profitable rubber production.

By the time Ford pulled out in 1945, the corporation had sunk around $20 million into the project – roughly equivalent to $200 million in today’s money.  Today, the jungle continues its relentless quest to reclaim the site. There are striking, eerie images of the abandoned town, its rusting machinery, decaying houses and broken glass.  They stand as a monument to hubris and the raw power of the rainforest.

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