Henry Ford's jungle utopia

Henry Ford
Henry Ford (1863-1947)

The short lifespan of the jungle cities of Fordlandia and Belterra (1928-1945) was provably the biggest and most expensive failure in Henry Ford's life.

Let's review some facts that determined the raise and subsequent decline of them within the span of two decades or so.

Their very existence had a common denominator, the rubber tree (Hevea Brasiliensis).

Although native to the Amazon rainforest, Brazil's monopoly on the rubber industry was broken in 1875, when Henry Wickham -at the service of the British Empire- smuggled 70,000 seeds to England.

They were later shipped off to the British colonies of Ceylon and Malaya where plantations quickly propagated, gradually transforming England into a major player and a fierce competitor.

Henry Ford was determined to break the European dominance, he needed a steady, affordable rubber supply to provide tires to his automotive industry, by then the largest of its kind in US and the world. That marked the birth of Fordlandia in 1928.

After negotiating a deal with the Brazilian Government, the Ford Motor company was given the concession of 10,000 km² (1,000,000 ha) of land on the banks of the Tapajós river (near Santarem) through the newly formed Companhia Ford Industrial do Brasil, tax-free and under the promise of creating local jobs and the share of 9% of the profits generated after 12 years of production.

The plantation quickly evolved into a much bigger project, the attempt to recreate an American city in the jungle and to impose the American way of life to local workers, which failed miserably due to a number of reasons. In fact, by 1945, Ford sold back the land for cents on a dollar, having lost approximately 20 million dollars (estimated in 200 million of today) in this enterprise.

Fordlandia, as well as Belterra later, were equiped with just about every imaginable comfort we could think of at the time, proper housing for management and employees, power house, water purification plant, hospital, dental care, schools, shops, shoe makers, dance hall, swimming pool, movie theater, even a golf course was built at Belterra.

And all that in the middle of the jungle almost a century ago!

To try and impose Midwest puritanism and its lifestyle to locals didn't go well. Food, for starters, was an issue, as workers didn't appreciate hamburgers, brown rice or oatmeal in lieu of their local dishes, so was the prohibition of drinking or smoking even in their own houses. That gave room to the "Island of Innocence", a settlement of bars, clubs and brothels that grew up just a few miles up river.

Working hours weren't the best for jungle climate either. While 9 to 5 was OK for US workers, it didn't apply to the hot and humid jungle weather. Besides, workers didn't appreciate the obligation to clock in and out as their American counterparts.

All this motivated a riot at the end of 1930, when management fled to the jungle for survival and the Army was called in to restore order.

Eventually, Fordlandia, and Belterra later, became model towns, however, they failed at the very core, for their inability to grow a massive rubber tree plantation as envisioned.

Henry Ford's biggest mistake was to employ factory supervisors without knowledge of local agricultural practices instead of proper horticulturalists to lay out the plantation. Rubber trees seem to grow healthier by the number of two or three per acre, not packed together as they were.

By being so close, that accelerated the reproduction of pests such as leaf blight, fungi and caterpillars As a consequence, the first plantation, as well as the second one created some 90 miles downriver, where annihilated by the plague. Fordlandia never took off on its intended direction, and Belterra managed to produce some, however, way below expectations.

By the Second World War, synthetic rubber - that was being experimented since the early 1900s - rapidly evolved into a growing industry due to a partnership between the US Government and rubber companies. By 1945, they were producing 70,000 tons a month.

This was the year when Ford finally trew his towel, and both jungle towns became just another tale of the jungle...


Aerial view of Fordlandia
Aerial view, circa. 1933 - © The Henry Ford

Clearing the jungle at Fordlandia
Workers clearing the jungle, June 18, 1934 - © The Henry Ford

Clearing trees at Fordlandia
Clearing trees, circa 1933 - © The Henry Ford

Logs from clearing Fordlandia
Logs from clearing the jungle, circa 1929 - © The Henry Ford

Young rubber trees
Rubber trees that are 4 1/2 years old, circa 1936- © The Henry Ford

Fordlandia saw mill
Saw mill, circa 1931 - © The Henry Ford

General Electric generator in Fordlandia's powerhouse
General Electric power generator, circa 1933 - © The Henry Ford

Hospital ward
Hospital ward, circa 1931 - © The Henry Ford

School building, Fordlandia, circa 1933
School building, circa 1933 - © The Henry Ford

Belterra school children, ca. 1940
Belterra school children, circa 1940 - © The Henry Ford

1937 Ford stuck in the mud at Fordlandia, ca. 1940
1937 Ford stuck in the mud, circa 1940 - © The Henry Ford

View of employee housing, Fordlandia, circa 1933
View of employee housing, circa 1933 - © The Henry Ford

Fordlandia time clock, destroyed in the riot of December 1930
Time clock, destroyed in the riot of December 1930 - © The Henry Ford

Shoe store at Belterra, Brazil, circa 1938
Shoe store at Belterra, Brazil, circa 1938 - © The Henry Ford

Fordlandia dance hall with movie screen, circa 1933
Fordlandia dance hall with movie screen, circa 1933 - © The Henry Ford

Swimming pool at Fordlandia, circa 1930-1940
Swimming pool, circa 1930-1940 - © The Henry Ford

Dusting nursery plants at Belterra, circa 1938
Dusting nursery plants at Belterra, circa 1938 - © The Henry Ford

Fordlandia today
Fordlandia today - © Guido Otero

If you wish to learn more about this surreal chapter in South American history, there is a nice book written in 2010 by Greg Grandin on the subject. It's named "Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City".

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