Henry Ford vs. The Amazon Jungle

by Lara Killian

24 May 2010

If you pit a determined multimillionaire industrialist against the Amazon rain-forest, who do you think will win?
cover art

Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City

Greg Grandin

US: May 2010

Greg Grandin delivers an exhaustively researched account of the jungle utopia US auto pioneer Henry Ford dreamed of in the ‘20s. The story is meandering, as any great force of nature can’t help a few digressions. Grandin demonstrates through countless anecdotes and bits of correspondence that Ford was himself something of a force of nature. Pit a determined multimillionaire industrialist against the Amazon rain-forest, and guess who wins?

Ford’s determination and changing nature parallel the great Amazon river in a few ways. The Ford company’s focus on the Amazon basin as an ideal location for cultivating rubber trees to use in production of tires for the popular Model T and later the Model A ebbs and flows along with the market and external political forces. Grandin takes the reader through the socioeconomic factors of the day, setting the stage for a solid understanding of the forces at work.

Grandin sets up his story with the background of Ford’s success as an industrialist. Ford’s tinkering extended outside of the factory and into the lives of his workers. Though he paid high wages for the early twentieth century in America, Ford expected his workers to contribute to society outside of their day jobs. Drinking and other vices were severely frowned upon, and as the company gained higher levels of success, the strict atmosphere of the factories tightened up so that workers began to feel like simple anonymous cogs in a big machine.

As the Ford company gained greater market share in the burgeoning automobile industry and car ownership became more common, it was increasingly important to exert control over various aspects of the supply chain. The rubber market was strong, and cultivation of the trees had moved away from Brazil and over to southeast Asia, where conditions were excellent for cultivation. Grandin writes of various political ingénues with a vested interest in bringing Ford to Brazil to revive the downtrodden rubber industry.

In 1927, Ford acquired 2.5 million acres of land in the lower Amazon region of Brazil, along with significant import and export concessions from the Brazilian government. The land needed to be cleared and planted with rubber trees to supply the Ford motor company`s needs.

While at the outset this may have seemed a simple task, Grandin painstakingly documents the challenges that confronted Ford company managers as they attempted to export American sensibilities to their designated settlement on the banks of the Amazon. The settlement was christened “Fordlandia”.

From dishonest employees to malaria to language-based miscommunication, obstacle after obstacle slows the progress of the Ford company’s attempts to grow and export rubber. Even getting the town properly provisioned and established proved to be a nigh-insurmountable task, as political forces conspired with the seasons to prevent large ships from dropping off their loads.

For any enthusiast of history and the socio-political foundations of the US auto industry, this is absolutely a fascinating tale. Grandin includes all manner of references to news items of the day and correspondence between the Dearborn, Michigan based Ford company and the various parties in Brazil and locations in between.

The project started as a way to exert control over the global rubber industry. Differences in working conditions and social expectations caused the whole thing to veer off the rails from the start. Grandin documents Ford`s efforts to export a piece of America into the Brazilian Amazon region, shipping supplies to build a veritable American city in the jungle.

Grandin emphasizes the social and moral values extolled by the Ford company and its founder. Various mechanisms existed to keep workers working, and to encourage them to buy into the product they were helping to manufacture. But the same motivating factors that encouraged American workers to buy into the Ford dream in the US did not exist for Brazilians who were accustomed to living in the jungle and working with the natural world to supply their own needs. This cultural clash proved to be the undoing of the dream of Fordlandia.

As a writer of history, Grandin succeeds in providing a great deal of detail about this period of Ford history. The tale is lively and engaging, though readers who are easily distracted may find the frequent digressions to be a deterrent in making it all the way through the story. I found the meandering route of the story telling to be difficult to follow, even as I appreciate the vast quantity of research Grandin performed to write this book. Recommended for auto history aficionados and industrial history buffs, as well as those interested in the impact of Ford`s involvement with the Brazilian economy in the early 20th century.

Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City



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