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).
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...
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".