The Failure of Fordlândia

At his peak, Henry Ford was nearly unstoppable. His pioneering of mass-production product assembly (automobiles, of course, in his case) integrated with his own personal theories about peace via consumerism (the employment of workers to perform specialised tasks in the process of producing mass goods while paying wages high enough for workers to purchase the goods they helped produce – in other words, high productivity = high wages; mass production = mass consumption, the tenets of what would become known in social science as Fordism and would dominate Western industry until the 1960s) had made him perhaps the preeminent industrial titan of the early 20th century. Ford’s paternalistic style of operation had also become a trademark; the Ford Motor Company even had a ‘Social Department’ that dissuaded workers from indulging in heavy alcohol use, gambling, and frivolous spending in order to keep receiving the full wage (the then-hallowed ‘Five-Dollar Day’). Workers were lectured on everything from hygiene to table manners.

In 1929, the last major object standing in the way of complete vertical integration for the company was rubber. Everything else used in the production of Ford automobiles was controlled by ford himself. The rubber necessary for tires, however, had to be procured from a cartel of Dutch and English rubber barons with plantations in East Asia (plantations created from rubber tree seeds smuggled out of Brazil). Ford decided that he needed to counter this cartel with his own rubber plantation. Thus, he purchased a 10 000 km2 chunk of land in Pará, Brazil along the Tapajós, a major tributary of the Amazon River, and set about creating the largest plantation in the world. To house the workers for this plantation, Ford had an American-style company town constructed on the plantation, which would be named Fordlândia.

Fordlandia aerial view, ca. 1933.

A 1933 aerial view of Fordlândia. Source: The Henry Ford, http://www.flickr.com/photos/thehenryford/4327435671/in/set-72157623342733670/. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.

View of employee housing, Fordlandia, ca. 1933.

Employee housing at Fordlândia. Source: The Henry Ford, http://www.flickr.com/photos/thehenryford/4328169356/in/set-72157623342733670. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.

The land was logged, and soon industrial equipment was barged in by steamer to construct the town. Prefabricated white clapboard houses were set in rows along paved streets lit by electric streetlamps. Every amenity and business one would expect in a town back in the midwestern United States (a hospital, a power plant, restaurants, bakeries, shops and services, even a golf course, just to name a few) were to be found in the new town. And the 2 000-to-2 500 plantation workers would be paid US$1.50 per day – a paltry sum compared to Ford’s employees in the US, but far beyond the wage of the average Brazilian at the time (eventually this would come down to around 37 cents per day, but this was still two to three times higher than elsewhere in the region). Much like his automotive plants, Fordlândia would be operated according to Henry Ford’s personal values. Alcohol and tobacco were banned. All workers were obligated to work strict 6 a.m.-to-3 p.m. every weekday, and ID badges were to be worn at all times (the cost of procuring the badges would be deducted from their first paycheque). Even the cafeteria food was the same as would be found in the Ford plants back in Michigan.

The first major mistake made at Fordlândia was the actual planting of rubber. Ford himself came from a background in agriculture (he grew up on a farm and got his start in mechanics as a servicer of industrial steam engines; he would go on to employ plastics derived from soybeans in his automobiles as early as the 1930s), but failed to account for local climatic conditions. He also failed to realise that the local man he had hired to scout out the land to be purchased just happened to be the previous owner, one who was eager to dump his infertile piece of property. Company managers designed the actual plantation rather than trained botanists; a trained botanist would have noted that the natural distribution of rubber trees in the region was seven trees per acre (not nearly enough to grow them on a commercial scale); at Fordlândia, two hundred trees were planted per acre. Packed that closely together, the planted trees became susceptible rather quickly to leaf blight and insect attacks, and died off quickly. With the vegetation dying, there were few plants to hold down the limited topsoil, leaving behind infertile rocky soil. The ruts in the soil created by the machinery as it traversed the plantation filled with water after every storm, leaving stagnant ponds perfect for breeding malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The Amazon might have been the natural home of the rubber tree, but it was not suited to industrial rubber production.

Rubber trees that are 4 1/2 years old, Fordlandia, ca. 1936.

4 ½ year-old rubber trees, 1936. Source: The Henry Ford, http://www.flickr.com/photos/thehenryford/4328168562/in/set-72157623342733670. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.

The second major mistake was trying to force indigenous Brazilian workers to abandon their traditional lifestyles in order to live according to Henry Ford’s idealistic beliefs and values (and, vice versa, forcing American managers and their families to live in unfamiliar, sweltering Amazonian climes). The rigid 6-to-3 workday made little sense in the middle of the moist, oppressive rainforest heat; the indigenous population knew from experience that work was best carried in two sections, dawn and twilight, with a retreat indoors during the middle of the day . The mortality rate among workers was shockingly high; if the heat and exhaustion didn’t get them, the snake bites and dysentery often did. The rigid stance against indulgence backfired, as it merely resulted in workers sneaking away to illicit brothels and merchant boats conveniently located just outside of Ford’s jurisdiction in order to get their fixes of booze, tobacco, and women (as wage labour was not fully entrenched in the region at this time, higher wages were of little incentive to locals used to trading for goods, so much of those wages went right into the brothels and gambling halls). Workers were required to attend company social events featuring unfamiliar activities such as square dances and poetry readings. The foreign American food served in the commissary (whole-wheat bread, brown rice, canned peaches, and oatmeal; the costs of which were all deducted from paycheques) and cafeteria-style service were so unpopular it literally caused a riot in 1930 among the already exasperated workers, forcing managers to flee as the cafeteria was destroyed and plantation equipment was pushed into the river. Workers symbolically smashed all of the time clocks in the plant, a statement against the rigid structure of the plantation. Brazilian soldiers had to be called in to quell the violence, which was one of the few times the Fordlândia project received outside assistance; Brazilian authorities were mostly hesitant about giving aid and advice to a large foreign presence.

Fordlandia time clock, destroyed in the riot of December 1930.

A smashed time clock from the December 1930 riot. Source: The Henry Ford, http://www.flickr.com/photos/thehenryford/4328166940/in/set-72157623342733670. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.

In 1934, the Ford Motor Company would move its rubber operations 50 kilometres downstream to a town on a plateau with superior soil called Belterra in an effort to save the operation, finally bringing in outside consultants and even using grafts from the same East Asian trees it was trying to render obsolete, but never produced more than 750 tons of latex in a single year. Leaf blight struck the trees at Belterra just as it did in Fordlândia. In 17 years of trying, Ford’s exploits in Brazil never produced rubber for a single automobile. Some progress was made at Belterra, but with the advent of synthetic rubber at the end of World War II, the plantation was no longer needed. Ford’s South American experiment having failed miserably, the company finally jettisoned its properties at a loss of US$20 million and gave the land to the Brazilian government, giving up on an experiment that was a failure in both economic and social planning. While rubber never took off, Fordlândia and especially Belterra survive today as agricultural communities where subsistence farmers ply their trades. Many of Fordlândia’s American-style houses remain standing, now encased in vines and home to bat colonies that have covered the insides in guano, while other mill bungalows have enjoyed continuous human occupation.

17b

Ruins of the main plantation building at Fordlândia. Source: G. Otero, http://www.flickr.com/photos/guido_otero/3960059797/. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.


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Belterra, Pará, as it looks today.

In 2009, NYU history professor Greg Grandin wrote an excellent book entitled Fordlandia: the Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (read an excerpt here to whet your appetite). If you’ve got an hour, you can watch Grandin speak on his book on C-SPAN2’s Book TV.If you don’t have an hour, embedded below is a 2009 appearance on Democracy Now!, including some very interesting fantastic colour footage from a 1944 short film on Fordlândia. The Henry Ford also has a black-and-white set of Fordlândia photos from the 1930s you can browse, and this Flickr set looks at the current condition of the town.

Further Reading

Bellows, A. (2006). The Ruins of Fordlândia. Damn Interesting, 3 August 2006. Available at http://www.damninteresting.com/the-ruins-of-fordlandia. Accessed 4 May 2011.

Dean, W. (1987). A jump in the dark, 1923-1940. In Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber, 67-86. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grandin, G. (2009). Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City. New York: Holt and Co.

NPR (2009). Fordlandia: The Failure Of Ford’s Jungle Utopia. All Things Considered, 6 June 2009. Available at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105068620.

Stranger to the World (2011). Fordlandia: Henry Ford’s Ill-Fated Foray Into the Brazilian Jungle. Mental Floss, 24 March 2011. Available at http://www.worldsstrangest.com/mental-floss/fordlandia-henry-ford%E2%80%99s-ill-fated-foray-into-the-brazilian-jungle/. Accessed 4 May 2011.

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