Why Henry Ford’s utopian city in the Amazon failed

    04 Nov 2021

    Ninety-four years ago, Henry Ford built a utopian city in the Amazon, intended to be free from alcohol and unemployment. But seven years later, the Fordland project failed. We’ve found a brilliant explanation of why no one liked living in Ford’s utopia. Columnist Anton Semizhenko has read a dozen articles and a book by Greg Grandin, “Fordlandia: The Rise And Fall Of Henry Fordʼs Forgotten Jungle City,” about Fordland and tells the story of a utopian experiment.

    Let’s get to know more!


    In September 1927, automobile tycoon Henry Ford rented 15,000 square kilometers of Brazil jungle. He planned to plant this area with Hevea and produce the rubber needed for car tires and cables. And at the same time, he wanted to create an ideal, by the standards of Ford, settlement – utopia, in which everyone would receive a decent salary and have cultural leisure. Ford invested millions of dollars in the project, which was supposed to “show the magic of the white man.” However, nothing came of it: people did not want to live by Ford’s rules, and pests destroyed the plantation. Until recently, Fordland was a picturesque ruin. But in recent years, life has returned there again.


    Henry Ford had his own views on social utopia

    Henry Ford in the 1920s was similar to Elon Musk in the modern world. An inventor and industrialist, he made available a new kind of goods – cars. But Ford’s ambition was much more than just a business.

    By 1927, Ford had managed to solve most of the current business challenges. With an affordable and reliable Ford T, the industrialist has taken over half of the US car market. Thanks to constant improvements in the conveyor approach, the cost of cars has decreased, as has the need for labor. The new plant south of Detroit was at that time an industrial miracle, striking in scale – almost a hundred buildings, 70 thousand workers, endless conveyor belts. Fighting turnover at its factories, Ford doubles average wages.

    If, in general, in the automotive industry, the wage rate was $2.5 a day, the Ford factories paid five.

    This made him an idol among workers who had the opportunity to save money and buy cars they made. The press of the mid-1920s mentioned more often only the then US President Calvin Coolidge. (Republican Coolidge ruled the country from 1923 to 1929).

    Salary became the reason for social experiments. It turned out that not all workers strive to save money or improve their life. At the beginning of the 20th century, in addition to luxurious theaters, Detroit became famous for countless drinks and brothels. Henry Ford decided that it was necessary to change the established social order and the Americans’ way of life.

    The entrepreneur, who turned 64 in 1927, had his views on how people and states should live. He perceived mechanization and industrialization as salvation from all problems, in particular from wars. When the civil war broke out in Mexico in the 1910s, the industrialist said: “You just have to give the Mexicans a job and normal salaries, which they can use to buy a car. Having gotten out on it outside their region, they will understand that people in other cities are the same, their brothers. And the grounds for war will disappear.”


    Henry Ford and World War I

    Henry Ford was such a pacifist that he opposed the very existence of the military. Army and weapons, he believed, would sooner or later lead to war. When the First World War broke out in Europe in 1914, a businessman equipped a “peace ship” at his own expense, thanks to which “the boy soldiers should have returned home by Christmas.” On this ship, a cruise liner, dozens of American moral authorities, led by Ford, were to travel from New York to Oslo and then with proclamations and conversations to convince the Europeans to stop the war. The idea failed: Ford fell ill on the way to Europe and returned to the United States by plane almost immediately upon arrival. Other delegates were unable to achieve measurable results.

    Ford’s peculiar vision of public life was manifested in many other ways. He opposed the concept of public holidays and once-fired 900 workers from Eastern Europe for not showing up as Orthodox Christians on January 7.

    Also, Ford hated the concept of animal husbandry and, in particular, cows, so in the canteens of his factories, milk was only soy. He also disliked cigarettes, alcohol, modern dances, ex-President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt, Wall Street bankers, labor unions, energy monopolies – and thought he knew how to do without all this.

    The business has ceased to be a goal for him – long-established processes and wealth have become only a means of organizing human life in a new way. The townships that Ford built for his workers in the States partially reflected his principles. In particular, no alcohol was sold there, but the influence of American habits was still strong. It was necessary to build an ideal world not on the American but preferably on the virgin territory. By the late 1920s, Ford was ready for this, both financially and organizationally.


    Ford Selects Brazil as Global Rubber Center

    Ford made production in its factories as technologically advanced as possible at the time, but one crucial component for its cars was still obtained in an archaic way. It is the rubber necessary for the rubber used to make tires, tires, cables, hoses, and wire wraps. Rubber was extracted from hevea (a tropical tree common in the jungle of the Amazon basin) juice.

    They did it this way: the bark was cut with long oblique lines on the trunk of an adult hevea (the tree reaches a meter in diameter). At the root, containers were placed into which the juice flowed. Then they fired it and formed a ball weighing several kilograms. These balls were rubber – resellers supplied them to American factories.

    Brazilian entrepreneurs were involved in the extraction of rubber. They hired natives from the Amazonian tribes for this work: they roamed the jungle, regularly collecting sap from the trees. Entrepreneurs lent them low-quality rum, jewelry, clothing, and rubber was bought at prices significantly lower than market prices. The use of essentially slave labor and the massive demand for rubber in the United States brought fabulous wealth to Brazilian traders. The main cities of the Amazon Basin – Manaus and Belem – tried to imitate the architecture of Paris and the diversity of New York. For example, in Manaus, there was an opera in which the main world stars of that time performed. The opera building was decorated with Italian marble, and the entrances to it were made of rubber – so that latecomers to the start of the performance would not disturb those who already enjoyed singing with noise.

    Other companies also leased land in South America

    In those days, American commercial companies’ lease of large areas of other states was a common practice. For example, the chocolate maker Hersheyʼs had a vast sugar cane plantation in Cuba. And the United Fruit Company, which traded in bananas, owned dozens of plantations, sorting workshops, and ports in Latin American countries. The company’s power and its influence on local elites gave birth to the term “banana republic” – an underdeveloped area where the government is a puppet, and the most valuable resource is natural raw materials. As observers of the time wrote, it is possible to spend months traveling between the various facilities of the United Fruit Company on its own ships without actually leaving the company’s territory. At these plantations and workshops, there were also residential settlements – similar to American villages and towns. Exotic to Ecuador or Cuba, they mimicked the American way of life.

    In the 1910s, rubber accounted for 40% of Brazilian exports. But the fairy tale did not last long: the hevea seeds got to London and from there to the countries of Southeast Asia. There were no natural pests that the tree suffered from in Brazil so that hevea could be grown on plantations. A few years later, the center of rubber production moved to Sri Lanka and neighboring countries. The Manaus opera was empty. The Brazilian government wondered how to get out of this situation. And then Henry Ford appeared.

    He offered Brazil to lease a jungle plot to his company.

    The area of the territory leased by Ford is 14,268 square kilometers.

    The local government would receive rent and a tax on the extracted rubber for this. Ford is a chance to modernize and reduce the cost of rubber production without relying on third-party suppliers. And, of course, to organize a settlement where people would live according to its rules.

    On September 30, 1927, Ford and the Brazilian authorities entered into a lease. The entrepreneur received permission to build a city with a population of 10 thousand people. The first ships with equipment set off from the States to the site off the banks of the Amazon tributary, the Tapahos River.

    The new city was to become one of the most modern in the world

    In the 1920s, the smoke of factory chimneys made people happy, and railroad tracks were considered such a blessing that the then journalists wrote: “Nature accepted them as relatives.” The direct connection between the state of the environment and the quality of life was not yet noticed. Ford’s plans to cut down the forest on his new site and plant it with hevea were perceived optimistically in society. “It is necessary to organize plantations on every available territory until the entire jungle is industrialized,” wrote the American magazine Time in 1928. The natives, on the other hand, had the opportunity to learn what civilized work, decent wages, and “the magic of the white man” are.

    Everything was transported from America to Brazil – from blueprints for houses to metal bolts and nuts, from door handles to an obstetric chair for a local hospital. Ford’s engineers had already planned the town – with hydrants, street lighting, cobblestones, a cinema, a swimming pool, and a golf course, then unusual even for the United States. With one of the best hospitals in Brazil and built-in washing machines and refrigerators unheard of for this country. Several years, tens of millions of dollars (at current prices, hundreds of millions), and the plans became a reality. Fords drove through the cobbled streets of Fordland, while the cottages were home to tribal people and Portuguese-speaking Brazilians who, a few months ago, could habitually spend the night in the open air, tried to adapt to the new reality.

    The reality was entirely consistent with Ford’s statement: “A hard-working person should have a rocking chair near a cozy fireplace and a beautiful lot in front of his own house.” American managers advised local workers to plant flowers in front of their homes and vegetables in a small vegetable garden. Their diet consisted of whole-grain bread, brown rice, and soy milk. There was also a cafeteria in the town with cheap quality food – Ford believed that cooking for a civilized person should be only entertainment.

    The cottages were built without fireplaces – the climate is not the same. But there were telephones, radios, and sewers. But theoretically, there was no alcohol: there was a dry law in the settlement, and managers had the right to go into a private house and search it for a prohibited drink.

    Ford took care of leisure too. On weekends, at the expense of the plantation, classes in classical dancing were conducted, the workers were read poems by William Wordsworth (English romantic poet who worked in the early 19th century. He believed that trees, stones, and wild animals emit moral impulses, and people, to live right, should just listen to them)  and Henry Longfellow (American poet of the mid-19th century, professed and praised strict Puritanism).

    The local cinema showed documentaries about expeditions to Africa and the Arctic – to inspire new achievements. Also they demonstrated promotional videos of the American Yellowstone Park and the luxurious Lincoln Zephyr car – to instill a sense of beauty. The screenings ended with a reminder that mowing the lawn in front of your house is a must.

    Journalists from North America and Western Europe, getting to Fordland, described the settlement as an islet of the West in the jungle, “a collection of the best that civilization can now provide.” When a fire broke out in the city and destroyed several districts, they were quickly rebuilt – there was no shortage of resources.

    But by the end of 1928, The Washington Post noted: “It seems that Ford’s usual approach to organizing production in the case of human lives did not work.”


    Fordlandia project failed after seven years

    The ideal lifestyle that Henry Ford dreamed of actually suited only Ford himself – none of the communities that inhabited the Help

    In the best times, the population of Fordland did not exceed three thousand people. The company hired two thousand of them to work on the plantations.

     Fordland, she didn’t want such a life. American managers in the jungle were bored. The work turned out to be routine, the list of films in the cinema was modest, classical dances as the only entertainment did not please. People missed work, neglected their duties. There were also cases of suicide. The Americans were plagued by local diseases – malaria and yellow fever.

    The Brazilian workers needed no dancing or documentaries. They are not used to bread or rice: there is even a case where an angry mob drove the canteen cooks into the jungle because they cooked American food that was not tasty for the locals. Order was then restored only with the help of the Brazilian army.

    But with alcohol, it was the other way around – it was banned but very popular. It was easy to buy rum in neighboring towns. US overseers often did not notice this, and Brazilian managers did not interfere.

    The facility’s American managers did not really have much control. The workers did not see the promised salary of five dollars a day (in 2021, adjusted for inflation, this is $79) – part of the money was appropriated by middle managers. And a few kilometers from Fordland, the locals built an unofficial town with drinks, brothels, and everything Ford hated so much.

    There was one more, purely production problem. The Brazilians have never planted hevea plantations but simply “milked” the wild trees in the jungle. No one knew how to properly use pesticides, at what distance to plant trees from one another. Burning out the jungle, workers turned the site into a swamp.

    When in the end, the hevea trees grew, they began to suffer. They were emaciated by aphids, fungi, ants, caterpillars, and spiders. In the jungle, among other trees, the hevea survives in the Amazon, but not on the plantation. In 1934, production in Fordland was closed. Most of the people left the village.


    In the XXI century, the city comes to life again

    Ford decided to try again, considering all of Fordland’s mistakes.

    A new plantation and town appeared near the Brazilian city of Santarem, but synthetic rubber was becoming more and more available by that time. In 1945, Ford abruptly stopped funding the experiment. His enterprises received not a single batch of rubber from Fordland or from near Santarem.

    And in Fordland itself, after 1934, there were about 90 residents who lived from the backyard economy. American-style houses – often delicate structures of glass and metal – gradually crumbled. The forest occupied the territory; people were leaving. By 2000, only a high water tower reminded that people once lived here.

    At the turn of the 2000s and 2010s, the settlement became a source of inspiration for artists and journalists. Argentine writer Eduardo Sigilgia wrote the novel “Fordland”, Icelandic composer Johannes Johannsson recorded a music album of the same name. American explorer Greg Grandin wrote a historical book about the settlement’s fate. Then the Brazilians themselves remembered about Fordland.

    The locals realized that the city’s location on the bank of the river was logistically advantageous. The road still allows driving by car, and the buildings are still of high quality even though they are old and dilapidated. Since they are nobody’s, people began to seize and restore them without permission.

    Year after year, the population of Fordland grew; in 2017, it reached three thousand people. On Google maps, you can already see a lot of new roofs, four shops, cafes, and restaurants. Well-groomed lawns in front of any of the houses, however, are absent.


    You may read about attempts of science fiction writer Philip Dick to describe dystopia and “mercerism” future ideology here.

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