Fordlandia: Mis-Adventures in the Amazon

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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.

Ford was highly independent and not too keen on government intervention. But Fordlandia seemed very much in the vein of the Progressive era of government, spearheaded by Teddy Roosevelt. What's your take on this?
Well, Henry Ford in a way was a Progressive, in that his Five Dollar Day and decent benefits were meant to take the edges off the worst of industrial capitalism. And he often railed against trusts and monopolies, but this had less to do with the kind of reform associated with the Progressive era than with a paranoid streak that eventually erupted into his well-known anti-Semitism. He generally distrusted politicians and hated government intervention and did everything he could to avoid it. And he intensely disliked Teddy Roosevelt, whom he associated with militarism and jingoism. I devote a chapter in the book to their rivalry, to their competing visions of what proper “Americanism” should be.

Soy is a mass-market commodity now, but it was an obscure plant with obscure uses back in Ford's day. Yet he championed it not only as food but for what would've been considered oddball purposes back then, such as clothing. He's actually wearing a suit made of soy in one of the book's photos. Clearly, he was way ahead of his time. Do you think Ford has influenced the contemporary eco movement, even though he was an industrialist?
Ford poured millions of dollars into research into soy to find nutritional and industrial uses for the bean. But it would be incongruous to call him an ecologist, and, in many ways, Ford's technological optimism, that belief that the world's problems can be solved by economic growth and more rational application of technology, is the bane of the environmentalist movement. Ford believed that the best way to revive depressed rural farm communities was to find new industrial uses for soy, as well as other agricultural products–he once dumped a truck load of carrots in front of his lab and ordered his scientists to see what use they could put their pulp and juice to. Soy meal produced plastics, and soy oil was a main ingredient for all the base paint of the Model A.

He imagined the industrialization of agricultural commodities as leading to a balanced relation between industry and agriculture and the stabilization of whole, happy farm towns. The irony, of course, is if you go to the Amazon today, the rapid extension of soy plantations is devastating the forest. Environmental activists consider it one of the most socially violent agents of deforestation. Rather than creating balanced, stable rural communities–as Ford had imagined–soy, in the area that was Fordlandia, has literally whipped communities off the map. Soy plantations push out small ranchers and farming communities and, being labor intensive, can't nearly employ as many as they displace. Refugees head to cities, creating sprawl, while local land that used to supply basic fruits and vegetables for the local market now produces soy for export, which means that crops need to be imported at higher prices. Every year, new hybrids of soy that can withstand more and more humidity push deeper into the Amazon, accounting for the fastest rate of deforestation, with most of the exports going to the U.S., Europe, and China. It's a mess, a perfect example of the unintended consequences of Ford's technological optimism.

You end the book with scenes from the site of Fordlandia, as it exists today. Why do you think the locals are still so enamored with Ford that they keep his memory alive, despite Fordlandia's history of local exploitation?
In retrospect, the exploitation was mild. And considering the hardscrabble life of so many of the world's population, there is a yearning for a form of capitalism that promised to care for the worker outside the factory gates. Fordlandia had a state-of-the-art hospital that provided free medical care not just to workers and their families but all who showed up. Today, residents of what is still called Fordlandia have to travel 18 hours on a slow river boat to see a doctor.

What's your next project?
I'm thinking of writing a history of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the signature social experiment of the New Deal, which brought cheap electricity and other public services to one of the most rural and underdeveloped areas of the United States. We could use a similarly ambitious project right now, to respond to the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

–Aileen Torres

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