In 1927, Henry Ford was the richest man in the world. The Brazilian rubber industry was booming as a result of the industrial revolution and rubber prices had begun to rise. As the Ford Motor Company relied heavily on rubber tree plantations the decision was made to break the Brazilian rubber monopoly by building a factory smack in the middle of the Amazon forest. Due to a sudden rise in rubber production in East Asia which undercut Brazil’s export, the Brazilian government decided to allow the Ford Motor Company to settle, without charging tax, as long as Ford promised to create local jobs and share a chunk (9%) of the profits.
This then had all the makings of a fruitful relationship between the Brazilian government and the thriving Ford Motor Company at the expense of the established tire manufactures. The clearing of the US-style factory town known as Fordlândia began in 1921 and attempted to replicate many features of a regular American town including ice-cream stores, hotels, a power plant, a golf course, and Model Ts rolling down main streets – an American utopia. The inhabitants included mostly Americans who had taken up management roles at the factory while local workers stayed in predictably less comfortable abodes. Unfortunately, there were a number of unforeseen problems that arose quite early on in the project.
For one, the Brazilian workers did not buy into the American way of life, including adapting timetables and an American cuisine featuring hamburgers in lieu of their local dishes. Clashes reached their climax in 1930 when a riot chased management into the jungle until the Brazilian military was called to restore order. Unfortunately there wasn’t all that much work to hold up as the American delegation managing the project quickly realized that clearing the trees for the factory town and plantation had removed the thin layer of fertile soil preventing young seedlings from sprouting. A further lack of local agricultural understanding saw the trees being planted too close together and fall prey to insects and disease. Set back after set back, Fordlândia never quite managed to take off in the intended direction. Yet for the next several years production carried on at a steady pace. It wasn’t until the invention of synthetic rubber as a replacement for natural rubber during WWII that the final nail had been hammered in Fordlândia’s coffin.
The land, twice the size of Delaware at 10,000 square kms, was eventually sold back to the Brazilian government in 1945 for cents on the dollar with the aim of turning it into a nationally owned factory. Those plans never materialized and now the Henry Ford ghost town stands as an ornament of ambitious American capitalism – for tourists.
For those of you further interested in Fordlandia, you can find the award winning book called “Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City” written in 2010 by Greg Grandin on Amazon.com.