Fordlandia: utopian industrial dream in the Amazon

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Ninety years ago the American car magnate Henry Ford created a town in the Amazon jungle in order to secure a supply of rubber for his vehicles' tyres. Today it is just a ghost town, another example of the hubris so commonly associated with this region of the world. Mediapart's Thomas Cantaloube reports from Brazil on whether the lessons of that failed venture have truly been learned.

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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.

A fire hydant imported from the United States. © Thomas Cantaloube A fire hydant imported from the United States. © Thomas Cantaloube
In the 1920s the rubber boom was just a distant memory in this part of Amazonian Brazil, an area which had greatly benefited from it at the end of the 19th century. The so-called 'Paris of the Jungle', the city of Manaus, had an abandoned feel as did its opera house where no arias had rung out since 1924. The blame for this lay at the door of the British and one of the first acts of bio-piracy in the world. The Hevea brasiliensis, the tree which produces a whitish latex which can be transformed into a flexible, elastic substance, had been known to the West since the time of the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors. They watched indigenous people playing with balls fashioned from the latex. But its utility was only apparent after Charles Goodyear invented the process of vulcanization in 1839. That enabled the tree's latex to be transformed into one of the essential elements of the industrial revolution: rubber.

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...

Abandoned: one of the old Fordlandia warehouses. © Thomas Cantaloube Abandoned: one of the old Fordlandia warehouses. © Thomas Cantaloube

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