In the 1870’s smugglers had come to the Amazon with the intent of taking the seeds of rubber trees.
They used these seeds to create sprawling rubber plantations in East Asia. The rubber barons of that time controlled nearly all of the world’s production and set the market for
rubber pricing. In the early 1900’s Ford was making hundreds of thousands of new cars that needed millions of tires. With the English and Dutch Barons controlling the prices, Henry Ford set out to find a new source of rubber for his tires.
By the 1920’s Ford was determined to break the rubber monopoly and began to make plans for a rubber plantation of his own, directly in the Amazon. The plan was to transplant a piece of America into the Amazon with the goal of creating the largest rubber
plantation in the world.
In the year 1929, Ford hired a native Brazilian named Villares to
survey the Amazon for a suitable location to host the massive undertaking.
Brazil seemed the ideal choice considering that the trees in question were
native to the region, and the rubber harvest could be shipped to the tire
factories in the US by land rather than by sea. On Villares' advice, Ford
purchased a 25,000 square kilometer tract of land along the Amazon River, and
immediately began to develop the area. A barge-toting steamer arrived with
earth-moving equipment, a pile driver, tractors, stump pullers, a locomotive,
ice-making machines, and prefabricated buildings. Workers began erecting a
rubber processing plant as the surrounding area was razed of
Scores of Ford employees were relocated to the site, and over the
first few months an American-as-apple-pie community sprung up from what was once
a jungle wilderness. It included a power plant, a modern hospital, a library, a
golf course, a hotel, and rows of white clapboard houses with wicker patio
furniture. As the town's population grew, all manner of businesses followed,
including tailors, shops, bakeries, butcher shops, restaurants, and shoemakers.
It grew into a thriving community with Model T Fords frequenting the neatly
Ford began relocating workers to Fordlandia but, opted not to
hire any botonists, instead relying on company engineers.
Despite the fact that there were only about seven rubber trees per acre
in the wild, the engineers planted 200 per acre. The established plantations in East
Asia were packed with flourishing trees so, it seemed reasonable to assume the
plants native land would be just as accommodating.
Ford’s mini America in the jungle attracted a slew of workers by offering nearly double a normal wage for the work but, many of the residents did not like Ford’s forcing of a “clean lifestyle”. One of the more jarring cultural differences was Henry Ford's mini-prohibition. Alcohol was strictly forbidden inside Fordlândia, even within the workers' homes, on pain of immediate termination.
This led some industrious locals to establish businesses-of-ill-repute beyond the outskirts of town, allowing workers to exchange their generous pay for the comforts of rum and
The biggest problem Fordlandia faced though was not disgruntled workers; it was the Rubber trees themselves. The hilly land hemorrhaged all of its topsoil leaving the only rocky, infertile soil behind. The trees that survived were soon stricken with leaf blight leaving them stunted and useless.
The problems continued as the hilly terrain tended to pool water, providing a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, leading to a serious malaria problem.
In 1933, after three years with no appreciable quantity of rubber to show for the investment, Henry Ford finally hired a botanist to assess the situation. The botanist tried to coax some fertile rubber trees from the pitiful soil, but he was ultimately forced to conclude that the land was simply unequal to the task. The damp, hilly terrain was terrible for the trees, but excellent for the blight. Unfortunately no one had paid attention to the fact that the land's previous owner was a man named Villares-- the same man Henry Ford had hired to choose the plantation's site. Henry Ford had been sold a lame portion
of land, and Fordlândia was an unadulterated failure.
Ford did not give up on his goal though. He purchased a new plot of land fifty miles downstream establishing the town of Beltarra. While his new land showed much more promise, progress was slow and while his investment may have eventually paid off, scientist had developed economical synthetic rubber just as Belterra was establishing
Ford’s losses were the equivalent of $200 million in today’s dollars making Fordlandia one of the most epic failures of all time.