Tim Rutten: The fascinating story of Henry Ford's venture to build an American utopia in the Brazilian rain forest

Roundup: Talking About History

... By the late 1920s, [Henry] Ford was feeling many kinds of pressure: Socially, America was closing in on him. The long boom was tottering toward the abyss of 1929; his various social experiments were increasingly rejected, including a plan that in many respects anticipated the Tennessee Valley Authority; at the same time, an Anglo-Dutch attempt to monopolize the production of rubber in Southeast Asia seemed to directly threaten Ford Motor's future.

The Southeast Asian plantations were founded with seeds stolen from the Brazilian rain forest, where rubber trees grew wild. Thus, Ford was persuaded to put up $125,000 to acquire 2.5 million acres along an Amazon tributary 500 miles from the Atlantic. There he envisioned a vast plantation in which carefully selected seedlings would be raised scientifically and the latex harvested by local workers under the supervision of American executives. Ford decreed the construction of a model upper Michigan/New England village complete with Cape Cod-style bungalows, a state-of-the-art hospital, company cafeterias, schools, a cinema with American films and -- believe it or not -- nightly square dancing, of which the mogul approved. The local workers, who previously had lived in a kind of debt peonage to their buyers, were to be paid American wages.

Good intentions notwithstanding, it was a disaster from the start. Ford was a supporter of Prohibition and insisted that his workers refrain from alcohol and smoking, which didn't fly with anybody in the rain forest. A floating red-light district soon emerged, and the company hospital did a brisk business treating venereal disease. Most of all, consumerism failed because there was nothing to buy. Ford compensated by opening subsidized shoe stores and ice cream parlors. Similarly, concentrating the rubber trees in plantations made them more prone to the pests indigenous to the rain forest. Production never amounted to much. In 1930, the most serious of a series of riots erupted with chants of "kill all the Americans" after a manager did away with cafeteria table service and made workers line up for alien brown rice and whole wheat bread, which Ford regarded as "healthy."

Ford never visited Fordlandia, but he poured money into it and another nearby village, perhaps imagining that projects his fellow Americans had rejected might come to fruition there. By the time Ford Motor sold Fordlandia back to the Brazilian government in 1945 for $244,200, the company had spent, in inflation-adjusted figures, roughly $1 billion on the project.

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