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Revisiting Fordlandia, Ford's failed venture into the Amazon

Jun 11, 2015

An abandoned water tower in Fordlandia.
Credit Amit Evron / Wikipedia

It’s a little-known chapter in the history of the Ford Motor Company.

And all that’s left today are ruins and a ghost town deep in the Amazon rainforest.

Matt Anderson tells us the story of Henry Ford’s great “social and business experiment” nearly a century ago, in Brazil. He’s the curator of transportation for The Henry Ford Research Center.

A hundred years ago, the British and Dutch controlled the world’s rubber production. The rubber tree was native to the Amazon, and the English took seedlings from Brazil to Southeast Asia for mass production.

Henry Ford, thinking how nice it would be to be self-sufficient, created Fordlandia in 1927.

He purchased land near the banks of Rio Topajos, a tributary of the Amazon, and created a company town similar to Dearborn. Anderson says Ford built houses, provided electricity, a cafeteria, entertainment, and amenities.

He paid workers 35 cents a day – 10 cents higher than the Brits were paying their rubber plantation workers.

With free housing, free medical care, free shelter, the expertise of Ford Motor Company, how could Fordlandia fail?

One of Ford’s biggest flaws, says Anderson, was that he never cared much for experts. Instead of consulting experts in the growing of rubber, or botany of any kind, Henry Ford instead relied on his own plant managers.

That didn't work out so well. Incessant rain washed away the topsoil, and it took Ford's plant operators a while to figure out they had to terrace the land to keep the topsoil in place.

They also planted the trees too closely, which led to problems with fungus.

Rioting destroyed the plant, and the locals made a point of damaging Ford vehicles.

And the problems extended beyond the rubber trees themselves. Imposing Ford's own Midwestern values and lifestyle on the community didn’t jibe with Brazilians in the rain forest. 

Among other things, they didn’t like the 9-to-5 workday. They preferred working in the early hours of the morning and late evenings to escape the heat of the day.

Soon enough, the workers rebelled. Rioting destroyed the plant, and the locals made a point of damaging Ford vehicles. 

But Henry Ford didn't give up easily. He started a second plantation called Belterra about 80 miles away. This time, Ford did bring in experts, and made an effort to accommodate Brazilians' lifestyle. Belterra even  managed to start producing rubber, but still not enough for production.

Ford pulled out of Brazil in 1945, after spending $20 million on his operations. Eventually, the plant was sold for $250,000.