Here is the story of one brilliant man taking it to far. Henry Ford’s failed attempt at cornering the market on rubber all while forcing American culture on his Brazilian workers.
Text by Brendan McFadden.
In 1927, Ford, then the richest man in the world bought a piece of land in the Brazilian Amazon. He wanted to produce his own rubber, to create the largest rubber plantation on the planet. Around the plantation Ford paved the streets, built white clapboard houses with wicker patio furniture, a library, a hospital a golf course, a dance hall, and as the settlement grew restaurants, butcher shops, and bakeries were added.
Ford exported many American workers to help run the plantation but the majority of the employees and ‘residents’ of Fordlandia were Brazilian natives who Ford forced to live an ‘American lifestyle. They lived in the clapboard houses, ate hamburgers, attend poetry readings, square dances, and alcohol was forbidden even within the workers homes.
Ford was distrustful of experts and never bothered to consult botanists as to the feasibility of growing plantation rubber in the Amazon. They planted about two hundred trees per acre despite the fact that there were only about seven wild rubber trees per acre in the Amazon jungle. The pests and the fungi and the blight that feed off of rubber are native to the Amazon, so when you put trees close together you create an incubator. The resulting plantation actually accelerated the production of caterpillars, leaf blight and other organisms that prey on rubber.
While the trees were dying at a rapid pace worker discontent was growing. The Americans imported to Fordlandia found the Amazon inhospitable, and native Brazilians began to revolt against the implementation of American culture that the Ford company was shoving down their throats. For instance, they were accustomed to working before sunrise and after sunset to avoid the heat of the day– but were forced to work proper “American” nine-to-five shifts under the hot Amazon sun, using Ford’s assembly-line philosophies.
They’re dissatisfaction culminated in a riot that required the intervention of the Brazilian military. Ford would refuse to give up, he eventually hired a botanist, but never found success, and by the forties scientists had developed an economical synthetic rubber. Fordlandia, and undertaking that had cost Ford upwards of $200 million dollars was abandoned. Ford had tried not simply control rubber production, but to export the American way life, to force his will on the natural world, and both respects he failed colossally.