Fordlandia — Henry Ford’s Plan to Plop a Slice of Michigan in the Middle of the Amazon Rainforest

Henry Ford, the man who believed he could tame the Amazon. Naturally, that didn't work well.

Henry Ford, the man who believed he could tame the Amazon. Naturally, that didn’t work out too well.

The history of the twentieth century is littered with the husks of grand plans that didn’t quite pan out. Whether it was the plan to dam the Mediterranean or for a weapon to end all war, some plans were flawed from the get go. However, those two plans were only drawn out on paper; no one got around to actually building them, often because the money wasn’t there.

But there were plenty of wacky and ambitious ideas from that time period conceived by men for whom money was not an issue. Henry Ford was one of those men. The man who revolutionized modern life with the assembly line and the first affordable automobile — the Model T — was not one to rest on his laurels. In the late 1920s he turned his sights toward a part of the automotive business often taken for granted–tires. Especially the rubber that made those tires. At the time, the biggest chunk of the necessary material came from the European colonies in Southeast Asia, where rubber trees could be cultivated free from the parasites and pests that plagued them in their native Amazon.

Ford was not content to let this state of affairs continue, however. He envisioned securing a rubber supply for America that was free of European intermediaries. To further this end, he concocted a plan to buy up big plots of land in Brazil and form his own rubber plantation: Fordlandia.

 

Good idea, terrible execution

Fordlandia was not as terrible an idea as, say, building a giant orbital death ray. It was actually a pretty good idea; securing a rubber supply in South America would allow Ford to import the crucial material at lower costs, not to mention secure it from the vagaries of overseas politics. However, that was about as far as good sense went with the whole scheme.

This was in part because Ford did not only wish to produce rubber; he sought to revolutionize the lives of the workers he employed. Now in America that wasn’t such a bad thing; the jobs that Ford’s company provided gave many people access to a standard of living they would not have otherwise been able to achieve. However, Dearborn, Michigan is an entirely different place than the Amazon rainforest. This didn’t much matter to Ford, who ordered his engineers to design a little slice of Michigan smack in the middle of the rainforest.

This didn’t sit well with the locals who were hired to work the plantation. They found the American style housing deplorable. The boxy homes were close and stuffy in the sweltering jungle heat, and they were not built off the ground like native homes so they wound up infested with insects and other creepy crawlies. They also found the indoor bathrooms disgusting.

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Rubber trees on a plantation in Malaya

Besides the lodging, local workers were upset by the hours they were expected to work. They were accustomed to working early in the morning and late in the evening, to avoid the hottest part of the day. But their new employers expected them to work 6am to 3pm, straight through the most sweltering daylight hours. In addition, they disliked the food provided by their employers. It turns out that a typical American diet differed quite a bit from an Amazonian diet. Workers were plagued with digestive complaints. Another unpopular gastronomic rule involved Ford’s prohibition on alcohol, which was mostly ignored by plantation residents.

There were some perks to the arrangement that kept workers coming in from all parts of the Amazon. The promise of free lodging, steady pay –at double the going rate, no less–and access to top notch healthcare at the Fordlandia hospital drew workers in droves. Regular paid work was rare in the Amazon at the time, but even these benefits did not keep down worker discontent. The Fordlandia plantation was plagued with work stoppages and violence. In one incident, workers rioted when the plantation authorities attempted to introduce cafeteria style meals. It might not sound like a big deal, but being served at a table was a cultural norm. The perceived slight of having to serve themselves food they didn’t particularly care for pushed the workers over the edge. They stormed the cafeteria with machetes in hand, while the Michigan management bolted for the docks. They took to boats and waited out the riot in the middle of the river. Brazilian authorities arrived and quelled the rebellion. More violence broke out when management brought in workers from Barbados, hoping they would be more amenable to Ford’s vision.

With all this trouble, barely any work got done. The crops meant to sustain the community refused to grow in the poor soil. Worse, the rubber trees failed to yield any of their precious sap. In nature, rubber trees grow in clumps interspersed with other tree species. This provides them some defense from the various parasites and diseases that plague them in their native Amazon. Ford ignored the horticulturalists who recommended he mimic nature, and the managers of Fordlandia had the trees planted in tight rows to promote easier harvest. This made sense in Malaya, where the tree had no natural predators, but no in the Amazon. The whole crop was soon infested and worthless. Fordlandia never produced rubber on any appreciable scale.

 

A move up river, and an end to a dream

After years of struggle, Ford finally hired an expert, Dr. James Weir, a plant pathologist, to look into the matter. His survey revealed a more favorable plot of land eighty miles upstream from Fordlandia, A new plantation named Belterra was founded at the site. Fordlandia’s strict regulations were relaxed, and high-yield, disease resistant rubber tree strains were planted there. These reforms made the site much more successful than Fordlandia, and most operations were moved upstream. The new plantation yielded about 750 tons of rubber annually. A great success, but still far short of the 38,000 tons needed to make the venture profitable. Despite the more resistant tree strains, the plants were still falling to leaf blight and fungal infections. When World War II began, Far East rubber supplies were cut off. This should have been a chance for Ford to step into the breach, but problems–from fungus to labor disputes–still plagued the operation.

By the end of the war, the discovery of synthetic rubber and the reopening of the rubber plantations in the Far East both convinced Ford to throw in the towel. Ford gave up his rubber interests in Brazil for a mere $250,000. Belterra is still used to produce small amounts of rubber, and it also acts as a horticultural lab. Fordlandia, on the other hand, has been abandoned. The jungle slowly reclaims its own.

 

Sources:

Dempsey, Mary A. “Fordlandia.” MichiganHistoryMagazine.com. March 4, 2008. Michigan History Online. April 26, 2014 <http://wayback.archive-it.org/418/20080304195857/http://www.michiganhistorymagazine.com/extra/fordlandia/fordlandia.html>

“Ford Motor Company’s Brazilian Rubber Plantations.” TheHenryFord.org. Benson Ford Research Center. April 26, 2014. <https://www.thehenryford.org/research/rubberPlantations.aspx>

“Fordlandia: The Failure of Ford’s Jungle Utopia.” NPR.org. June 6, 2009. NPR. April 26, 2014 <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105068620>