How a US Ghost Town Got in the Heart of the Amazon

Photo: Carol Laiate

Traveling through the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, one might expect to run across many strange and fascinating things -- but an American ghost town probably wouldn't be one of them. Yet deep in the world's largest rainforest lies the abandoned remnants of Fordlândia, a remote US-style factory town built by Henry Ford in the 1920s, intended to be an American utopia in the middle of the Amazon. Needless to say, things didn't work out too well.

The origins of how an American automotive company came to lay down roots in the middle of the rainforest can be traced back to the early years of the booming rubber industry. This region of Brazil, in the Amazonian state of Para, had long been dominated by rubber tree plantations which enjoyed a virtual monopoly as demand for the product increased globally during the industrial revolution. But soon seeds from the Amazon's rubber tree were smuggled out by foreign entrepreneurs and rubber plantations began sprouting up in places like East Asia, undercutting one of Brazil's most important exports.

Brazilian rubber-growers weren't the only ones feeling the pinch as foreign plantations raked in hefty profits from their new cash-crop. American industrialist Henry Ford's car company relied heavily on this expensive rubber to produce tires, and soon he devised a way to get it at a cheaper price -- by building a factory in the Amazon where the stuff literally grew on trees.

In the 1920s, Brazil struck a deal with the automaker in hopes that the company would create new jobs and help revive the country's fledgling rubber industry. The government offered up a huge tract of rainforest to be developed and exempted Ford from having to pay any taxes on exports. In exchange, Brazil would get a cut of the company's profits.

Photo via The Henry Ford

Soon, tractors were brought in the clear the land; prefab American-style houses and factories were constructed; and Ford employees began pouring in from the United States. In the late 20s, Fordlândia was born.

Although the Amazon rainforest is normally a fairly foreboding place, Ford made sure the town wasn't lacking in the modern comforts one might find in other car-manufacturing cities. In addition to its own power plant, Fordlândia was home to many types of shops, schools, a library, hotel, hospital -- and even a golf course!

For all the time and energy spent making Fordlândia an American city, however, Ford failed consider the difficulties of producing rubber in the Amazon. No one working for the US automaker, it seems, really knew how best to set up a rubber tree plantation. Unaccustomed to agricultural practices in the Amazon, Ford soon found that seedlings wouldn't grow at all in places where the fertile top-soil had been degraded. To make matters worse, parts of the plantation able to support the trees were eventually packed too tightly with them, allowing diseases like blight to spread quickly throughout the crop.

While the economic viability of the plantations at Fordlândia faltered, its social structure fared little better. In hopes of making a utopian "American" town that emphasized a healthy lifestyle, Ford prohibited some of the 'darker' luxuries of society, like alcohol. Not surprisingly, other towns began sprouting up beyond Fordlândia's limits where bars and brothels flourished.

Fordlândia's sizable workforce of indigenous workers, too, found life to be less than accommodating to their tastes. In place of local dishes, workers were fed American-style cuisine, like hamburgers. They were also forced to follow the workday schedule developed in US automotive factories, a departure from local custom.

Photo via The Henry Ford

The frustration of these indigenous laborers came to a head in 1930. Workers, fed up with the conditions in Fordlândia, began a riot in their cafeteria which soon spilled onto the streets. Terrified managers from Ford were forced to flee into the forest for refuge until the Brazilian military arrived restore order.

Despite the unrest among workers, Fordlândia remained in operation for some time later -- though rubber production never really improved there. Ford then decided to try his hand in another location in the Amazon, thinking that more investment in the region may mean a better yield. But before this new operation really got underway, the entire industry was transformed by a development which made rubber-trees virtually obsolete -- synthetic rubber, perfected during WWII.

Ironically, Henry Ford died without ever having been to the Amazon town that bares his name. In 1945, the industrialist's grandson, Henry Ford II, closed down Fordlândia and sold the land to the Brazilian government for a pittance.

In the years following Ford's departure from Fordlândia, Brazil attempted to preserve the town's infrastructure for some other purpose, though one never materialized. Now, aside from some small-scale farming operations, Henry Ford's American-style city turned ghost town in the Amazon is thought of as a tourist attraction.

Photo: Guido Otero

Although the experiment in building an American utopia in the middle of the Amazon rainforest didn't work out in the end for Ford, it's done little to discourage other international companies from setting up shop in the region. The Brazilian government continues to offer tax incentives in hopes of luring foreign investors to build in the sprawling, yet fragile, ecosystem.

In cities like Manaus, the largest in the Amazon, such incentives have given rise to development from other major corporations, like Nokia, Siemens, and Honda -- which might otherwise have found building factories in the rainforest to be impractical. Nevertheless, these communities show no signs of turning into ghost towns like Fordlândia. In fact, new roads being built in the Amazon and newly exploited energy sources ensure that development will persist.

So, while Henry Ford's namesake town is slowly enveloped by the rainforest it once rudely cut through, it may look quite the opposite of the shape of things to come.

More on the Amazon Rainforest
TreeHugger Reports From the Heart of the Amazon
A Remote Amazon Oil Facility Tries to Go Green
Can Sustainability Grow in a Deforested Rainforest?

Tags: Amazonia | Brazil | Tourism | Transportation

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