Henry Ford's Failed Utopia
Ruins of Fordlandia. Source: (gettyimages.com)
In the early 20th century, British plantations in Sri Lanka had cornered the rubber market. This, curiously enough, propelled the automobile innovator and magnate Henry Ford to attempt to establish a settlement in the Amazon. This plantation, called Fordlandia, was based on Ford’s vision of the American dream and his conviction that those principles that made the Ford Motor Company such a success would create a utopian model for all societies.
Spoiler: It was an utter failure.
The Ford Motor Company produced millions of cars and each of those cars needed rubber tires. This was driving up the costs of his new Model A which went into production in 1927. To reduce the expense, Ford decided that his company would do much better by producing its own rubber. He decided that the best way to do this was to establish a plantation in South America.
By 1927, Ford negotiated a deal with the Brazilian government and was given a 5,625 square mile area of land along the Amazon River. In this way, Ford could bypass the British rubber monopoly. He was given carte blanche on how to run his plantation. The economics were logical, but Ford also had a larger vision.
Ford had experience on a smaller scale of setting up logging settlements in northern Michigan complete with amenities such as churches and schools. He believed that he could do this at Fordlandia but with more ambitious expectations. His workers cleared large tracts of land and built American style homes and other facilities such as a hospital, power plant, library, and a golf course.
Ford’s goal was to create an ideal town supporting the rubber factory where workers earned a good wage. Simultaneously, these workers were taught the value of thrift, hygiene, good nutrition, and self-reliance. A diplomat at the time stated, “Mr. Ford considers the project as a ‘work of civilization.’” Ford employees relocated to the site and many more local workers joined Ford at 37 cents a day, which was double what they were otherwise earning. For a short few months, Fordlandia almost seemed to be a transplant of an idyllic American community in the middle of the Amazon. But even in the beginning, there were issues. The Brazilians and Americans lived in segregated areas, with the American workers living in the Vila Americana which was the only area in Fordlandia that had running water.
Things Fall Apart
Ford (who never once visited Fordlandia) was intent on forcing his vision of a “healthy lifestyle” upon his workers whether they liked it or not. Dining halls featured only American food such as hamburgers, oatmeal, and canned peaches, much to the disgust of the Brazilians. Workers were forced to live in the American-style homes which with their asbestos ceilings turned into ovens in the South American heat. Local workers were forced to attend weekend improvement events such as poetry readings and singalongs (in English). Alcohol was forbidden in people’s homes.
Ford attempted to track all workers through punch-in clocks. This went against the grain of local workers who were unaccustomed to such things as they were forced to work in accordance with a schedule that did not take into account local conditions.
Violations of these rules meant termination.
Equally vexing was that the plantation was not producing the latex expected. The rubber trees were too closely planted together and the clear-cut ground infertile. With Fordlandia operating at a loss, management of Ford’s plantation quickly turned over from manager to manager.
Then on December 20, 1930, the frustrated Brazilian workers staged a mutiny over the food. The company decided to try to cut costs by switching the waiter service at the communal dining hall (which all workers were forced to eat at) to a disorganized self-service cafeteria. A heated argument between a worker and a manager grew into a riot.
Workers wrecked the dining hall then spread out over the plantation vandalizing buildings, homes, wrecking vehicles, and causing mayhem. American managers were chased into the jungle.
The situation was eventually resolved through some assistance from Brazil. After this, new management came into play which improved conditions. They still tried to impose the rules (though the prohibition on alcohol was notoriously hard to enforce), but the plantation was simply losing too much money. The conditions and methods of rubber tree growth were not satisfactory.
The company attempted to start a new plantation at another site within the territory called Belterra in 1936. By then, synthetic rubber was on the ascent and eventually any economic justification for Fordlandia vanished. The plantation managed to hold on until 1945 when Henry Ford II sold the land back to the Brazilian government at a heavy loss.
Today, the ruins of Fordlandia are still available for those who wish to see this curious and failed experiment.