Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City
is a nonfiction book by American author and professor Greg Grandin, first published in 2010. It centers on when Henry Ford, the richest man in the world in 1926, bought a massive tract of land in the Brazilian Amazon. Although he initially planned to create a rubber plantation, it soon evolved into a more ambitious bid to create an exported vision of America itself, complete with golf courses, ice cream parlors, and cars everywhere. Nicknamed Fordlandia, the settlement became the site of an epic
clash between the ruthless and powerful Ford and the Amazon itself, the most complex ecological system on the planet, along with its native population. The book follows Fordlandia’s eventual downfall and explores themes of capitalism, imperialism, and commercialism, as well as how they persist today. Fordlandia
remains Grandin’s most famous and acclaimed book, and was a finalist for multiple awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for History, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was named among the best books of the year by some of the most popular newspapers and magazines in the country.Fordlandia
begins with the genesis of the controversial project in 1925, when Ford met with tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone. They were both worried that British and Dutch rubber plantations in South Asia would be able to create a monopoly and increase costs for the car industry. Ford needed rubber in large amounts for many parts of his car and had established control of the raw materials he needed for his cars - except rubber. He was skeptical of going into business with Firestone, but later met with Brazilian representatives who encouraged Ford to invest there. It had a large supply of natural rubber trees and was deemed hospitable to plant more. After surveying the territory, Ford decided to invest even though by 1927 the fears of a monopoly were no longer an issue due to overproduction of latex. He bought a tract of land in the Amazon twice the size of Delaware with the intention of creating a profitable, industrial-scale rubber plantation. However, Ford also had a bigger vision, intending to center the plantation around a replica of a model American town that would show Brazil and the world how to combine production with ideal American values. He saw it as both a commercial enterprise and a civilizing mission.
Although Brazilian nationalists were critical of the deal due to the way it granted Ford the authority to govern his territory independently of the Brazilian government, he was able to complete the purchase and began setting it up, mostly with the help of his private aides who had little to no experience in Brazilian culture or the ecology of the Amazon. It took over a year to get all supplies to the camp, and then construction began with a sawmill being built to supply lumber - only for the team to find out that the nearby trees were unusable. This caused an additional five-year delay until the lumber could be imported and delivered from abroad. Massively over budget, Ford pushed ahead and constructed American-style houses that were completely unsuited for the hot jungle environment. The crops were plagued by planting errors, causing another five-year delay before rubber trees could actually begin delivering usable materials. Due to the close planting style of the farm, pests and diseases could take out an entire grove in quick succession, ruining years of tree maturation. In 1933, a botanist assessed the trees and suggested grafting limbs from the best-producing latex trees. Ford also dealt with major labor problems, as his Brazilian employees rebuffed his paternalistic instincts and resented his attempts to impose American-style culture, food, and morals on them.
Things quickly devolved, as employee riots began to erupt around camp and destroyed a lot of the infrastructure that had been built up. Ford rejected considering employee grievances. He fired the entire workforce with the support of Brazil’s newly established dictator. After leaf blight killed his crop, he abandoned Fordlandia altogether and moved seventy miles downriver to create a new plantation at Belterra. He recreated Fordlandia with all its American-style amenities, including movie theaters, a golf course, schools, and a hospital. By 1940, nearly three million trees had been planted and it looked like Ford had turned around his luck, but the jungle soon struck again in the form of caterpillars and leaf blight killing off the majority of trees. As World War II ramped up, the government encouraged Ford to continue rubber production, but the plantation was consistently plagued with difficulties. Ultimately, Ford’s grandson sold Fordlandia and Belterra to the Brazilian government in 1945 for the balance of outstanding wages they owed to the workers, bringing an end to Ford’s Brazilian misadventure.
Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York University, and the author of eight nonfiction books dealing with American history and colonialism in Central and Latin America. He is also a consultant with the Historical Clarification Commission and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010.