Gallery A

Ford In Brazil
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Henry Ford’s Failed Rubber Plantation

By James Donahue

Residents of Michigan link Henry Ford with his River Rouge assembly line where he invented a way to mass produce inexpensive Model T’s that could be owned by the average working man.

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, people remember Ford as the founder of various industrial operations linked to his automobile business. There he purchased and built mines and lumber mills that supplied raw materials for making his Model T’s and later his popular Model A’s.

The one product Ford could not produce in Michigan was rubber for the tires needed for his cars. By the late 1920s, the Ford Motor Company was producing hundreds of thousands of new cars that all needed tires. Ford came up with a plan to create his own rubber plantation. He went to Brazil where he bought a 25,000 square kilometer tract along the Amazon River and began developing a city he named Fordlandia. There he planted rubber trees.

Ford’s goal was to create the largest rubber plantation in the world. Plant workers were relocated to Fordlandia, which was being fashioned after American cities of that period. The community offered a power plant, a hospital, library and even a golf course. There were roads and rows of white houses. Local natives were hired to live and work at Fordlandia, and were offered good wages to attract them.

But Ford made some cultural and environmental mistakes in Brazil that led to the total failure of the Fordlandia project. He failed to adapt to the native culture and imposed what he called a "healthy American lifestyle" on the residents. The plantation cafeterias provided only hamburgers and other American fare. The Brazilian workers were also required to attend American social activities on weekends that included poetry readings, square-dancing and English language sing-alongs.

Because they lived near the equator, the Brazilian workers were accustomed to working before sunrise and after sunset to avoid the heat of the day. But Ford expected them to work American nine-to-five shifts during the hottest time of the day. Thus worker discontent occurred.

The final straw was Ford’s prohibition of alcohol. Ford, who was a tea-totaler, imposed a prohibition so strict that anyone caught violating it was immediately fired.

With a town filled with unhappy workers, it is small wonder that Ford’s rubber plantation was not doing well. And this is where Ford made his second big mistake. The hilly terrain was stripped of native trees to make room for the planting of rubber tree saplings. Ford did not understand that the destruction of the native rain forest opened the land for the seasonal rains to strip the land of its valuable top soil. The rocky soil left behind lacked the nutrients needed to support the rubber trees. Thus they failed to grow.

The trees that did take root and started growing were then stricken with a leaf blight that all but killed them.

Worker discontent grew to a point where they eventually revolted, left their jobs and fled the compound. When Ford managers confronted the locals, riots broke out. By the time the Brazilian military arrived, windows were broken, vehicles were overturned and Fordlandia was a stricken city.

By 1933 Forlandia was abandoned and the plantation project was declared a failure.