Between the late 1920s and the end of the second world war, the Amazonie in Brazil has been home to one of Henry Ford’s utopian dreams of taming industry and society by creating a typical town of his own that he named Fordlandia. The project faced too many challenges from the very beginning, and despite all the work and dedication of Ford to the success of his idea, it has been severely criticized and the excitement around it didn’t last long. Today, Fordlandia is barely known and its name is hence associated with a businessman’s biggest failure.

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An aerial view of Fordlândia_© CREDIT JESO CARNEIRO

The Story Behind Henry Ford’s Visionary

Henry Ford was a famous automotive genius and a mastermind of production. He founded one of the most famous companies in the world, the ”Ford Motor Company” and revolutionized the car industry, but he, unfortunately, failed to build his very own town in the middle of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil

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Henry Ford with Model T in Buffalo, NY, 1921_© IMAGE FROM THE COLLECTIONS OF THE HENRY FORD

The story behind Fordlandia isn’t much about making more money, as Henry Ford declared in May 1928 to The Magazine of Business: “We will get our men in Brazil. We are not going to South America to make money but to help develop that wonderful and fertile land…We’ll train the Brazilians and they’ll work as well as any others.” Henry understood the business market and his clients very well, but he was also known for treating his workers better than anyone in his era. Hence, the idea of his utopian city came from his long-standing belief in the virtue of workers. 

The History of Fordlandia

In the late 1920s, when Brazil lost its grip over the world’s market for rubber production, and the dominance went to the hands of the Netherlands and England, the costs of the supply had augmented and hence the United States started, looking for new ways to bypass the unfair prices mainly established by Britain Stevenson. As three-quarters of the rubber imported to the US was used in the automobile industry, Henry Ford’s business was directly affected by the issue, when the prices were inflating his cars’ production, and he hence beneficiated from a land concession of one million hectares (2.5 million acres) in the heart of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, which was the beginning of Fordlandia.

Ford’s Vision was not limited to the plantation of rubber trees in the Amazonian, and the control of the supply costs, but he wanted to build an entire city, a utopia for the people of Brazil, which he would name Fordlandia. The settlement began with clearing the jungle before any building could be erected, where local workers were hired to help and managed to prepare the land and build the town, despite all the natural constraints.

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Rubber trees in Fordlândia_© Courtesy of the Collections of Henry Ford

The Failures and The Fading of Fordlandia 

Too many would agree that the city of Fordlandia was doomed before it even began, and the main reason for this heavy failure was Ford’s lack of knowledge in planning and his ignorance about ecological communities, the cultural context, and the lifestyle of people in that area. He wanted the city to be like a small midwestern town, designed around his notions of American values (classic American houses and American-style hospitals, schools, pools, playground, tailors, restaurants, etc.). 

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Square dancing hall, Church, swimpool, and hospital in Fordlandia_© Ford Motor Company Photographic Department

Employees were very well paid compared to the typical pay in the Far East, and they beneficiated from free housing, food, and good medical care with proper sanitation that has helped to eradicate the native epidemic diseases on the plantation. However, this didn’t solve the social problems and violence generated by the Ford-style regimentation and the dearborn lifestyle he imposed for workers who soon started leaving, and Fordlandia fell to several social vices and riots.

In addition to this social failure, the Amazonian’s ecosystem was not in favour of Ford’s visionary. The heavy rains were washing out the soil needed for growing the rubber trees, and the compact plantation system has led to the creation of a natural incubator for insects that attacked people and trees, and that was mainly because of the absence of horticultural specialists in the implementation process from the beginning.

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Fordlandia’s Factory_© Ford Motor Company Photographic Department

Along with riots, diseases, and natural disasters, Fordlandia has also faced outside critics from companies and journalists who exaggerated the assessment on Ford’s project, who kept denying them and refused to give up on his utopian dream. By 1933, lessons were learned and Ford finally hired a plant pathologist and other specialists and technicians to lead the new plantation downstream of Fordlandia, known as Belterra, where most of the troubles were solved and the epidemic was contained, till the start of the Second World War. 

After the war, Fordlandia was sold for the Brazilian government by Henry Ford’s grandson, and the American residents headed home while the Brazilian ones were left confused about their destiny. The town has severely failed and only 90 people remained there, until the beginning of the twenty-first century when people started returning home and claiming houses in the area. 

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Disused house in modern Fordlândia_©Méduse (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Fall of a Town or The Rise of a Hope

Today, Fordlandia is not only home for thousands of people who decided to head back to this lost city in the last few years. It is also subject to much research, writings, documentaries, and an exciting destination to the most curious photographers. It stands in the deep Amazon rainforest as a reminder of a mastermind’s failure, or perhaps, it is waiting for a new rise in the future.

But Fordlandia was not only a business story, it was a lesson in planning and a fascinating social innovation experiment. Ford has offered us a paradigm that we can use today when implementing city plans in a new environmental and cultural context, anywhere in the world.

Henry Ford’s ‘Fordlandia’ in Brazilian jungle_© Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

References

Google Arts & Culture. 2021. Fordlandia – The Henry Ford – Google Arts & Culture. [online] Available at: <https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/fordlandia-the-henry-ford/mwISITZarGKCJg?hl=en> [Accessed 6 July 2021].

Npr.org. 2021. NPR Cookie Consent and Choices. [online] Available at: <https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105068620#:~:text=It%20was%201927.,It%20was%20called%20%22Fordlandia.%22&text=There%20was%20a%20huge%20clash,way%20the%20indigenous%20people%20lived.> [Accessed 6 July 2021].

Author

Oumaima is an architect and a spatial planning student passionate about arts, cultures and everything in between. She is a constant learner and a striver for continual growth, who spends most of her time, gathering inspirations, writing rad thoughts, exploring stories throughout architecture and putting colorful poems on paper & canvas.

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