The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City
By Greg Grandin
The best true-life tales involve big ideas striving to find a home in a big place--think Lewis and Clark mapping the American West, John Franklin traversing the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage, Thor Heyerdahl chasing a theory of Polynesian civilization across the Pacific in a balsa raft.
In 1927, Henry Ford had his own big idea: he wanted to build the largest rubber plantation in the world amid one of the last big places left, the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. His project would be called Fordlandia. It would be home to 25,000 workers and 100,000 residents. It would export some six million tons of rubber annually. And it would be achieved by following the same precepts that had already made Ford spectacularly wealthy.
The project made a certain amount of sense. Rubber was native to the Amazon, and for decades it yielded great wealth for a fortunate few; the 1896 Manaus opera house, among other follies, sprouted amid lush tropical foliage. Then an Englishman named Henry Wickham smuggled out a sack of seeds (an early instance of what's now called biopiracy), whereupon it was discovered that rubber trees grew even better in Southeast Asia. In no time, Asian plantations flourished, pumping hundreds of thousands of tons of latex into global markets. They quickly overtook their progenitors in Brazil, and brought to a crashing halt the era of the South American rubber baron.
Ford sensed an opportunity--he figured that shifting geopolitics could suddenly hinder access to Asian resources. Plus, owning his own plantation would control costs and guarantee that he wouldn't end up in the thrall of monopolists. He had already had some experience building model communities in remote surroundings on a smaller scale: he'd developed logging villages in frigid northern Michigan, in which he'd built and controlled schools, churches, and recreational facilities. He saw no reason that such an approach couldn't be replicated in the sweltering Amazon.
When moving into the Amazon, Ford rejected the old ways of rubber harvesting--in which workers lived in far-flung villages and were paid by the pound for gathering latex. He would house his Brazilian workers in suburban communities like those found around his factories in southern Michigan and his lumber mills to the north; he'd provide them with a decent wage and teach...