FORWARD BASE B

"Pay my troops no mind; they're just on a fact-finding mission."

Fordlândia

In the early 20th century, a cartel of Dutch and English rubber barons had a stranglehold on the vast majority of the world’s supply of rubber. At that time the sole source of rubber was the South American tree Hevea brasiliensis, whose sap is natural latex. In the 1870s a gaggle of entrepreneurial smugglers had secreted a stash of wild rubber tree seeds out of the Amazon rain forest, which they used to establish sprawling plantations in East Asia. These smothered the output of Brazil, causing their owners to eventually enjoy the majority of the world’s rubber business.

But by the late 1920s, the infamous automobile tycoon Henry Ford set out to break the back of this rubbery monopoly. His hundreds of thousands of new cars needed millions of tires, which were very expensive to produce when buying raw materials from the established rubber lords. To that end, he established Fordlândia, a tiny piece of America which was transplanted into the Amazon rain forest for a single purpose: to create the largest rubber plantation on the planet. Though enormously ambitious, the project was ultimately a fantastic failure.

Scores of Ford employees were relocated to the site, and over the first few months an American-as-apple-pie community sprung up from what was once a jungle wilderness. It included a power plant, a modern hospital, a library, a golf course, a hotel, and rows of white clapboard houses with wicker patio furniture. As the town’s population grew, all manner of businesses followed, including tailors, shops, bakeries, butcher shops, restaurants, and shoemakers. It grew into a thriving community with Model T Fords frequenting the neatly paved streets.

Outside of the residential area, long rows of freshly-planted saplings soon dotted the landscape. Ford chose not to employ any botanists in the development of Fordlândia’s rubber tree fields, instead relying on the cleverness of company engineers. Having no prior knowledge of rubber-raising, the engineers made their best guess, and planted about two hundred trees per acre despite the fact that there were only about seven wild rubber trees per acre in the Amazon jungle.

Local laborers were offered a wage of thirty-seven cents a day to work on the fields of Fordlândia, which was about double the normal rate for that line of work. But Ford’s effort to transplant America– what he called “the healthy lifestyle”– was not limited to American buildings, but also included mandatory “American” lifestyle and values. The plantation’s cafeterias were self-serve, which was not the local custom, and they provided only American fare such as hamburgers. Workers had to live in American-style houses, and they were each assigned a number which they had to wear on a badge– the cost of which was deducted from their first paycheck. Brazilian laborers were also required to attend squeaky-clean American festivities on weekends, such as poetry readings, square-dancing, and English-language sing-alongs.

One of the more jarring cultural differences was Henry Ford’s mini-prohibition. Alcohol was strictly forbidden inside Fordlândia, even within the workers’ homes, on pain of immediate termination.

This led some industrious locals to establish businesses-of-ill-repute beyond the outskirts of town, allowing workers to exchange their generous pay for the comforts of rum and women.

Workers’ discontent grew as the unproductive months passed. Brazilian workers– accustomed to working before sunrise and after sunset to avoid the heat of the day– were forced to work proper “American” nine-to-five shifts under the hot Amazon sun, using Ford’s assembly-line philosophies. And malaria became a serious problem due to the hilly terrain’s tendency to pool water, providing the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes.

In December of 1930, after about a year of working in a harsh environment with a strict and disagreeable “healthy lifestyle”, the laborers’ agitation reached a critical mass in the workers’ cafeteria. Having suffered one too many episodes of indigestion and degradation, a Brazilian man stood and shouted that he would no longer tolerate the conditions.

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“There were knife fights, there were riots over food and attempts to impose Ford-style regimentation,” Grandin says. “When people ask me what Fordlandia was like, I tell them to think more of Deadwood than Our Town.”

Things went bad over simple stuff, like serving food. “Ford had very particular understandings about what a proper diet should be,” Grandin says. “He tried to impose brown rice and whole-wheat bread and canned peaches and oatmeal — and that itself created discontent.”

But when a Ford engineer changed the way food was served — from wait service to cafeteria-style service — the workers rebelled. Angry workers destroyed the mess hall, pushed trucks into the river and nearly ruined the whole operation. It cost tens of thousands of dollars of damage, Grandin says.

Ford was so distrustful of experts that he never even consulted one about rubber trees. If he had, Grandin says, he would have learned that plantation rubber can’t be grown in the Amazon. “The pests and the fungi and the blight that feed off of rubber are native to the Amazon. Basically, when you put trees close together in the Amazon, what you in effect do is create an incubator — but Ford insisted.”

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Pictures of Fordlândia

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