"To cultivate rubber, and the rubber gatherers as well"
At Fordlandia in Brazil, Ford built an entire town in the jungle which recreated a vision of Americana that was slipping out of his grasp at home. But Fordism contained the seeds of its own unravelling
When Henry Ford announced in 1927 that his company had acquired a land grant in the middle of the Amazon the size of Connecticut, in order to grow rubber and to build a Midwestern town in the rainforest, newspapers reported the enterprise as a contest between two irrepressible forces: on one side, the industrialist who had perfected the assembly line and broken down the manufacturing process into ever simpler components geared toward making one single infinitely reproducible product, the first indistinguishable from the millionth; on the other, the Amazon basin, spilling over into nine countries and comprising a third of South America, a place so wild and diverse that the waters just around where Ford planned to establish his plantation contained more species of fish than all the rivers of Europe combined.
It was billed as a proxy fight: Ford represented vigour, dynamism and the rushing energy that defined American capitalism in the early 20th century; the Amazon embodied primal stillness, an ancient world that had so far proved unconquerable. Time Magazine announced (24 October 1927) that Ford intended to increase its rubber planting every year “until the whole jungle is industrialised”, cheered on by the forest’s inhabitants: “Black Indians armed with heavy blades will slash down their one-time haunts to make way for future windshield wipers, floor mats, balloon tires.” Ford was bringing “white man’s magic” to the wilderness, The Washington Post wrote (12 August 1931), intending to not only “cultivate rubber but the rubber gatherers as well”.
Ford’s move into northern Brazil took place on the cusp of two eras, as the age of adventure gave way to the age of commerce. Ford avoided the more feverish adjectives that explorers or would-be conquerors often used to describe the Amazon. He saw the jungle as a challenge, but it had less to do with overcoming and dominating nature than it did with salvaging a vision of Americana that was slipping out of his grasp at home. Ford’s idea of a worthy life was chivalrous, especially in its promotion of ballroom dancing. But it was not adventurous. “The man who works hard,” Ford once said, “should have his easy-chair, his comfortable fireside, his pleasant surroundings.” And so in the Amazon, Ford built Cape Cod-style shingled houses for his Brazilian workers, and urged them to tend flower and vegetable gardens and eat whole wheat bread and unpolished rice.
Over the course of nearly two decades, from 1927 to 1945, Ford spent tens of millions of dollars founding not one but — after the first plantation was devastated by leaf blight — two American towns, complete with central squares, sidewalks, indoor plumbing, hospitals, manicured lawns, movie theatres, swimming pools, golf courses and, of course, Ford automobiles rolling down their paved streets. Coming upon Fordlandia after a trip of hundreds of miles through the jungle, the US military attaché to Brazil, US Major Lester Baker, called Fordlandia an oasis, a Midwestern “dream”, complete with “electric lights, telephones, washing machines, victrolas, and electric refrigerators”.
Desperate for work
The first years of the settlement were plagued by waste, violence and vice, making Fordlandia more like a frontier cowboy town than Disneyland. The death rate from malaria and yellow fever was high. Ash wafted across the sky from what was perhaps the biggest man-made fire in that part of the Amazon to date. Migrants desperate for jobs, many of them from Brazil’s drought and famine stricken northeast, poured into the work camp on rumours that Ford would be hiring tens of thousands of employees and paying five dollars a day. They trailed behind them wives, children, parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, building makeshift houses from packing crates and canvas tarps.
Those who fled the plantation brought with them tales of knife fights, riots and strikes. They complained of rancid food and corrupt and incompetent overseers who defrauded them of pay and turned the forest into a mud hole, burning large swathes of the jungle without the slightest idea of how to plant rubber.
For those who stayed, Ford-style regimentation went badly: timetables that took no account of the heat or rain; a diet imposed on all, with babies fed on soya milk (Ford hated cows); a ban on local dives since alcohol was prohibited; wages hijacked. In December 1930, two months after the “revolution” that brought Getúlio Vargas to power, a revolt broke out in Fordlandia. The workers, shouting “Brazil for Brazilians, Kill all the Americans”, laid waste part of the installations and stated their demands. The US managers were well aware that, for their employer, workers’ action was the “worst thing that ever struck the earth”. They asked for — and got — the support of the Brazilian army; the protestors were sacked and small nearby businesses closed down.
Nature to the rescue
But then nature rebelled. Ford had insisted that his managers plant rubber trees in tight rows — back in his Detroit factories, Ford had famously crowded machines close together to reduce movement. In so doing, he had created the conditions for the explosive growth of the bugs and blight that feed off rubber, and these eventually laid waste to the plantation.
Hubris seems the obvious moral attached to Fordlandia, considering not just the disaster of its early years but also, even once order was established and the city more or less functional, rubber’s refusal to submit to Ford-style regimentation. Yet surveying what remains of it left me with an almost elegiac feeling. Despite the promiscuous use of fire by its first managers, along with the running of what was billed as the most modern sawmill in all of Latin America, the town doesn’t so much invoke the plague of deforestation. Rather it brings to mind a different kind of loss: deindustrialisation. There is in fact an uncanny resemblance between Fordlandia’s rusting water tower, broken-glassed sawmill, and power plant and the husks of the same structures in Iron Mountain, a depressed industrial city in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which also used to be a Ford town.
About a mile and a half from the dock, on a hill hooked by a river bend, sits the abandoned “American neighbourhood”. The wood-framed buildings are properly Protestant and not too ostentatious, complete with shingled roofs, plank floors, plaster walls, decorative mouldings, tile bathrooms, electric refrigerators, and wall sconces. Decrepit and overrun by weeds, as could be expected, the houses are now home to colonies of bats, which have left a patina of guano on the walls and floors.
Closer to the river, Brazilians, including some surviving Ford employees, continue to live in smaller mill town bungalows, along three long avenues that follow the contours of land. The powerhouse and sawmill, both with walls of floor-to-ceiling windows, separate the two residential areas. The turbines and generators have been removed from the engine room, but industrial ephemera are still scattered around the mill. Outside buried in the jungle grass are twisted rails, what’s left of a three-mile train line that carried logs to the mill.
Over fifty years ago, the Harvard historian Perry Miller gave his famous “Errand into the Wilderness” lecture in which he tried to explain why English Puritans set out for the New World as opposed to, say, going to Holland. They went, Miller suggested, not just to preserve their “posterity from the corruption of this evil world” as it was manifest in the Church of England, but to redeem Christendom in Europe. In a “bare land, devoid of already established (and corrupt) institutions, empty of bishops and courtiers”, they would “start de novo”. The Puritans did not flee to America, Miller said, but rather sought to give the faithful back in England a “working model” of a purer community. Thus, central from the start to American expansion was “deep disquietude”, a feeling that “something had gone wrong”.
’Something had gone wrong’
The founding of Fordlandia was driven by a similar restlessness, a chaffing sense that “something had gone wrong” in America. Fordlandia moved to rhythms set by the ups and downs of American life, which Henry Ford pledged to reform. Ford’s frustrations with domestic politics and culture were legion: war, unions, Wall Street, energy monopolies, Jews, modern dance, cow’s milk, the Roosevelts, cigarettes, alcohol and creeping government intervention. Yet churning beneath all these annoyances was the fact that the force of industrial capitalism he had helped unleash was undermining the world he hoped to restore.
Fordism, it is now known, contained within itself the seeds of its own unravelling: the breaking down of the assembly process into smaller and smaller tasks, combined with rapid advances in transportation and communication, made it easier for manufacturers to break out of the dependent relationship established by Ford between high wages and large markets. Goods could be made in one place and sold somewhere else, removing the incentive employers had to pay workers enough to buy the products they made.
That unravelling is most visible in the city of Manaus, on the Amazon about 300 miles west of Fordlandia. Manaus was the gilded epitome of rubber-boom excess in the 19th century. The city revived in the late 1960s, when Brazil’s military regime decreed it a free-trade zone. Exempt from import tariffs, Manaus became Brazil’s national emporium. Cargo ships arrived at its deepwater port from the US, Europe, and Asia to unload consumer goods. In 1969, The New York Timeswas reporting that a “feverish prosperity” had returned, as Brazilians from Rio, São Paulo, and other points south took advantage of improved, subsidised air travel, flying into the city to purchase duty-free toys, fans, radios, air conditioners and television sets. At the same time, the military government provided subsidies and reduced export taxes to stimulate industry, turning the city into one of the world’s first brand-name assembly zones — similar to the Mexican maquilas that were then beginning to push against the southern border of the US. Today, Manaus’ industrial parks are home to about a hundred corporate plants, including Honda, Yamaha, Sony, Nokia, Philips, Kodak, Samsung and Sanyo. In 1999 Harley-Davidson opened its first offshore factory there, and Gillette has its largest South American facility in the city.
With the highest population growth rate in Brazil, Manaus has gone from less than 200,000 people in the mid-1960s to nearly three million today. The city bursts out of the Amazon like a perverse Oz, steadily eating away the surrounding emerald foliage. Like many other third world cities, Manaus is plagued by rising poverty and crime, child prostitution, gridlocked traffic, pollution and poor health care. There is no sewage plant and its waste flows untreated into the Rio Negro.
Manaus accounts for 6% of Brazil’s total manufacturing, and provides about a hundred thousand jobs. Yet no matter how dynamic its export sector, the city can’t possibly give employment to all the migrants who travel from the rural Amazon and beyond, desperate for work. On flights in, visitors can see the luxury condominiums that rise high along the river’s sandy banks and, pressed up against hem, low-lying slums built on wobbly stilts to protect against river flooding — a dramatic landscape of inequality in one of the most unequal countries in the world. It makes the distance that separated the homes of American managers from those of Brazilians in Fordlandia negligible in comparison.
In the lower Amazon, along a 300-mile axis, runs the history of modern capitalism. At one end is Fordlandia, a monument to the promise that was early-20th-century industrialisation. At the other is Manaus, a city plagued by the kind of urban problems Ford thought he could transcend but whose very existence owes much to the system he pioneered. Trying to reproduce America in the Amazon has yielded to outsourcing America to the Amazon.
© Le Monde diplomatique