Henry Ford’s Tropical Folly

November 2, 2009

Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin (Metropolitan Books, 2009), 432 pp., $27.50 paperback

In the late 1920s and 1930s, a piece of small-town America took shape on the banks of a great jungle river in Brazil. Streets with names like Hillside and Riverside traversed a plot of land overlooking the muddy Rio Tapajós. There was a Main Street, a schoolhouse, a hospital, a “nature park” (created from a leftover scrap of jungle), two swimming pools, and a nine-hole golf course.

The settlement, deep in the Brazilian rainforest, was called Fordlandia, after the visionary U.S. industrialist who directed its creation: Henry Ford. He was a man known among his contemporaries not only for his genius and market dominance but for his wide-ranging eccentricities. But Ford’s attempt to re-create a midwestern town in Amazonia might rank as his oddest and most improbable quest. The story of Ford’s tropical folly is told in brisk prose and often fascinating detail by Greg Grandin, a professor of Latin American history at New York University and a member of NACLA’s editorial committee.

Ford’s pretext for establishing Fordlandia was rubber, needed not only for car tires, but also for countless car parts and industrial tools. At the time, Dutch and English colonies in Asia dominated world rubber production. Ford and other industrialists of the time, like Harvey Firestone, decided to break the European monopoly. Firestone created a rubber plantation in Liberia, while Ford chose Brazil, a characteristically arrogant and impractical choice. Growing rubber on a large scale in Brazil would entail, essentially, turning back the clock. Rubber production had shifted to Asia, and to some extent Africa, because the tree didn’t suffer from diseases and pests on those continents. In South America, native pests like leaf blight, the lace bug, and sphinx caterpillars had evolved alongside wild rubber trees, making plantation-style cultivation nearly impossible. That’s why Brazil had swung from a late-19th-century rubber boom to lowly status as a has-been latex power in the course of only a few years.

Ford was sure he could bring the rubber boom times back. In the company’s heyday Ford men were known for their can-do arrogance. They believed the company capable of anything and applied their assembly-line methods to a variety of endeavors. They built airplanes, tractors, cars; they milled wood, built power stations, operated cargo ships, founded towns, and mined coal; they damned rivers, laid railroad ties, and shilled their model-Ts and model-As all over the world.

The Ford name was already well-entrenched in South America by the late 1920s. The company had begun producing cars in Buenos Aires in 1917 and São Paulo in 1920. In the grand Ford Motor Company order of things, a single rubber plantation in Brazil didn’t seem an outsize goal, even if the allotment for Fordlandia was nearly the size of Connecticut. Amazonia’s reputation for impenetrability didn’t intimidate them either. Instead, it fired Ford men’s imaginations. “Generations of little men have nibbled, like mice, at the edges of the Amazonia,” wrote William Schurz, Washington’s commercial attaché in Rio, as he lobbied Ford to commit to the Brazilian adventure. Ford, Schurz urged, could be a trailblazer, bringing modernity to the whole jungle.

Utopian ideas quickly came to dominate plans for Fordlandia. Ford would deliver what Brazil’s rainforest had never seen: real civilization. Not the boom-and-bust, oligarchy-controlled veneer of the traditional wild rubber economy. Rather, Ford would remake the jungle, rescuing the region’s mixed-race rubber-tapping caboclos from bondage to local big-men. His enterprise would transform them into healthy, prosperous, educated wage earners who on weekends would attend booze-free square dances. Ford had attempted similar social experiments in Iron Mountain and Pequaming, logging towns he founded or purchased in Michigan’s water-bounded Upper Peninsula. Ford doted on these towns, as he would from a distance on Fordlandia, viewing each as a test tube for his idea that semi-bucolic agro-industrial towns could counterbalance the excesses of urban capitalism. Even as Ford enforced ruthless speedups and unleashed a kind of internal secret police on his Michigan factory workers, he poured millions of dollars into the model towns.

As the U.S. consul in Belém, a city at the mouth of the Amazon River, says in the book, Ford’s utopianism was “the only theory” that could explain his loyalty to the expensive, unprofitable rubber plantation alongside the Tapajós River. And to a surprising extent, Ford’s dreams for his Brazilian outpost did materialize. Part of the charm of Grandin’s book is that he puts as much gusto into describing Fordlandia’s concrete achievements as he does its many farcical failures. Not one, but two U.S.-style towns, Fordlandia and Belterra, were eventually built on the Tapajós, complete with Swiss- and Cape Cod–style cottages. The rubber trees remained stubborn and never produced as much as the company hoped. But a web of modern infrastructure—sewage plants, plumbing, hospitals, and schools—delivered services to formerly destitute laborers.

Eventually, Ford’s Amazonian venture faded. The company dispensed with Fordlandia after World War II, as the once sprawling company reorganized into a leaner enterprise. Ford’s jungle outposts became wards of the Brazilian government, and were adopted and quickly orphaned by a string of federal agencies.

Grandin made two visits to Ford’s cidades fantasmas, or ghost towns, in the course of researching his book. In one passage Grandin describes the ruins of the once immaculate Fordlandia hospital designed by Albert Kahn, the industrial architect responsible for Henry Ford’s two monumental Michigan factories, Highland Park and River Rouge. The passage reads as if the hospital froze in time as soon as the last Ford employee left in the 1940s:

Most of the beds are gone, but some equipment, made of metal and glass that today looks menacing but in the 1930s was state of the art, remains. In the sterilization room there’s a large apparatus that suggest a front-loaded washing machine, and the gynecology room still has its examination table. The surgery and X-ray rooms are bare, but the laboratory has some bottles and test-tubes lying around and the records of the hospital’s last statements strewn on the floor.

It’s an unforgettable image: the debris of early U.S. industrial optimism, wilting in a faraway jungle some seven decades later.

If Grandin’s book has any weakness, it is organization. Grandin uses a loose thematic approach to his chapters, instead of arranging them chronologically. He is often forced to double back on himself, leading to repetitions and a confused timeline. For example, Grandin arrives at the important topic of the Great Depression and its impact on Fordlandia more than halfway through the book. But he has already jumped ahead in previous chapters, describing the evolution of Fordlandia through the end of 1929 and a workers’ riot that nearly destroyed Fordlandia in late 1930. Grandin tells us the Great Depression was late to arrive in northern Brazil, but it’s confusing to learn of its dramatic effects on the Ford Motor Company at this point, when so much territory has already been covered. Then, in later chapters, we learn details about rubber cultivation and company history that pre-date the Depression, as well as the Fordlandia workers’ riot, which may have been more useful earlier.

There’s no doubt the real turning point for Fordlandia was not the Great Depression, but the 1930 riot. Grandin, here as elsewhere, marshals his historical research expertly to construct a terrific story. The riot began when Ford managers tried to institute a new cafeteria-style serving regimen at the dining hall, to replace the usual system in which a team of waiters served the dishes. The line backed up, and in the heat, the workers grew angry. One of the workers, 35-year-old Manuel Caetano de Jesus, confronted the Ford man, Kaj Ostenfeld, charged with implementing the cafeteria plan. Their heated exchange, during which de Jesus took off his identification badge and handed it to Ostenfeld, drew a crowd. Ostenfeld laughed, and his dismissive attitude infuriated the onlookers. Later, Ostenfeld would testify that at this point de Jesus turned to his fellow workers and said, “I have done everything for you. Now you can do the rest.” It was as if someone had put a “match to gasoline,” Ostenfeld said. Workers began breaking plates, glasses and cafeteria chairs to bits.

The real reason for the disturbance was the workers’ frustration with the company’s regimented culture. Fordlandia’s management had intermittently clamped down on prostitution and alcohol, and it required unmarried men to dine in a common mess hall. It had also waged intrusive sanitation campaigns and health checks. As one worker complained, “The Americans suppose we are all full of worms.” The workers were forced to use ID badges and driven hard by monolingual U.S. foremen. Eventually, their collective reservoir of frustration spills over.

Once the riot got going, the U.S. staff fled, first to their exclusive compound and then to river craft set aside for such an emergency. Unleashed, the workers torched and smashed everything they could: the dining hall, residences, cars, tractors, the machine shop, and company records. Special targets of their wrath were the company time clocks. Workers had previously been accustomed to sitting out the hottest part of the day, or downpours, and calibrating work according to the wet and dry seasons. In Fordlandia, they were required to stay on the clock, no matter what.

The workers ultimately failed to gain any concessions from the notoriously anti-labor company. Their riot was defused with the help of Juan Trippe, the powerful CEO of Pan Am, who loaned Fordlandia execs a few airplanes to fly a detachment of Brazilian soldiers to the worker-occupied plantation on Christmas Eve. The workers were persuaded to give up their weapons and eventually received paychecks through December 22, the day of the riot. Then they were fired.

Thus began the second phase of Fordlandia, in which the company would correct some of the mistakes it had made in the past. Plantation management under Archibald Johnston—a Scotsman nicknamed the “White Tiger” by Brazilians impressed by his jungle-readiness—made more of an effort to adapt to local conditions, with one fundamental exception. James Weir, an expert plant pathologist hired to make rubber thrive at Fordlandia, recommended techniques transplanted unchanged from virtually pest-free Sumatra. The pathologist’s advice was followed closely by Ford headquarters, over Johnston’s frequent objections that Weir’s strategy made no sense in Brazil. “One does not have to be an expert,” Johnston wisely remarked at one point, “to know that a standard practice in one country can be detrimental to good practice in another.”

The results of the Asia-influenced approach were predictable: failure after failure. An expensive and time-consuming transfer of rubber cultivation away from Fordlandia and to a new down-river plantation, Belterra, didn’t help much. Even armies of workers laboriously handpicking caterpillars off trees didn’t succeed in coaxing the rubber to flow.

In the late 1930s, once Weir quit, a Fordlandia-developed technique called top grafting managed to yield some significant results, but never enough to make the venture worthwhile. Anyway, by then it was almost beside the point. Ford was retreating into his late-life obsession with artifacts of the pre-industrial United States (toys, furniture, even whole historical buildings, like the home of Walt Whitman, taken apart and shipped to Michigan for reassembly). Ford brought these artifacts together at a massive open-air museum called Greenfield Village, and gradually distanced himself from day-to-day management of Ford business.

Meanwhile, Ford’s company was beset by labor unrest, violently repressed by the thuggish mafia-linked enforcer Harry Bennett. Nudged by his wife and son, Ford eventually gave in and signed a union contract. Later, Ford Motor became a virtual extension of the U.S. military, devoted to manufacturing for the 1940s war effort. The company’s postwar reorganization ended its “classic” era as a multi-product industrial behemoth. Fixers brought in to streamline the company cut Fordlandia from the budget, and it was handed over to the Brazilian government.

Grandin does an expert job of tying Fordlandia’s legacy to the Amazon Basin’s current woes. Like Ford’s misbegotten experiment, the Brazilian government’s half-baked industrialization (centered on a maquiladora-style factories), urbanization, and road-building schemes obliterate the fragile rainforest without laying the groundwork for long-term economic success. Today, on the southern fringes of Amazonia, the agribusiness soybean frontier is gobbling up ever larger chunks of jungle, including swaths of what was once Fordlandia.

The book’s final judgment on Fordlandia might apply to all the shortsighted market approaches to Amazonian development that succeeded it. “Fordlandia is indeed a parable of arrogance,” Grandin writes. “The arrogance, though, is not that Henry Ford thought that he could tame the Amazon but that he believed the forces of capitalism, once released, could still be contained.”

For generations, South American governments, international lenders, major corporations, and international nongovernmental organizations have naively believed massive development works motivated by for-export interests will somehow lead to a healthy rainforest and prosperity for its inhabitants. It already seems clear that this model has failed. The rainforest continues to shrink, the region’s residents don’t get any richer, and jungle cities like Manaus spread in an inkblot pattern of slums.

Who will put the genie back in the bottle for Amazonia?

Marcelo Ballvé is a contributing editor for New America Media, where he covers immigration and Latin America. He is a 2009 fellow at the Writers’ Institute at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York.


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