Abandoned in the rainforest: Henry Ford’s Fordlandia was to be inhabited by 10,000 people to secure a source of cultivated rubber for his cars

Neil Patrick

The town had a strict set of rules imposed by the managers. Alcohol, women, tobacco and even football were forbidden within the town, including inside the workers’ own homes.

Inspectors would go from house to house to check how organised the houses were and to enforce these rules.

The inhabitants circumvented these prohibitions by paddling out to merchant riverboats moored beyond town jurisdiction,often hiding contraband goods inside fruits like watermelons.

A small settlement was established 5 miles upstream on the “Island of Innocence” with bars, nightclubs and brothels.
The land was hilly, rocky and infertile.

None of Ford’s managers had the requisite knowledge of tropical agriculture.

In the wild, the rubber trees grow apart from each other as a protection mechanism against plagues and diseases, often growing close to bigger trees of other species for added support.

In Fordlândia, however, the trees were closely together in plantations, easy prey for tree blight, sauva ants, lace bugs, red spiders, and leaf caterpillars.

The workers on the plantations were given unfamiliar food, such as hamburgers and canned food, and forced to live in American-style housing.

Most disliked the way they were treated, being required to wear ID badges, and work through the middle of the day under the tropical sun – and would often refuse to work.

In 1930, the native workers grew tired of the American food and revolted in the town’s cafeteria. This became known as the Breaking Pans.

The rebels proceeded to cut the telegraph wires and chased away the managers and even the town’s cook into the jungle for a few days until the Brazilian Army arrived and the revolt ended. Agreements were then made on the type of food the workers would be served.

The government of Brazil was suspicious of any foreign investments, particularly in the northern Amazonian region, and offered little help. It wasn’t long before the numerous problems began to take a toll on the project and the decision was made to relocate.

Fordlândia was ultimately abandoned by the Ford Company in 1934, with the project being relocated downstream to Belterra, 28 miles south of the city of Santarém.

Where better conditions to grow rubber existed, but by 1945 synthetic rubber had been developed, reducing world demand for natural rubber.

Ford’s investment opportunity dried up overnight without producing any rubber for Ford’s tires, and the second town was also abandoned.

In 1945, Henry Ford’s grandson Henry Ford II sold the area comprising both towns back to the Brazilian government for a loss of over US$20 million ($208 million 2013 dollars).

In spite of the huge investment and numerous invitations, Henry Ford never visited either of his ill-fated towns.

Water tower and other building in Fordlandia, Brazil. source

Water tower and other building in Fordlandia, Brazil. source

Between the 1950s and late 1970s, after being given back the rights to the lands, the Brazilian government, through its Ministry of Agriculture, installed several facilities in the area.

The houses that once belonged to Ford’s rubber tappers were then given to the families of the Ministry’s employees, whose some descendants still occupy to this day.

The town remained inhabited by roughly 90 people until the latter half of the 2000s.

No basic services were offered in the area, with medical help only coming by boat in long intervals.

That changed when people looking for places to live decided to go back into the town, often claiming houses. The town, now a district of Aveiro, is home to nearly three thousand people as of 2015 and seeks emancipation.