Fordlandia: Mis-Adventures in the Amazon

Fordlandia_300dpi Greg Grandin's Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, a Pulitzer-Prize finalist, is a 20th-century tale of industrial ambition, mismanagement, and failure. The head of the whole thing was Henry Ford, who, by 1927, was at the top of his entrepreneurial game. Threatened by the possibility of a British latex cartel, the automobile-mogul set his sights on the jungles of Brazil with the goal of raising a rubber plantation. But it wasn't just about rubber; he wanted to Americanize the locals, too. All this was a huge challenge--one that proved insurmountable in the end. Outside spoke with Grandin about Ford, his grand experiment in Brazil, and the costly mistakes that made for one helluva mis-adventure in the Amazon.

What prompted you to write this book?
I kept seeing mention of Fordlandia in different places--mostly books on the Amazon. The late Warren Dean, for instance, a pioneer in environmental history, dedicated a chapter to Fordlandia in his wonderful, Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber. The story of Ford's bid to transplant Americana to Amazona was usually folded into a well-known list of quixotic attempts to conquer the Amazon, from El Dorado to the making of Fitzcarraldo. But I was struck that there wasn't a full-length history of it. There is the novel Fordlandia, written by Eduardo Sguiglia, an Argentine author. I read somewhere that Sguiglia had set out to write a non-fiction account, but the evocative nature of the tale led him to fictionalize the story. It's a great novel, but I thought perhaps this was one of those cases where history could be stranger than fiction.

There was still plenty of unexplored territory in the world during Ford's time. What do you think his motivation was for trying to set up a colony in the Amazon: exploration/adventure, industrial progress, social evolution, capitalism, or something else entirely?
That's the million-dollar question--or rather the quarter-billion-dollar question, which is how much Ford spent on Fordlandia, adjusted for inflation. The initial reason for obtaining a tract of land the size of a small American state in the middle of the Amazon was to grow rubber to bypass a proposed British latex cartel. But by the time the project got underway, the economic logic had changed. The price of latex had collapsed. Yet Ford ignored advice and went forward anyway. And the more the project failed, the more he plowed more and more money into it.

Ford was less motivated on laying control over yet another raw material as he was by a restless dissatisfaction with the way things were going at home. Ford, the man who unleashed the power of industrial capitalism by perfecting the assembly line, spent most of his life trying to put the genie back in the bottle, to tame the forces he set loose. He tried doing this by founding a number of so-called "village industries" in the U.S., small factories powered by hydroelectricity manned by "mechanic-farmers." But through the rolling 1920s and depressed 1930s, Ford found himself frustrated on one front after another, as well as implicated in many of the vices he condemned. So he turned to the Amazon.

Ford made a lot of mistakes in setting up this colony, ignorance being a major one. Do you think Forlandia was doomed from the get-go? Was its failure inevitable, or did the whole thing collapse because of a series of bad decisions? Was there any way for Fordlandia to have been successful?
It didn't help that Ford refused to seek out expert advice--from a botanist, agronomist, plant pathologist, or anyone who might have had some knowledge of Amazon rubber and its threats, much less someone versed in the complexities of Brazilian politics and society. In retrospect, it is hard to see how it could have succeeded, though perhaps failure would have been a little less spectacular had Ford consulted individuals with experience.

There were two great waves of failure at Fordlandia. The first was social: Ford's attempt to raise an American town and impose his brand of Puritanism on Brazilian workers--making them eat whole-wheat bread and brown rice, for example, or enforcing prohibition--led to a series of revolts and riots. Rather than Our Town, the early years of Fordlandia seemed more like Deadwood, in terms of the brothels, gambling halls, and bars set up around its periphery. After a while, the company managed to establish control, but then nature rebelled. By ignoring expert advice and planting rubber trees close together--as a way of replicating industrial mass production in the jungle--Ford effectively created an enormous incubator as bugs and fungi reproduced like wildfire to lay waste to the plantation repeatedly.

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