Henry Ford’s doomed attempt to establish a rubber industry and an attendant “work of civilization” in the rain forests of Brazil.
The rising price of rubber and a threatened British-led cartel inspired the famously independent Henry Ford in 1927 to purchase a Connecticut-sized plot of land for the purpose of growing his own. The South American leaf blight and the advent of synthetic rubbers forced the company to abandon Fordlandia in 1945, long after Ford had poured millions of dollars and years of strenuous effort into the project. So why did he persist? Grandin (Latin American History/New York Univ.; Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, The United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism, 2006, etc.) convincingly argues that, for Ford, the enterprise was more than a purely economic venture. It was a missionary application of Ford-style capitalism—high wages, humane benefits, moral improvement—to a backward land. Ford’s belief that he could harmonize industry and agriculture was always at war with the forces he had unleashed in the United States—mass-produced, affordable cars that encouraged mobility and fear induced in workers by hired thugs like Harry Bennett, who assured that the company would remain nonunion. With his vision of an industrial arcadia slipping away at home—due to what Grandin acutely terms “a blithe indifference to difference”—Ford attempted to construct in the Amazon a world he had helped obliterate in America. The author follows a succession of Ford representatives and managers overwhelmed by the challenges of doing business where the implacable terrain, jungle diseases, mounting costs, floundering construction, government bumbling and worker resistance all conspired to sink the project. The plantation’s original motive, to grow rubber, gave way to an unsustainable sociological experiment, which despite its amenities—weekly dances, movies, tennis courts, garden clubs, schools and hospitals—made no economic sense and became a mockery of the Ford Motor Company’s reputation for orderliness, efficiency and synchronization.
Works both as a nice bit of recovered history and a parable.