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Fordlândia and Belterra

February 11, 2009

After Charles Goodyear discovered vulcanization, rubber became a wonder material used in any number of 19th century innovations. The demand was intense and, though other plants could produce it, tapping Brazilian rubber trees was the only commercially viable way to supply it. Manaus in the central Amazon became a dazzlingly rich boom town of a unique type: not gold, or oil, but equally valuable latex.

But in the 1870s Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker succeeded in growing rubber tree seedlings at Kew Gardens, and from there they were exported to tropical parts of the British Empire. It took another twenty years for the British to develop their own plant varieties and their own methods of tapping the trees, but the latex began to flow. By the early 1900s plantations in Malaya and Ceylon produced far more rubber per acre than the Brazilian rainforest, and did it far more cheaply. Their monopoly not only broken but shattered, the barons of Manaus shuttered their mansions. Come the 1920s the Brazilian rubber industry was on its last legs.

The secret to Asian rubber was proper plantations, monocultures of rubber trees that could be easily accessed. The Brazilian government had preferred to encourage the tapping of wild trees, which were widely spaced in a dense jungle containing hundreds of other tree species. The extra labor needed to work with these conditions drove up costs. The industrialization and standardization of their rubber industry seemed to be the only answer to their problems, but Brazil was relatively poor in capital and skill for the project. The ultimate solution came from one of the richest men in the world, and one who was very interested in putting a rubber tire on each corner of his cars: Henry Ford. It was a match made in heaven, so in 1927 he was granted a free plantation 100 miles up the Tapajós River from Santarém. Ford was thinking big: his grant was some 10,000 square kilometers in size—bigger than the entire island of Cyprus—and all it cost him in return was a promise to give Brazil some of his profits starting in 1940. By the summer of 1928, the tiny town of Fordlândia was up and running.

Things started to go wrong immediately. The thinness and poverty of Amazonian soil was underestimated by Ford’s people and it was difficult to get the new plantations to grow in it. And this was even assuming they could even get the soil to stay put: the region selected for the plantation had numerous hills and valleys. When the jungle was cleared for replacement with rubber trees, the rain washed the soil down into the valleys where it pooled and formed malarial muds before washing into the Tapajós.

The plantation work continued in any case, at which point Ford discovered that what had worked in Asia wouldn’t work in his new fief. Native plants have native pests; in Ceylon and Malaysia there was nothing to prey on the rubber tree, but in South America it only took one plant infected with the local fungus Microcyclus uleiSouth American Leaf Blight—to infect all of them in short order.

It also didn’t help that Henry Ford was, to put it plainly, a control freak. In 1914 he’d started the Five Dollar Day program in his American plants: an eight-hour workday with $5 in wages, $2.66 of which were contingent on the worker living by Henry Ford’s Episcopalian morals. In the US the first effort fell apart due to World War I labor shortages, but Fordlândia was mockingly named “Dearborn-in-the-Jungle” for Ford’s attempts to one-up his Stateside tries . Some of his ideas are worthwhile to modern eyes, such as high pay (a whopping 37 cents a day), and community amenities like a free hospital. Others were suicidal for relations with Brazilian workers, such as a ban on the building of a Catholic church and mandating a working day that included the hottest part of the day instead of the dawn and dusk hours that had prevailed before. Labor unrest marred the first few years of Fordlândia’s operation, and only subsided when the Americans on the spot tacitly allowed the Brazilians some aspect of their old lives in defiance of the rules mandated in Michigan.

On the agricultural front, Ford hired a plant pathologist to recommend some course of action they could take. The one they chose was to start a second plantation, Belterra, only fifteen miles outside of Santarém and, more importantly, on flatter ground where erosion was less of a problem. Belterra also avoided monoculture crops of rubber trees by growing hardwoods for Ford luxury cars, as well as planting coffee, tea, and spices purely so that the botanical firewalls between the trees would generate some profit. Between that and the slowly developing détente with Ford’s local workers, Belterra almost worked. In 1942 the plantation shipped 750 tons of rubber, not nearly as much as they’d hoped, but at least it was a start. Even better, some new anti-fungal sprays were promising to fight off the worst of the leaf blight.

But by then the US was in World War II and Malaya was under Japanese control. If oil had been Japan’s strategic Achilles heel before the war, now rubber was the States’. The government implemented draconian conservation measures, like an outright ban on driving cars faster than 35 miles an hour to save on tire wear. Even at that, when Singapore fell on February 15th, 1942 the US had less than a year’s worth of rubber even if they bought all the free production from every plantation in the world that wasn’t in Axis hands. There was no likelihood of Brazilian sources making up the shortfall in time. Instead, the US vastly ramped up its production of the synthetic rubber Buna S (developed by IG Farben in Germany, ironically enough). It started out expensive, but by the end of the war it could hold its own even against the newly freed East Asian plantations. Ford’s best efforts in Brazil were doomed. In 1945, Ford sold his rights back to the Brazilian government for $250,000.

These days Belterra is still inhabited, not least because it’s on the paved portion of BR-163, the “Soybean Highway“, one of the major routes into Amazonia. Fordlândia is abandoned entirely, though there’s been a bit of tourist activity the last few years. People come to see the ghost town, complete with USA-made water tower and abandoned homes built on the pattern of the Depression-era American Midwest.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2009 1:42 PM

    Somehow I’m reminded of the infamous East African groundnut scheme.

  2. pauldrye permalink*
    February 11, 2009 4:30 PM

    I was about to say that the major difference between them was that the groundnut scheme is an excellent example of how absence of price signals can make big projects go off the rails, while Ford’s rubber dream — and doesn’t that sound kinky? — shows how they can go wrong anyway. But on thinking about it, I think you’re on to something. The same time period is when GM passed Ford in size, and that’s generally placed at Henry Ford’s feet. His company was too centralized, and what he wanted was what he got. He was disassociated from the market by virtue of his power, and would ram his head into a brick wall if he thought it was the thing to do.

    I don’t know that I’m prepared to argue that yet, but it bears thinking about!

  3. February 11, 2009 6:32 PM

    Ford Motor Co. in the 1930s as a declining Colonial Empire? Hmmmmm.

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