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The Strange Story of Ford’s Failed Amazon Utopia

Obsession can be a strange beast. It can drive us to new heights and push us past limits we never knew we had, or conversely destroy us and dash our dreams upon the rocks of despondency and failure. Yet, the thing with obsession is we drive on through it, blind to common sense and reason and relentlessly pushing ever forward towards some unobtainable image or goal lodged within our psyche. Such was the case of one of the most innovative and enterprising tycoons of modern times, who sought to create a jungle utopia out in the badlands of the Amazon rainforests, and refused to give up despite the demons that seemed to haunt the whole plan and conspired to bring it all tumbling down.

The time was the 1920s, and in the United states there was a major boom in automobiles going on. At the top of this game was the innovative American industrialist Henry Ford and the legendary auto manufacturer bearing his name, and business was stellar, but there was an increasingly glaring problem with this success. At the time almost all rubber produced, which was needed for producing car tires and other auto parts, was provided by the Netherlands and the British in the East Indies, and this monopoly, along with the exorbitant prices, did not sit well with Ford and his company’s insatiable hunger for massive amounts of rubber. To remedy the situation, he began scouting out locations to start his very own rubber plantation in order to sever their dependence on British and Dutch rubber and bypass the monopoly, finally deciding on Brazil.

This choice made sense in a lot of ways, because there had been a time when Brazil had been the world’s top supplier of rubber, with its economy in fact dependent on it, and even the tree itself was native to the Amazon. The secret smuggling of rubber tree seeds and seedling out of Brazil by the British in 1876 had allowed them to successfully grow the trees in other tropical areas in massive amounts, usurping Brazil from its throne as the rubber king and leaving its economy in shambles as a result. By setting up a plantation in Brazil, the major U.S. car manufacturer held the promise of bringing money back into the poverty-stricken region, as well as providing cheap rubber for Ford. It was a win-win situation for all involved.

Henry Ford

So excited was the Brazilian government by the prospect of Ford establishing a plantation there that they cut a generous deal with the company, offering for next to nothing a sprawling expanse of 2.5 million acres of land along the Tapajos River in the Amazon Basin, as well as tax-free exportation of the rubber in exchange for a 9% cut of the profits. This amount of land was estimated to be able to provide all of the rubber they would ever need, to the tune of enough for roughly 2,000,000,000 vehicles a year’s worth, and Ford must have had dollar signs dancing in his eyes when the first barges started heading out to deliver the supplies they would need to the Amazon.

In addition to producing all of that rubber and cutting costs for automobile production, Ford also saw this as a sort of social experiment, envisioning a grand Utopian town where the workers would all live in harmony right there at the plantation. In his own mind, Ford believed that not only was he bringing prosperity to this far flung land, but also providing a perfect society in which his workers could thrive, proclaiming it a “work of civilization,” and he would name his ambitious new settlement rather modestly “Fordlandia.”

In 1928 construction of the town would begin, and it had all of the amenities of a normal settlement and then some, including housing blocks, a workshop, a hospital fully equipped with advanced X-ray and ultraviolet-ray equipment, laboratories, pharmacies, and operating rooms, as well as a cinema, power plant, library, a school, church, shops such as bakeries, butcher shops, restaurants, and shoemakers, and even a community pool, dance hall and a full 18-hole golf course. It seemed like a dream land set out amongst the jungle surrounding it, and the lure of much higher wages than usual, as well as free room and board and even free food, drew native workers in droves. It almost seemed too good to be true, and in many ways it would turn out to be just that.

Promotional image for Fordlandia

Once the oohing and aahing was over, problems and cracks began to appear in this little perfect Utopian society. One was that, well, it was in the middle of the Amazon jungle in the middle of nowhere, with no roads leading to the outside world, only accessible by river boat, and tropical diseases running rampant. There was also already a sense of segregation from the beginning, with the American managers and staff living in a separate quarter from the local workers and with noticeably better accommodations and living conditions. This was exacerbated by the strict adherence to a Dearborn style work schedule with long odd hours which the natives were not accustomed to, and the management’s insistence of serving only a Midwestern-style American diet that did not always agree with them and left many of them feeling ill.

In addition to all of this, Fordlandia was all about a healthy lifestyle, with residents banned from drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, or even having sex, and they were forced to take part in regular community events such as square dances and poetry readings, and this jarring lifestyle was enough to ensure a high turnover rate despite the high wages and other perks. Paradise for some, Hell for others. Worse yet, there were several revolts staged by the Brazilian residents, which resulted in angry locals running amok in the streets destroying property, cutting telephone wires, and in one case fully trashing the cafeteria. In one such riot the local Brazilian workers became enraged when employees were brought over from Barbados and paid more, resulting in brawls and several injured men. On one occasion it took the Brazilian military to come in and break a revolt up.

Fordlandia

The plantation itself, the whole reason why they were all there to begin with, was also met with a series of stubborn setbacks. The most obvious problem was that they just couldn’t keep the damn rubber trees alive. Growing the trees was not as easy as Ford had thought it would be, and nowhere in his staff was to be found a single tropical horticulturalist. They must have thought they could just throw some seedlings down and wait for the cash to start rolling in, but they planted the trees too close together, making them susceptible to diseases, pests, blight, and parasites that killed huge swaths of crops. The land itself was too hilly and infertile to be adequate for a plantation in the first place, and was additionally prone to floods in the wet season and droughts in the dry season. For all of these reasons it was almost impossible to produce enough rubber trees to make any of it worthwhile, and indeed they had almost nothing to show for their investment at all. Pretty soon investors and critics were getting very nervous about the viability of the plantation, smelling the beginning of the end.

All of these troubles were further compounded by the media, which sensationalized it all and churned out stories of the Utopian society out in this exotic land that had gone bad, often highly exaggerated and which the curious public ate up. Utterly defeated and his dreams smashed, Ford even then did not give up, undauntedly simply moving the operation downstream to try again at a more suitable plot of land, this time with a new settlement called Belterra, even as Fordlandia soldiered on. This time Ford hired a plant pathologist named Dr. James Weir, and invested in state-of-the-art laboratory equipment. Belterra also had laxer rules and tried to cater more to the sensibilities of the natives, which helped it become more successful and expansive than Fordlandia had ever been, at one point having a population that swelled to 2,500. Yet the new plantation was ultimately barely any more successful than the last in terms of actually producing any rubber, yet both Fordlandia and Belterra refused to die as the workers and staff toiled away in the jungle heat for the next decade, trying futilely to tame this wild land and make it work even as the settlements were in their death throes.

Fordlandia today

The final nail in the coffin for Ford’s plans in the Amazon came with the coming of World War II, as well as the development of synthetic rubber in 1945, sounding the death knell for natural rubber and making the plantations even more pointless than they already were. Ford finally pulled out entirely, and the land was sold for a huge loss. Unbelievably, the abandoned town managed to hold a few stragglers who eked out a living in the ruins of what once was, and by 2017 the population of the area had slowly grown to around 2,000. Some areas of the old Fordlandia have never been fully resettled, and remain an abandoned, feral ghost of the past, the hungry jungle inexorably encroaching from all sides. Here one can walk amongst the spooky crumbling ruins of what was once one man’s dream, with many of the buildings still holding personal possessions and furniture as if this is some post-apocalyptic wasteland. It is at once eerie and a sad testament to a lost battle between man and nature.

It is interesting to note that through all of this, Henry Ford purportedly never once stepped in either one of his doomed settlements, watching it all rise and fall from afar. The whole doomed scheme seemed almost fated. A man trying to bring nature under control, to make the land do his will, to bend the native people to his ideals and twist and mold reality into what his obsessed mind envisioned. It seems like folly in retrospect, the delusions of a powerful man detached from the world as we know it. And to this day those lost vestiges of his madness remain out there choked by jungle, a testament to another time destined to be buried and reclaimed by the land itself. The story of Fordlandia serves as both a story of the power of the human mind to try and achieve its dreams and a reminder of the dangers of unchecked obsession and poor planning, and it remains a curious and fascinating historical account of the perils of dreams spun out of control.