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A city in Pará, 120km from Santarém and 850km from the state capital, Belém, carries today the name of one of the twentieth century’s greatest exponents of capitalism. Fordlândia was created by the entrepreneur that has long been synonymous with capital: Henry Ford.
Born in 1863, Ford made history when he founded the Ford Motor Company and establish in its factories the production line that would later be called “Fordism”: lines of workers repeating the same task all day, beside the conveyer belts that circulated automobile parts. Ford’s reach was such that one of the most popular models, the Model T, sold over fifteen million units in nineteen years of circulation. In 1921, for example, 50% of the cars on the entire planet’s city streets were of this brand.
Willing to invest more and more into the fledgling automobile industry, Ford created an ambitious expansion plan on Brazilian soil in order to circumvent the English monopoly of latex production. In 1923, the US government sent a mission to Brazil, the American Rubber Mission, in order to establish the viability of rubber production and the adoption of the Brazilian rubber into the Yankee market. Fordlândia, a dream city, was soon to become reality: in 1927, deciding to invest in latex extraction in Brazil, for $127,000 Ford acquired a million hectares of land from grower Jorge Dumont Villares and created the Ford Industrial Company of Brazil. One detail is that the Government of Brazil had promised to donate land for free, so Ford had already entered Brazil with a loss. This, however, did not dampen his spirit or his expansionist drive.
Thus, in 1928, the deforestation began to build the city, which would rise on the banks of the Tapajós River. The ships Lake Farge and Lake Ormoc came from the United States with wood, tiles and some rubber seedlings in their holds. The city plan was a US-style model, and so there were golf courses, tennis courts, a church, movie theatre and fire hydrants in the streets of Fordlândia. The rubber plantations were planted in separated blocks on the river banks. Three thousand people were hired to clear the forest and plant rubber trees. As payment was in cash, a rarity there, and biweekly for those working in the field, requests for job seekers rained down. But there was also difficulty in hiring labour.
Over time, on the one hand the city grew and boasted the best hospital in the region and the American Village – home to the administrators coming from North America. But on the other, the strict rules bothered the Brazilian natives who had found a livelihood there. There was prohibition of alcohol consumption, a siren marked the beginning and the end of work shifts, and there were repetitions on the menu served to employees – factors that led to a revolt known as “break-pots” (quebra-panelas): mixed-raced natives revolted against the mandatory eating of spinach and demanded their staple diet of fish with beans and manioc flour. So in 1930, a riot erupted in the cafeteria, which highlighted the cultural differences between the people who were there.
At the same time, the plantation was attacked by South American Leaf Blight (mal-das-folhas – leaf sickness), which greatly hindered the production of latex. In 1931, there were nine hundred hectares planted, very little compared to the initial estimate of two hundred thousand acres and yield of 1500 kilograms of rubber per hectare. The following year, the company hired a rubber specialist, English botanist James Weir. In 1936, Weir advised the termination of activities in Fordlândia and the migration of cultivation to Belterra, a municipality 48 kilometres from Santarém. With a more rectilinear terrain and better weather conditions, the plantation survived, though without much success.
With the end of World War II in 1945 came synthetic rubber. Produced in Japan, Germany and Russia, it became more practical and cheaper than the extraction of latex that gave rise to natural rubber. Two decades after arriving in Brazil, and without ever stepping foot on Brazilian soil, Henry Ford sold his land to the national government for about $250 thousand dollars and abandoned his activities in the Amazon. Fordlândia, now part of the municipality of Aveiro, is a portrait of an era that did not work. In all biographies of Henry Ford, it is one of the few chapters that describe failure in a m.an’s career that has become a benchmark of world capitalism.
Recife, 23 May 2014.
Translated by Peter Leamy, February 2015.
Updated on 04 may 2017.
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