Damn Interesting on the forgotten history of Henry Ford’s surreal Fordlandia, a rubber-plantation-slash-corporate-city in the Amazon where workers would have American values stamped into them, and which was ultimately abandoned at a loss equivalent to $200 million today:
By the late 1920s, automobile tycoon Henry Ford’s hundreds of thousands of new cars needed millions of tires, which were very expensive to produce when buying raw materials from the established rubber lords. To that end, he established Fordlandia, a tiny piece of America which was transplanted into the Amazon rain forest for a single purpose: to create the largest rubber plantation on the planet.
In 1929, Ford purchased a 25,000 square kilometer tract of land along the Amazon river, and immediately began to develop the area.
Scores of Ford employees were relocated to the site, and an American-as-apple-pie community sprung up from what was once a jungle wilderness. It included a power plant, a hospital, a library, a golf course, and rows of white clapboard houses. It grew into a thriving community with Model T Fords frequenting the neatly paved streets.
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 Fordlandia, which was about double the normal rate for that line of work.
Ford’s effort to transplant America– what he called “the healthy lifestyle”– included mandatory “American” lifestyle and values. The plantation’s cafeterias provided only American fare such as hamburgers. Workers were each assigned a number which they had to wear on a badge– the cost of which was deducted from their first paycheck. Brazilian laborers were also required to attend squeaky-clean American festivities on weekends, such as poetry readings, square-dancing, and English-language sing-alongs.
One of the more jarring cultural differences was Henry Ford’s mini-prohibition. Alcohol was strictly forbidden inside Fordlandia on pain of immediate termination.
While the community struggled along month-to-month with its disgruntled workforce, it was also faced with a rubber dilemma. The tiny saplings weren’t growing at all. The hilly terrain hemorrhaged all of its topsoil, leaving infertile, rocky soil behind. Those trees which were able to survive into arbor adolescence were soon stricken with a leaf blight that ate away the leaves and left the trees stunted and useless.
Workers’ discontent grew as the unproductive months passed. Brazilian workers– accustomed to working before sunrise and after sunset to avoid the heat of the day– were forced to work proper “American” nine-to-five shifts under the hot Amazon sun, using Ford’s assembly-line philosophies.
After about a year, the laborers’ agitation reached a critical mass in the workers’ cafeteria. Members of Fordlandia’s American management fled swiftly to their homes or into the woods, some of them chased by machete-wielding workers. A group of managers scrambled to the docks and boarded the boats there, which they moved to the center of the river and out of reach of the escalating riots.
By the time the Brazilian military arrived three days later, windows were broken and trucks were overturned, but Fordlandia survived. Work resumed shortly, though the rubber situation had not improved.
In 1933, after three years with no appreciable quantity of rubber to show for the investment, Henry Ford was ultimately forced to conclude that the land was simply unequal to the task. Unfortunately no one had paid attention to the fact that the land’s previous owner was a man named Villares– the same man Henry Ford had hired to choose the plantation’s site. Henry Ford had been sold a lame portion of land, and Fordlandia was an unadulterated failure.