Fordlandia

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In the late 1920s, the Ford Motor Company bought up millions of acres of land in Brazil. They loaded boats with machinery and supplies and shipped them deep into the Amazon rainforest. Workers cut down trees and cleared the land, and then they built a rubber plantation in the middle of one of the wildest places on Earth.

Archival Tape:
Ford’s rubber development on the Tapajos River is an enterprise of histrionic proportions. Here, 2 million acres of jungle are being converted into a highly modernized plantation, capable of producing rubber on a large scale.

Roman Mars:
The plan was to harvest the rubber and ship it back to Detroit, where it would be turned into tires and other parts for Ford cars. But Henry Ford wanted this community, which he called Fordlândia, to be more than just a huge plantation. He wanted it to be a kind of industrial utopia. He paid his Brazilian workers good wages, at least for the region, and he tried to build them the kind of place he would have loved to live, which is to say a small Midwestern town, but in the middle of the jungle.

Archival Tape:
Deep in the wilderness, this model community is self-sufficient in every detail. It has its own powerhouse, electric lighting, a telephone system, its own machine shop completely equipped with modern tools, has a laboratory for processing rubber, an ice plant and a fire department.

Roger Weber:
You had a church, you had hospital, you had a power plant, you had a big sawmill.

Roman Mars:
That’s Roger Weber. He’s the host of a podcast called “Mismatch”, and this story is an adaptation of one that recently aired on his show.

Roger Weber:
And so he wanted to create this village for the workers down in Fordlândia. And while it’s easy to look at him as some greedy, imperialist capitalist-

Roman Mars:
Very easy.

Roger Weber:
He actually felt that he could help these people.

Archival Tape:
The company hospital, with the best of modern equipment and excellently staffed, provides free medical aid for the employees. Later an outdoor luncheon is served, followed by tempting delicacies. Then comes the afternoon round of golf, played on the plantation links against a beautiful jungle backdrop. Today the Ford plantation is a successful enterprise, a tribute to skill and science, the new weapons of a 20th century pioneer.

Roman Mars:
But the reality is that Fordlândia was not a successful enterprise, nor was it really a tribute to skill and science. It was a colossal, expensive and tragic mistake, and it took Henry Ford nearly two decades to give up on it.

Greg Grandin:
It’s a parable of arrogance, but the arrogance isn’t that Ford thought he could tame and conquer the Amazon.

Roman Mars:
Historian Greg Grandin.

Greg Grandin:
He had his sights on something actually much bigger. He thought he could tame and conquer capitalism, industrial capitalism.

Roman Mars:
Ford wanted to export his brand of industrial paternalism to the Amazon, pay workers well and provide services so that they stayed healthy, productive, and most importantly, loyal to the company.

Greg Grandin:
And that didn’t happen.

Roman Mars:
In the early 1900’s, a couple of decades before Ford set out to build Fordlândia, a massive shift was underway in the rubber industry. For years, Brazil had been the world’s main supplier of rubber.

Greg Grandin:
Pretty much all of the rubber that went into bicycles, that went into condoms, that went into gaskets, that went into valves, that went into tires, all came from Brazil.

Roman Mars:
And the way rubber was cultivated was very labor-intensive. Rubber tappers would go out into the dense jungle and find rubber trees.

Roger Weber:
They would slash the trees and then they would extract the latex that flowed out of the side of the trees. They would boil, in essence, this milky fluid and turn it into large balls of rubber, which they would then try to sell.

Greg Grandin:
Passing it on this kind of very decentralized chain up until it wound up in warehouses in Manchester or in Detroit, rubber tappers would work part of the year tapping rubber and they’d work part of the year growing other sustenance crops in order to survive.

Roger Weber:
This was the economy that lasted for years in Brazil.

Roman Mars:
But this economy could be brutal for workers at the bottom of the production chain. As rubber plantations grew, they struggled to find enough workers. Some rubber barons started enslaving indigenous people and forcing them to tap trees. Even the workers that were being paid didn’t make very much. The so called latex lords at the top grew enormously wealthy, living in palatial homes in gilded cities and the jungle.

Roman Mars:
This system all started to change because of a British Explorer named Henry Wickham. He’d come to Brazil to seek his fortune in the Amazon. And then in 1876…

Roger Weber:
Henry Wickham managed to steal thousands of rubber plant seeds, and he sent them back to England and eventually they went to the English colonies.

Roman Mars:
There was technically no law at the time preventing the export of the seeds, but Wickham had applied for an export license under false pretenses. He smuggled the tens of thousands of seeds back to England in the hold of a steamship. Each seed was about three quarters of an inch long. His entire seed cash weighed over 1000 pounds, and he may not have known it at the time, but his act of biopiracy would totally transform the rubber trade.

Roman Mars:
From England, Wickham’s rubber seeds traveled to various European colonies like Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. The trees thrived in these warm tropical environments where no blight or bugs had evolved to eat them. Growers set up plantations with rubber trees planted in dense rows, and these new colonial plantations ended up massively outperforming the traditional Brazilian rubber tappers

Roger Weber:
Say around 1910, Brazil had by that year pretty much lost its control over the rubber industry.

Roman Mars:
Meanwhile, the new European rubber barons were talking about setting up a kind of cartel. They now dominated the global rubber trade and they realized that meant they could set its prices, which made a certain American industrialist control freak, extremely nervous.

Roger Weber:
Henry Ford was used to controlling everything.

Greg Grandin:
Well, the Ford motor company in the, in the 1920 is pretty much controlled nearly every raw material that went into the making of a motorcar – the glass, the iron, the wood, the lumber – everything except latex.

Roman Mars:
This looming, European controlled rubber cartel represented a big threat. If rubber prices went up, it could make the tires and gaskets and tubes more expensive. So Ford wanted to create his own rubber supply, but his problem was that rubber doesn’t grow in the US.

Roger Weber:
So not only was Henry Ford vulnerable, but Brazil was vulnerable and that’s why the nation of Brazil basically gave him this huge tract of land about the size of Connecticut to try to start his doomed rubber plantation.

Roman Mars:
Brazil was placing a big bet, but betting on Henry Ford wasn’t the worst idea.

Roger Weber:
You look at a guy like Henry Ford and all he had achieved with the Model T and the $5 a day wage. They’re looking at a real opportunity and who better than Henry Ford to come down there and restore that former glory of controlling the rubber market? It was a boondoggle from the very beginning.

Roman Mars:
The Ford company shipped in supplies on the Tapajos River. They brought in American managers and hired a Brazilian workforce. Then they started clearing the land to build Fordlândia.

Roger Weber:
The jungle, of course, is just a very challenging place.

Roman Mars:
And right away things started to go wrong.

Roger Weber:
You have, for example, the workers who are trying to clear the land, they’d be working out their bare-chested and would be suddenly covered with biting ants and hornets and scorpions. And even worse, they would reach in and suddenly a pit viper would bite them and kill them, so they were dealing with a life and death struggle here.

Roman Mars:
Eventually the workers managed to clear the land and build a town in the middle of the rain forest, and Ford had a very particular vision for this town. He wanted it to feel like these small Midwestern towns he associated with his childhood.

Roger Weber:
He grew up on a farm. He believed that there was a kind of healthy connection between between agriculture and industry. As crazy as that seems, he saw them kind of intermingling and he really brought these boyhood memories of the farm into his adult life, just this nostalgic yearning for a bygone era.

Roman Mars:
This nostalgia was for a very narrow slice of America – small town, mostly white America. That was Ford’s model for Fordlândia even though he was importing it into a very different cultural environment.

Greg Grandin:
When you go to Fordlândia, there’s an uncanniness to it, a familiarity. It doesn’t seem exotic. It seems very recognizable.

Roman Mars:
The company then set up plantation-style rubber fields, lots of trees, densely planted in the style of the colonial rubber tree plantations in Southeast Asia. They started recruiting even more Brazilian workers from the surrounding areas, and a lot of them were excited to work for Ford. Ford was promising something they’d never really had, free healthcare, free education.

Roger Weber:
He wasn’t a guy just running roughshod over that area. He felt he could improve the lives of these workers.

Roman Mars:
And this wasn’t just Ford being benevolent, this was Ford being strategic. Back in the US he discovered that if he paid his workers well and let them work reasonable hours, if he didn’t totally exploit them, in other words, he could dramatically reduce turnover, and that’s what he wanted to do in Brazil.

Roger Weber:
In a sense, they’re trying to apply lessons from the factory to a plantation.

Matt Anderson:
That’s exactly what they’re trying to do.

Roman Mars:
That’s Matt Anderson from the Henry Ford Museum being interviewed by Roger.

Matt Anderson:
Try to run a plantation in South America as though it were a industrial facility here in the Midwest. Bring in the time clocks, have the workers work eight hour shifts, clock on, clock off, serve them cafeteria-style.

Roger Weber:
Why was that part of the world so forbidding to what he was trying to accomplish?

Matt Anderson:
Part of the problems were cultural. People down there were used to living a different way. They were not used to the eight hours a day, sort of factory clock shift, that we’re used to here in the United States, and part of that was with very good reason. The climate there is very different. They’re just 150 miles or so from the equator. Temperatures routinely get well over a hundred degrees during the heat of the day. They were used to going into work in the early morning hours, before the heat really kicked up, taking a break for several hours in the middle of the day and then coming back at the end of the day to finish up. And of course that’s not the way Ford did things. You’d punch in at nine, you’d worked right until five and that was it.

Roman Mars:
Then other problems started to become clear. Back in the States, Ford had created an industrial system where workers can actually afford to buy the products they made, but in the Amazon, there wasn’t really that much to buy.

Greg Grandin:
There was no consumer society within the Amazon, so they didn’t actually need the high wages that Ford was promising. They would work a few weeks or a few months and then they would disappear and they would go back into the jungle to work their plots, to produce their own food, and maybe they’d come back the following year. And this would drive the Ford managers mad. If Ford solved the problem of turnover in Detroit, the problem of turnover in the middle of the Amazon at the Tapajos River just proved insurmountable.

Roman Mars:
The cultural disconnect also went beyond just work culture. Henry Ford had very particular ideas about how society should be arranged and what people should enjoy. For example, he loved square dancing. He met his wife Clara at a square dance.

Roger Weber:
And so he figured, well, we’ve got this big hall down there in Fordlândia and so let’s play some square dancing music.

Matt Anderson:
Surprise. You know, it wasn’t all that popular down there. Who would’ve thought?

Roman Mars:
Ford was also a teetotaler, so even though drinking was legal in Brazil, he prohibited alcohol in Fordlândia.

Roger Weber:
Again, you have Henry Ford trying to impose his will thinking, well, it works for us in America. Although a lot of Americans at the time didn’t think that prohibition worked, but by golly, he was going to make it work in Brazil.

Roman Mars:
It turns out he wasn’t going to make it work in Brazil. Some savvy entrepreneur set up a bar and brothel on a little Island near Fordlândia. They called it “The Island of Innocence”.

Greg Grandin:
And they were technically outside of Ford’s sovereignty and Ford’s control, and they couldn’t do anything to stop it.

Roman Mars:
And then there was the food. Henry Ford was a vegetarian and an early advocate of healthy eating.

Roger Weber:
And so he wanted them to eat whole wheat products and he just felt that this was going to be better for their health. This actually led to a riot.

Roman Mars:
The riot happened in 1930. Workers resented having to eat the exact kind of food that Henry Ford told them to eat. But the other problem was that they’d initially served lunch to the workers restaurant-style with waiters.

Roger Weber:
Well, then somebody got the idea, listen, we have the assembly line up in the United States, so let’s have them eat cafeteria style. It’s more efficient. We can keep track of things. Well, the workers absolutely hated that approach. They felt like they were being treated like cogs in a wheel and suddenly went on a rampage.

Greg Grandin:
And the town was practically destroyed. And one of the first targets where their time clocks.

Roman Mars:
Which they smashed the pieces.

Greg Grandin:
Yes, the managers had to flee. Right? The managers had to flee on boats and until the jungles, right, because of the fury of this uprising. The town was eventually retaken with the help of Brazilian security. And then rather than give up, Ford recommitted and poured even more money into trying to realize this Midwestern ideal.

Roman Mars:
At this point, Ford was only a few years into this Fordlândia experiment, and it wasn’t paying off. But the company just kept pouring money into the rubber plantation. Grandin says there always seemed to be a way to justify the project.

Greg Grandin:
I mean, in the 1920s it was going to be a symbol of what industrial capitalism could bring to the backwater of the Amazon. In the 1930s during the depression, it becomes a symbol of how to survive the downturn.

Roman Mars:
And besides who was going to say no to Henry Ford?

Matt Anderson:
No one really had the gumption, the determination, the bravery, perhaps to challenged Ford on these big decisions because he was a tough fellow. More and more as the years went by, he got set in his ways and that was it. His word was what was going to happen.

Roman Mars:
But Fordlândia was up against insurmountable challenges, more than the time clocks, more than the square dancing, more than the way meals were served. The real problem was bugs, the insects and fungi that were the rubber tree’s natural predators in the Amazon. Ford hadn’t really bothered to learn anything about botany or agronomy before embarking on his Fordlândia experiment. He didn’t trust the experts that could have warned him what he was getting into. In fact, he didn’t trust experts at all.

Roger Weber:
He demeaned the idea of experts sort of slowing the progress of an idea. In his experience. They could go to the factory floor and maybe they had a problem with a widget or a wadget and they would have trial and error, and they would just figure it out. And they didn’t need somebody with a title or an education in some specialty to tell them what to do.

Matt Anderson:
That was part of the problem with this that I think Ford bought into his own kind of invincibility, his own press, if you will, thinking that he could just go down there and take this kind of raw jungle and turn it into an industrial enterprise, a working industrial enterprise. And I think his eyes were bigger than his stomach, so to speak. His ambitions got ahead of his abilities in this case, because he wasn’t willing to listen to the experts, wasn’t willing to bring them on board. He was in far, far too deeply over his head.

Roman Mars:
Problem was that rubber trees had never grown in the Amazon in the way that the Ford company was trying to grow them – in dense plantations with trees planted in tight rows. This growing style might have worked in the Southeast Asian plantations run by Europeans, but that’s because the bugs there hadn’t evolved to eat rubber trees. In Brazil, this density ended up creating an environment where native bugs that fed on rubber trees thrived.

Greg Grandin:
What Ford was basically doing was building a giant incubator in which the bugs and the blight and the fungi that feed off of rubber but was able to grow exponentially because the trees were close together.

Roman Mars:
For example, there were these caterpillars that were very fond of rubber trees.

Greg Grandin:
One of the predators were caterpillars, right? And at first, all of the caterpillars were on the bottom of the leaves. So Fordlândia, the managers would send out battalions of workers to pick the caterpillar, and they even gathered all the caterpillars together in buckets and then pulled them together and then had a huge bonfire. But within a few years, guess what happened? The caterpillars weren’t actually eating the leaves from the bottom, they were eating the leaves from the top, so you couldn’t actually see them. And so, therefore, you couldn’t pick them.

Roman Mars:
Again and again, they replanted the trees only to have them killed off by pests. This went on for years, and then decades.

Roman Mars:
It wasn’t until 1945 that Ford finally decided to shut down Fordlândia. At that point, Henry Ford had turned the company over to his grandson, and Fordlândia with it.

Roger Weber:
And within a few months, he sold it back to the Brazilian government for like $250,000, and then it was over.

Roman Mars:
Henry Ford died a couple of years later and after all the money and time invested, weirdly, he’d never even visited Fordlândia. He’d orchestrated all of it right down to the square dances from his home, thousands of miles away in Michigan.

Matt Anderson:
Part of it may be he was just afraid of going and seeing the failure there in person, so to speak. I mean, he certainly was reading the reports and the memos, knew what was happening or what wasn’t happening in Fordlândia, so perhaps he didn’t want to reckon with it personally.

Roman Mars:
Fordlândia is still a town today, and although a lot of the old buildings are now falling down, people continue to live there. Historian Greg Grandin has visited twice. That’s two times more than Henry Ford ever did, for those of you keeping count. Grandin made the day and a half long trip up the Tapajos River by boat.

Matt Anderson:
You just turn and you just come around a bank and then all of a sudden you see this enormous water tank. And back in the day, the word Ford was written on the water tank, and you could see the outlines of what was Fordlândia is still there. It’s now a regular town. Brazilians have moved in and taken over all of the houses, but you still get a sense of what it looked like in the 1920s and 1930s.

Ana Rita Souza:
My house is very close. From my house we can see the water tower. (via interpreter)

Roman Mars:
That’s Ana Rita Souza. And she’s lived in Fordlândia since 2009.

Ana Rita Souza:
It’s less than a kilometer. We can see it. The water tower is beautiful. It’s historic. It’s a wonderful thing to see. (via interpreter)

Roman Mars:
There aren’t many jobs left in the area for the 2,000 inhabitants of Fordlândia. Most of the economy in the region now revolves around industrial soybean production and cattle ranches. There’s a little bit of tourism too, which people like Sosa counts on. She works at a hotel in town.

Ana Rita Souza:
We receive people from all countries. They search for the history. They are curious to see in person this history, what is left. There are few things, yet. They come to see the village, the big houses, the school, the cemetery, the hospital. (via interpreter)

Roman Mars:
People come to see what’s left of Ford’s crazy vision, the American-style town in the middle of the Brazilian jungle, the culturally insensitive and paternalistic boondoggle, that for all its faults, still created good-paying jobs for its workers.

Ana Rita Souza:
Henry Ford was very audacious at the time to invest a fortune in Brazil, in a foreign land. I think is very interesting, audacious. Americans are very like this. It was cool he did that. At the time, he created a lot of jobs for Brazilians. People from all over Brazil migrated to here looking for a job. (via interpreter)

Roman Mars:
Souza wasn’t there to see all the ways Fordlândia went wrong. For her, the history represents a time when this sleepy town was the focus of a massive experiment by a world famous industrialist. Now with its crumbling old buildings, Fordlândia is a different kind of lost civilization than you’d expect to find in the middle of the Amazon. A Midwest fantasy land, returning to the jungle.

Comments (6)

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  1. Hello! When I saw the episode title populate in my podcast feed, I was excited by the opportunity to pair a story on Ford’s namesake utopia with an accompany album by the same title. I would bet 99pi listeners would appreciate the late composer (just passed away last month, way too soon) Johann Johannsson’s album Fordlandia. Listeners can find it on the usual services (Apple, Spotify, etc.)…

  2. hazy

    Ugh. Even a professor of constitutional law deifies the constitutional framers saying the open endedness was “genius”. It wasn’t genius. It was lazy and easy for the time. That sort of open endedness cannot work in today’s world. Legal “fuzziness” is not genius. Liberals have to start realizing that “founding fathers” would be considered stupid, greedy and racist if compared to today’s legal scholars and human rights activists.

  3. lindsey

    I am a citizen of the Metropolitan Detroit area and heard of this story on WDIV- so excited that my favorite podcast decided to cover it! There are a lot of Ford workers today from Brazil living in the Detroit area. I know many automative companies outsource, but I even wonder if they are aware of it.

    It’s also nice to hear of what an eccentric and stubborn man Ford was. Around this area, he is praised. This story presents another dimension of Henry Ford.

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