It’s my last weekend in Brazil, so we decide to travel by boat to one of the places that Maurício and I have both wanted to visit for a long time – Fordlândia, the extraordinary project set up by Henry Ford in the late 1920s to demonstrate to Brazilians how rubber should be produced! No more relying on rubber trees randomly distributed in the forest, but a proper plantation with the trees in straight lines!
Maurício, a friend of his and I take an Amazon boat – the Leão – in the late afternoon from Santarém port. The boat is full of cargo, mainly the motorbikes that are so prevalent these days, and passengers who have slung their hammocks on the upper and lower decks. We’d come earlier to reserve a good, airy place for our hammocks and then gone off to have lunch. A mistake. When we come back, we find that a woman has put her hammock between ours, making it very crowded. A bit of good-natured banter, and she moves her hammock to a new place that we find for her. Similar jostling for positions happens all around us.
It’s a lovely evening, and it’s a delight to look out over the dark waters of the wide Tapajós river as the light fades and the full moon rises. Sipping ice-cold beer from a can, we see the communities on the bank becoming beacons of light as they switch on their generators. When I first came to this region in the 1970s, almost all of the thatched riverside houses relied on strong-smelling, unreliable kerosene lamps. So some progress here, at least.
There’s a sudden storm in the night, with lightning and loud thunder. The crew unfurl the covers down the sides of the boat to stop us getting wet, and on we go. The boat is going to Itaituba, with a quick stop in Fordlândia at 4 a.m. There was no proper announcement and, without Maurício, I might well have sailed on to Itaituba. So what do we do now, in Fordlândia in the middle of the night? There’s been a party here, and many of the revellers, who came from outside the town, have slung their hammocks in a boat moored in the port. So we do the same. It’s so easy.
Maurício and his friend are asleep again in an instant, but I’m wide awake. So I creep off the boat and wander along the riverbank. I think all of Fordlândia was partying, so there is no one around. Just birds calling and diving, fish coming up for air, the sounds of the forest. After a couple of kilometres or so, I come across a bright green, treacherous-looking swamp. No way I can risk trying to get across that, so I decide to walk back.
There are still a lot of the old American installations, though unfortunately the buildings are not being maintained and are slowly collapsing. There’s a giant warehouse where the rubber was stored and another where timber from the forest was brought to be sawn up to build houses and other installations. Other buildings were used to store the imported machinery, bits of which are still lying around.
It’s here that the scale of the undertaking – and the expense involved – hit me. Just to imagine bringing in all this equipment and everything else (tools for the workshops, tiles for the houses, food, medicines) into this remote area makes me reel. On shelves lie some wooden crates which were used to import goods from the USA and Europe. On one of them, half destroyed, you can clearly see the remains of a swastika.
The machinery has been looted for anything valuable. Just as in England, the thieves have been particularly keen to strip out the copper. What vandals, I think. But later in the day we notice that some of the split oars used by the local fishermen have been repaired with copper wire. Vandalism or justifiable recycling?
The community still benefits from some of the work the Americans did. A giant water tank is still in use, making Fordlândia one of the few riverside communities to have running water. The sturdy houses they built, immediately recognisable as American, have thick wooden floors and airy verandas. They are spaced evenly along a pleasant avenue, the trees now really tall, giving ample shade. Even today people like living in these houses, because they are roomy and cool, partly because they were built on a hill, where they catch the breeze. They also have a great view of the river.
So what went awry? Well, the project was wrong-headed from the beginning. Scientists knew at the time that successful plantations couldn’t be created in the region where a species originated. Rubber trees are scattered irregularly across the Amazon forest because their natural predators devour other seedlings; the trees need the rest of the forest to survive. Rubber plantations could succeed in Malaysia, where there were no natural predators, but not in the Amazon. It was perhaps typical of the American confidence of the time that Ford thought he could ignore this basic fact of biological life.
Other aspects of the project reflect a similar arrogance. Ford decided to replicate in the Amazon the industrial work practices dominant in the USA at the time. He established fixed working hours and, just as in the USA and Europe, the labourers were expected to drop everything and go to the factory when the siren was sounded. But ribeirinhos (river dwellers) have a different rhythm: they are guided by the season, the weather, the hours of daylight. In their way of life there is no such thing as a 10-hour working day. Inherent in the project was a brutal clash of cultures, symbolised perhaps by the difficulties the company had in keeping the siren in working order, as it was repeatedly corroded by the high level of humidity.
According to Greg Grandin, who has written a book on Fordlândia, the Americans were equally dogmatic about the way their workers should live. Unmarried men weren’t allowed to leave their lodging to frequent the town’s bars and brothels. No fish or farinha (manioc flour) at mealtimes, but oats, rice, wholemeal bread and tinned peaches, with the cost of the food deducted from the workers’ pay packets. One day this just got too much: an irritated worker queuing in the canteen began to hurl pots and pans on to the floor. The rest joined in, smashing everything. The riot became known as the Revolta das Panelas (the Pots and Pans Revolt). Henry Food, who never visited the project (though a house was built for him), reacted harshly, sacking all the workers.
In the early 1940s the inevitable happened: the plantations were infected by a fungus. In 1945 the operation was closed down, at a huge loss. It had been a disaster waiting to happen. Yet it is sad today to see the abandoned installations. They should be preserved, if only as a monument to human folly. Perhaps, if the town became part of a tourist itinerary, American visitors could bring to the impoverished inhabitants of Fordlândia the wealth that never came with the plantation.