Sunday, 7 June 2009
New book about Fordland
* JUNE 7, 2009, 5:15 P.M. ET
A Mogul’s Jungle Dream
By STUART FERGUSON
Bungalows with modern plumbing and screened windows; hospitals, schools, sidewalks, recreation halls, tennis courts, swimming pools, even a golf course: On the face of it, Henry Ford’s vast 1930s rubber plantation deep in the Amazon jungle—called Fordlandia—provided all the modern amenities for both its American managers and its Brazilian laborers. What it couldn’t provide was rubber.
Greg Grandin’s riveting account of this “forgotten jungle city” demonstrates that in business, as well as in affairs of state, the means may be abundant but the ends still unachievable. Even as the prospect of profits from Fordlandia receded further and further into the future, the settlement was hailed as a victory of technology and organizational skill, showing South Americans what could be done by their neighbors to the north. But that claim wasn’t quite true either: Fordlandia was convulsed by more than one violent riot. What is more, the work force had a high turnover rate—and little wonder.
“Amid all the excitement over the Model A, most barely noted that the Ford Motor Company had recently acquired an enormous land concession in the Amazon. Inevitably compared in size to a midranged US state, usually Connecticut but sometimes Tennessee, ” Read an excerpt from Fordlandia
Lying along the banks of the Tapajós River, a tributary entering the Amazon 500 miles from the Atlantic, Fordlandia spread itself across 2.5 million acres—almost the size of Connecticut. There the resemblance to the Nutmeg State ends, however: Man-eating caimans and piranhas don’t bother fishermen in Connecticut’s Housatonic River, and Jaguars don’t sneak into New London homes to steal babies. Fordlandia, sweltering amid such dangers, was also home to a host of tropical diseases and the insects that carry them.
Some Americans lasted less than a month before heading home, while others stayed for years, burying their children in the company cemetery or just plain going mad. Ford spent $125,000 to buy the land, but he might have had it free, so eager was Brazil to get the great Henry Ford to revive its rubber production. Instead, as Mr. Grandin tells us, a wily group of Brazilian businessmen and bureaucrats, in cahoots with Americans in the U.S. consular service, acquired an option on the Tapajós spread and then convinced Ford that it was the best land for his purpose. They also suggested that the local laborers were in need of his benevolent paternalism. So Ford plunged ahead, optimistically if unwisely.
Ford’s odd, magnificent and maddening personality always threatens to overwhelm Mr. Grandin’s account of the Amazonian plantation—which Ford, incidentally, never saw himself, though he kept promising a visit. Ford liked soybeans and American antiques; he hated unions, Wall Street and sitting down. And though he came to idolize the small-town America his cars were helping to change forever, he was not a believer in nationalism. “A businessman knows no country,” he told the Brazilian consul visiting his plant in Dearborn, Mich. Hence Ford was happy to make money in the American Midwest or, if it came to that, in the Amazon.
In the 1920s, Ford became fed up with hearing Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover and tire mogul Harvey Firestone express their fears of a British, French and Dutch monopoly on latex, a crucial by-product of rubber that was used in industrial manufacture. At one event, Ford bellowed at Firestone: “Well, you know what to do about that? Grow your own rubber!” Fordlandia was the result of Ford taking his own advice.
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the Henry Ford Collection
A Lincoln Zephyr—made by Ford Motor Co.—stuck in Fordlandia mud.
The logic was impeccable. As Mr. Grandin notes: “The auto industry relied as much on vulcanized rubber as on oil, using processed latex not just for tires, but for the hoses, valves, gaskets, and electrical wires . . . as well as for the machines that made the cars.” Brazil’s own rubber had traditionally been gathered by tappers, going from tree to tree to collect the sap that would be turned into latex. These tappers, or seringueiros, lived along the rivers, alone or with their families, in a system of debt peonage that kept them chronically poor and malnourished.
Photo: Celivaldo Carneiro
But for the people they sold their harvest to, rubber was an engine of wealth in Brazil, at least during the boom years of the early 20th century. It created large fortunes that transformed an Amazonian town like Manaus into a tropical version of Paris, complete with a magnificent opera house. But by 1920 the boom was over, and Brazil’s economy had collapsed—especially as the British and Dutch got their plantations going in Sumatra and other parts of Southeast Asia, using seeds smuggled out of Brazil itself.
Ford thought he could do better: He would create a vast rubber plantation in Brazil, thus ensuring a reliable supply of latex for his new Model A as well as for his Ford trucks and tractors. In the process, he intended to show the world that his system of production would also elevate the lives of his workers. Fordism, to him, meant rational organization, the regimentation of labor and the application of technology to produce more and more goods at an ever quickening pace.
In return for such demanding drudgery, Fordism required that workers be paid much more than the going wage scale. This largess (if that’s what it was) in turn allowed them to become consumers in their own right, buying the products they made and creating even more wealth for their employers. Fordism worked at the gigantic River Rouge plant in Dearborn. In Fordlandia, it was hoped, the company would gather the seringueiros into one place, where they would grow and tap thousands of rubber trees, hundreds to the acre. Ford would provide them with relatively high wages (to keep them consuming), the best medical care (to keep them working) and even recreation facilities (to keep them happy).
Back in 1922, the Washington Post—commenting on what its editors saw as a petulant factory shutdown in the U.S.—had defined Fordism as “Ford efforts conceived in disregard or ignorance of Ford limitations.” There was something to these words. When it came to Fordlandia, what the Americans and their Brazilian collaborators couldn’t do was overcome South American Leaf Blight, which started attacking the trees as soon as they matured. An infestation of very hungry caterpillars only added to the challenge. During its best years, Fordlandia’s three million rubber trees produced 750 tons of latex; but every year the Ford Motor Co. consumed more than 50 million tons.
And Ford’s dictates to his employees in the Amazon came to be resented. The Brazilian workers didn’t like being made to eat in company mess halls, where they were fed a diet of oatmeal, canned Michigan peaches and whole wheat bread. They were humiliated to have their living quarters constantly inspected for cleanliness and their bodies inspected for venereal disease. They were angry that U.S. Prohibition was enforced in wet Brazil, where liquor was legal.
Ford clashed with the Roman Catholic Church, declining its offer to run Fordlandia’s schools. So when the American managers asked an itinerant Catholic priest to preach against alcohol he replied: “For heaven’s sake, I’m not a Baptist.” And forget the Lambada, or whatever its 1930s predecessors were: In Fordlandia entertainments featured American square dances.
In short, there was a woeful mismatch of indigenous culture, geographical wildness and Yankee aspiration. One wonders whether Henry Ford was ever told about Messrs. Tolksdorf and Johansen—a German and a Scot who joined the Fordlandia effort early on. In 1929, they were sent upriver on Ford’s dime to collect better rubber seeds in the headwaters of the Tapajós. It seems that they headed out in a launch loaded down with whiskey and accompanied by a prostitute whom they had hired as their cook. At one trading post, a drunk Johansen bought “several bottles of perfume.” After no doubt using it on himself first, he “chased down cows, goats, sheep pigs and chickens,” writes Mr. Grandin. He doused the livestock with scent and intoned over each animal: “Mr. Ford has lots of money; you might as well smell good, too.”
By 1945, when the Ford Motor Co. sold Fordlandia back to the Brazilian government for $244,200, the auto company had invested $20 million in the project. They were happy to be rid of it
—Mr. Ferguson is the 2009 Rossetter House Foundation Scholar of the Florida Historical Society