Henry Ford’s Amazon colony
Industrial boom-and-bust cycles have driven the rise and demise of large areas since the Industrial Revolution mechanized the world. Some of the losers in capitalism’s big game can be found in the unlikeliest of places — such as the Brazilian jungle.
Up the Tapajos River, a tributary to the mighty Amazon, Henry Ford established a plantation the size of Tennessee to produce rubber for his automobile business, which was the world’s largest. As New York University associate professor Greg Grandin explains in “Fordlandia,” Ford Motor Co. planted its stake in the middle of nowhere, 18 hours by boat from the Amazonas provincial capital of Manaus. This city is 2,716 miles from Rio de Janeiro — the distance between Washington, D.C. and Seattle.
In the 1920s, half of all cars in the world were Ford Model Ts. By the time the model was discontinued in 1927, more than 15 million Tin Lizzies had been sold. The car’s creator, and founder of the company that still bears his name and is run by the Ford family 106 years later, was the richest man in the world. Ford is known as the man who put America on wheels because he made it possible for the masses to buy cars, which had been the exclusive preserve of the wealthy before the arrival of the Model T.
As the industrialist himself put it: “I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for [. . . ] it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one — and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
Ford was more than an automotive engineer; he also was a social engineer. He was a strong defender of American exceptionalism who insisted that his immigrant work force take courses in English and U.S. history and civics as a job requirement. His worldview was based on the principle that social revolution and chaos could be avoided if the lower classes had better jobs and a better standard of living. He believed creating new opportunities could allow the working class to be raised without lowering the in- vestor class.
In 1914, the Wall Street Journal castigated Ford for “economic blunders if not crimes” when he instituted the unheard-of wage of $5 per day for an eight-hour work day. The policy wasn’t entirely benevolent. Central to his idea was that paying people better wages made it possible for them to purchase the products they made, creating millions of new customers.
Ford could only sell cars to the masses if he could make them cheaper and better than anyone else. To accomplish this, he standardized the assembly process using interchangeable parts and the moving assembly line that could churn out a finished automobile every three minutes. Vertical integration, a business strategy in which a company controls every aspect of production and distribution of a product, meant that Ford had major holdings in countless sectors of the economy.
From start to finish, Ford Motor Co. controlled every step of the process from developing raw materials to driving a complete automobile off the assembly line and selling it. And that’s where the Amazon comes into play.
The material demands of feeding massive factories sparked a war for resources that spanned the globe. In many instances, company towns were established where resources were located. Iron City, Mich., was built amid the great forests of the Upper Peninsula to provide timber for Ford cars. The problem was rubber could not be grown in Michigan, and cars require a lot of rubber for tires, hoses and numerous other parts.
The British Empire enjoyed a virtual monopoly on rubber, which came from its vast colonial plantations in Malaya. With this monopoly came the ability to fix prices. After World War I devastated the British economy, the British government cut back on the rubber supply to drive up prices, and thus earnings for the Exchequer.
In 1925, tire magnate Harvey Firestone, Ford’s oldest business partner, begged the most powerful industrialist to help him break up the British rubber cartel. Like oil today, rubber was a choke point for U.S. industry. Ford’s answer was simple: “Grow your own rubber!” Thus, the plan was hatched for Ford Motor Co. to grow its own rubber. Ford looked at the effort to establish a foothold in Brazil as a way to simultaneously inject competition into commodity markets and establish modernity in the untamed jungle. This was his chance to spread his American gospel to the darkest corners of the world.
In the middle of the wilder- ness, Ford spent tens of millions of dollars to drop a replica of a Midwestern town — that became its own autonomous state — complete with single-family bungalows with indoor plumbing, public schools, a modern hospital, banks, golf courses, its own police, paved streets and even fire hydrants, which at this time were not even found in most European cities. The locals called him “St. Ford” because of his vision and the wages he offered.
Man and nature conspired to ruin Ford’s dream of civilizing the Amazon. Corrupt Brazilian oli- garchs drove up prices for anything that couldn’t be shipped from the United States. Leftists fomented worker revolts, which had a long history in a region long troubled by class warfare.
But the most serious trouble was that Brazil simply could not produce rubber as efficiently as Malayan forests. Although not native to Southeast Asia, rubber trees produced a much larger yield in Malaya than in their natural Brazilian habitat because their natural predators — bugs and birds — don’t exist there. In 1945, less than 20 years after being founded, Fordlandia was abandoned.
The decay and gradual disappearance of Henry Ford’s jungle city now is playing out in major urban centers all across America’s industrial Midwest. Detroit, once one of the world’s richest cities and the homeownership capital of the world, is becoming a ghost town like Fordlandia.
Brett M. Decker, managing editor for the Opinion Pages at The Washington Times, is a former assembly-line worker for Ford Motor Co.