It would be hard to imagine a more perfect metaphor for the ultimate fate of lofty dreams about the Amazon than Fordlandia. Even in this era of the internet and when outboard engines can be bought on credit at household appliance stores, this small town sleeping on the banks of the river Tapajos in Brazil seems to revel in its remoteness from the rest of the world. Yet this was supposed to have become a showcase of Western industry, in one of those displays of hubris that generally end badly.
Fordlandia is today two towns in one. There is the one where 2,000 local people live in wooden shacks, with the familiar sight of washing lines and mopeds. And then there is the deserted town that was devised by the early 20th century American car magnate Henry Ford, with its vast warehouses, its abandoned machine tools, an empty brick hospital, American-style houses along concrete pavements and a distinctive hilltop water tower which overlooks the landscape like a desolate sphinx.
It took someone like Henry Ford to come up with such an idea and also to be able to fail in such a way that no one, or almost no one, one realised it. Thus another Amazonian legend was born.
As its name indicates, this tree comes from Brazil and more specifically the Amazon. The Brazilians were sitting on a goldmine and made the most of it, taking care to preserve this source of wealth by placing severe restrictions on the export of seeds from the trees. This annoyed the British who, after several failed attempts, made off with 70,000 seeds in 1876 thanks to explorer Henry Wickham. The seeds were taken to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in south-west London, where they were planted and then transported to Britain's Asian colonies, notably Malaysia and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) where the trees flourished. Asian rubber is of higher quality and easier to grow, and Brazil's source of great wealth had collapsed.
But the American Henry Ford, inventor of the Model T Ford and after whom the term 'Fordism' is named, did not appreciate the British having control of what was a precious commodity for the motor trade. So he decided to return to the original source of rubber and create his own plantation on the banks of the Tapajos, where the Brazilian government happily sold him land. In 1928 the first barges loaded with machines and American engineers arrived to found a town that could only have one name: 'Fordlandia'.
For this was not simply about planting and cropping trees but also, in the words of one American diplomat linked with the project, about carrying out a “work of civilisation”. After two years the town emerged from the forest: with a hospital, school, water tower, an auditorium, an electric generator, street lights, industrial buildings, a residential district for American executives (with running water) and maisonettes for the Brazilian workers (with water from wells). Alcohol and prostitution were banned, even though employees only had to paddle 8km upstream to get to what was called the 'Island of Innocence' with its bars and brothels.
Everything would have been just fine in this little corner of the United States if only there had been rubber...