The Expats: Fordlandia

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In 1927, Henry Ford decided to sink millions into failure. Frustrated by the monopoly on rubber held by a cartel of Dutch and English entrepreneurs in East Asia, he intended to use the “mother trees” in the Brazilian Amazon to provide his own for the millions of tires he needed to produce for his new cars.

He hired a native Brazilian called Villares to scout out an ideal plot of land, and bought thousands of square kilometers along the Rio Tapajós at his behest. He came to learn that the patch of hostile land was in fact Villares’ who had wanted to offload it, but only after investing millions and building a mini-America.

Ford’s goal was not only to make rubber, but to make men out of the jungle natives. He directed, remotely of course, the creation of a whole community with its own economy, and its own values. The American workers who were imported and the Brazilian employees alike were forced to live according to the “healthy lifestyle” code that Henry demanded – the cafeteria was self-serve, alcohol was prohibited, and each worker had to wear the address of his house on a badge that he paid for.

Mutiny erupted, both social and arboreal. Local workers became disgruntled and refused to live according to foreign principles. The land too rejected the imposition of American “order” and insistence on success. Ford, never having consulted a botanist, ended up planting 30 times the number of rubber trees than occurred in nature, and essentially built an incubator for fungi and blight which attacked his plantation.

Discovering his errors and determined to succeed, he moved the operation fifty miles downstream. Taking cautionary measures, he imported grafts from prolific East Asian plantations and insisted distance between the trees. But progress was still on Amazonian time, and even ten years later, their production was about 50 times less than hoped.

Tack on the fact that simultaneously, synthetic rubber was developed, and what little gain was made in Fordlandia was rendered insignificant. Not a single drop of latex from the rubber sap was used in a Ford automobile. Ever. In 1945, recognizing failure, Henry Ford’s grandson sold the land back to the Brazilian government for a token $250,000, taking a loss of what would be in today’s economy $200 million.


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