In the early 20th century, a cartel of Dutch and English rubber barons had a stranglehold on the world’s supply of rubber. At that time the sole source of rubber was the South American tree Hevea brasiliensis, whose sap is natural latex. In the 1870s a gaggle of entrepreneurial smugglers had secreted a stash of wild rubber tree seeds out of the Amazon rain forest, which they used to establish sprawling plantations in East Asia. these outpaced the output of Brazil, eventually causing their owners to enjoy the majority of the worlds rubber business.
But by the late 1920s, the infamous automobile tycoon Henry Ford set out to break the back of this rubbery monopoly. His hundreds of thousands of new cars needed millions of tires, which were very expensive to produce when buying raw materials from established rubber lords. To that end, he established Fordlandia, a tiny piece of America that was transplanted into the Amazon rain forest for a single purpose; to create the largest rubber plantation on the planet. Though enormously ambitious, the project was ultimately a fantastic failure.
In 1929, Ford hired a native Brazilian named Villares to survey the Amazon for a suitable location to host the massive undertaking. Brazil seemed like the ideal choice, considering that the trees in question were native to the region and the rubber harvest could be shipped to the tire factories in the U.S. by land rather than sea. On Villares’ advice, Ford purchased a 25,000-square-kilometer tract of land along the Amazon River and immediately began to develop the area. Workers started erecting a rubber-processing plant as the surrounding area was razed of vegetation.
Scores of Ford employees were relocated to the site, and over the first few months an American-as-apple-pie community sprang up from what was once a jungle wilderness. It included a power plant, modern hospital, library, golf course, hotel, and rows of white clapboard houses with wicker patio furniture. As the town’s population grew, all manner of businesses followed, including tailors, shops, bakeries, butcher shops, restaurants, and shoemakers. It grew into a thriving community with Model-T Fords frequenting the neatly paved roads.
Outside of the residential area, long rows of freshly planted saplings soon dotted the landscape. Ford chose not to employ any botanists in the development of Fordlandia’s rubber tree fields, instead relying on the cleverness of company engineers. Having no prior knowledge of rubber-raising, the engineers made their best guesses and planted about 200 trees per acre. The plantations of East Asia were packed with flourishing trees, so it seemed reasonable to assume that the trees’ native land would be just as accommodating.
Henry Ford’s miniature America in the jungle attracted a slew of workers. Local laborers were offered a wage of 37 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 was not limited to American-style buildings – it also included mandatory “American” lifestyle and values. The plantation’s cafeterias were self-serve, which was not the local custom, and they provided only American fare, such as hamburgers. Brazilian laborers had to live in American-style houses and they were 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, even within the workers’ homes. This led some industrious locals to establish businesses-of-ill-repute beyond the outskirts of town, allowing workers to exchange their generous pay for the comforts of rum and women.
While the community struggled along month to month with its digruntled 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. the few trees that 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. Ford’s managers battled the fungus heroically, but they were not armed with the necessary knowledge of horticulture.
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. In addition, malaria became a serious problem owing to the hilly terrain’s tendency to pool water, providing the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes.
In December 1930, after about a year of working in a harsh environment with a strict and disagreeable “healthy lifestyle,” the laborers’ agitation reached a critical mass in the workers’ cafeteria. Having suffered one too many episodes of indigestion and degradation, a Brazilian man stood and shouted that he would no longer tolerate the conditions. A chorus of voices joined his, and the cacophony was soon joined by an orchestra of banging cups and shattering dishes. 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.
Bt the time the Brazilian military arrived three days later, the rioters had spent most of their anger. Windows were broken and trucks overturned, but Fordlandia survived. Work resumed shortly, though the rubber situation did not improve. A British journalist writing for the Indian Rubber Journal visited in 1931 and wrote, “In a long history of tropical agriculture, never has such a vast scheme been entered in such a lavish manner, and with so little to show for the money. Mr. Ford’s scheme is doomed to failure.”
The intervening months offered little evidence to counter the journalist’s grim depiction. In 1933, after three years with no appreciable quantity of rubber to show for the investment, Henry Ford finally hired a botanist to assess the situation. The botanist tried to coax some fertile rubber trees from the pitiful soil, but he was ultimately forced to conclude that the land was simply unequal to the task. The damp, hilly terrain was terrible for the trees but excellent for the blight. Unfortunately no one had paid attention to the fact that the land’s previous owner was a man named Villares – the same man Ford had hired to choose the plantation’s site. It seems Henry Ford had been sold a lame portion of land.
Never one to surrender to circumstance, Ford purchased a new tract of land 50 miles downstream, establishing the town of Belterra. It was more flat and less damp, making it much more suitable for the finicky rubber trees. He also imported some grafts from the East Asian plantations, where the trees had been bred for resistance to the leaf blight. For ten years Ford’s workers labored to transform soil into rubber, yielding a peak output of 750 tons of latex in 1942, far short of that year’s goal of 38,000 tons.
Ford’s perseverance might have 3eventually paid off if it were not for the fact that scientists developed economical synthetic rubber just as Belterra was establishing itself. In 1945, Ford retired from the rubbering trade, having lost more than $20 million in Brazil without ever having set foot there. A company press release announced the abandonment of Belterra with a bland epitaph: “Our war experience has taught us that synthetic rubber is superior to natural rubber for certain of our products.” The Ford Motor Company sold the land back to the Brazilian government for $250,000 – a token sum.
Henry Ford’s losses in Fordlandia and Belterra were equivalent to $200 million in modern dollars. Certainly he was unable to buy his way into rubber royalty, and his efforts to spread his American “healthy lifestyle” were met with resentment and hostility . . . but history has repeatedly shown that obscene wealth gives one the privilege, perhaps even the obligation, to make bizarre and astonishing mistakes on a grand scale. From that perspective, Fordlandia could not have been more successful.