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Fordlândia and Belterra: A Tale of Two Cities

Amazonian quick peek, with before and after links. What page comes before the cover, I wonder?

RENTON: Some people hate the English, but I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers. We can’t even pick a decent culture to be colonized by. We are ruled by effete arseholes. It’s a shite state of affairs and all the fresh air in the world will not make any fucking difference.  —Trainspotting

My most recent reading project: Fordlândia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s forgotten Jungle City, by Greg Grandin.

Used (very good): $15 bucks. When translated, no doubt by Compahia das Letras, into Portuguese (Brazilian), it will be at least twice that and maybe 8x that relative to local mean per capita income. (95% of Brazilians make less than R$800 ($400) per month.)

Publisher’s blurb:

The startling and untold story of a Quixotic attempt to recreate small-town America in the heart of the Amazon.

Top Amazon review:

Proving that truth can indeed be stranger than fictionFordlandia is the story of Henry Ford’s ill-advised attempt to transform raw Brazilian rainforest into homespun slices of Americana.

More tandom blurbs:

Fordlandia was, ultimately, the classic American parable of a failed Utopia, of soft dreams running aground on a hard world—which tends to make the most compelling tale of all.

To be read in the light of a recently launched Brazilian documentary, with the same title, on the same subject.

Publisher’s extended blurb:

More than a parable of one man’s arrogant attempt to force his will on the natural worldFordlandia depicts a desperate quest to salvage the bygone America that the Ford factory system did much to dispatch.

There are some impediments to this, my FitzCarraldean project:

  1. The delay in receiving shipments from Amazon through Cedex, the Sambodian government version of Fedex, and
  2. the fact that the documentary is not available from your local locadoura, or video rental joint, despite a constant clamor on the Internets: “Anyone know where to get a copy of Fordlândia (disambiguation:film)?”

In the meantime, I have been collecting what background material there is to be had from those crazy Internets and writing up some preliminary questions on my Lusophone blog, O Bicho, Preguiça — the title is a pun on “that beast, the sin of sloth” and bicho-preguiça, the three-toed tree sloth, its mascot.

A basic account of the historical facts that I found very useful is offered by the Web site of Conexão Oeste Produtora — a tourism-promotion company based in Santarem, Pará — although without attribution to any author that I can find.

One of the things I find interesting about both accounts, insofar as I can know about them from reading various reviews, is the shared, essentially apocalyptic reading of the rise and fall of the City of Mahaggony — sorry, I mean Fordlândia — they offer.

Both perspectives tend to focus on the FitzCarraldo-Kurtz archetype, after the film by Werner Herzog and the novel by Joseph Conrad about the rape of the Belgian Congo.

Both center the historical snapshot on the “ghost town” of Fordlândia — the failed company town rotting in the jungle after a failed experiment by the Ford Motor Company to produce its own rubber in the Brazilian Amazon, thereby busting the British Southeast Asian rubber cartel.

Neither history seems to take into account the continued existence of Belterra, a second stab at a company town along the banks of the same river,  which continues down the present day as a duly constituted municipality of the state of Pará, not far down river from Santarém and the port being built there by Cargill.

As this account notes, Ford abanoned Fordlândia in 1934, six years into an 18-year experience, swapping its original land concession for a new one of equal size and continuing the experiment for 12 more years, operated out of the city of Belterra — which again, survives down to the present day.

(The plantation project actually reached the rubber-production stage at Belterra in 1941, before being abandoned in 1945-6, when the commodity price trends and market dynamics which motivated the project started to move in other directions.)

Also notable is their personalization of the epic struggle, as though Henry Ford himself rolled up his sleeves and climbed the ladder to personally place the holy cross atop the New England-style clapboard church. Ford himself never set foot on Brazilian soil.

I reproduce this anonymous historical outline here, in my hasty and libertine translation, with a few medieval interlinear scolia and the usual midrash-inspired buttinskiisms.

In the Amazon region as a whole, no other economic cycle has been more intensely studied and researched than the rubber cycle. Even today, scholars are interested in the apogee and decadence of black gold, which rapidly transformed Manaus and Belém into major commercial centers, the metropoles of Amazônia It was a cycle that made the fortunes of the rubber barons, men who imposed their dominance through tyranny, such as Julio Cesar Arana, who used slave labor on his lands.

On the subject of Arana, see Grandin’s recent review of The Devil and Mr. Casement: One Man’s Struggle for Human Rights in the Heart of Darkness (New York Times Book Reviews, via a post on the Verso blog dated February 16, 2010 — Fat Tuesday on the brink of Ash Wednesday).

Also, on the face of it, a personalization and moralization of the forces that shaped the South American rubber cycle.

(This New Historicism: It just can’t seem to let go of that Jungian archetypalism, can it?)

In my Lusophone pre-reading, I suggested the relevance of steering by the star of a certain FitzCarraldo-antiFitzcarraldo or Kurtz-Willard narrative paradigm.

(Aw, shit: I promised myself in 1997 that I would never use the word “paradigm” in a sentence again. Molly, get the soap.)

In 1896 the Peruvian entrepreneur Júlio César Arana began exploiting native rubber trees in the Putamao River Valley in Colombia. By 1905 he had aquired more than 3 million hectares of Colombian territor, using indigneous labor to extract the latex from his trees. Due to the brutality of the work regimen enforced by Arana, in 12 years of rubber-tapping in Putamayo the indigenous population decreased to 8,000, even as the business generated US$75 million from the exportation of some 4,000 tons of rubber.

For Arana, each dead Indian was worth 180 kilos of rubber, in a direct exchange of human life for product which capitalism has so often imposed and which still prevails today, though not in such an explicit form.

According to Jordan Goodman according to Greg Grandin, a decline from 50,000 initially.

Break out the calculator: 42,000 lives lost times 180 kilos equals 7.56 million kilos, or 7,560 metric tons, or 8,333 short tons of 2,000 pounds.

This yields a price of $9.92 per kilo, or $1,786.60 per life.

Google up “historic rubber prices peru.” First result:

The years 1905 and 1906 marked historic highs for rubber prices, only to be surpassed briefly in 1909 and 1910.

Damn their eyes, they don’t provide a price figure!

First listing on second page of Google results yields prices in an unspecified currency per unspecified base measure. That is a pain in the ass. Hold on. Yada yada yada.

Shows the fixed-weight index of the spot or transaction prices of commodities sold in world markets at a common base period (1970=100); Manufactures refers to the index of unit value of manufactures exports from the G-5 countries to developing countries.

Yeah, okay, but what unit? And what is that about million units of local currency? This is trying my patience.

Still, somebody needs to check their math.

This was the era of the automobile and rubber. The world needed raw materials at any price. In Dearborn, Michigan, near Detroit, Henry Ford produced 1,200 cars per day, employing more than 100,000 workers in his factories. During the XIXth century, practically all the naturally-occurring latex consumed by the world market came from the Brazilian Amazon, and rivaled coffee as a principal factor in Brazilian GDP.

Heroes and Villains

Among the figures who stamped their names upon this cycle of black gold, so important for the economy of the Amazon, three deserve special mention: Charles Marie de la Condamine, Charles Goodyear, and Henry Alexander Wickham. A Frenchman, an American and an Englishman. The two Charles, both outstanding scientists, had at different times a direct effect on the apogee of the cycle, while Wickham was directly responsible for its decline.

La Condamine, a pioneer in the scientific study of rubber, presented Hevea brasiliensis to the Academy of Sciences in Paris in 1744, spreading the gospel to the civilized world. In 1836, Goodyear, with the vulcanization process, transformed rubber into a global strategic commodity. Wickham finally succeeded in 1876, after three years in Santarém, when, with the support of the Kew Gardens, he exported 70,000 rubber-tree seeds from the Tapajós Valley to London, an event that marked the end of Brazil’s monopoly over naturally-occurring rubber

The Frenchman and the American are considerd heroes for their actions, while the Englishman has been stigmatized as a villain, solely responsible for the ensuing debacle. But was he really the only one?

The attempt at a reduction of the process to questions of heroes and villains is mildly challenged.

The English Take the Seeds

Em 1876, the Englishman Henry Alexander Wickham, an employee of the Royal Botantical Gardens in London, collected 70,000 rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) seeds from a place called Boim, in the Tapajós Valley, and sent them back to England. The seeds produced 2,700 saplings, a success rate of 3.8%. These were then planted in British colonies in Malaysia, giving rise to extensive rubber plantations that were highly productive in terms of dry weight per hectare. In a little over fifty years, the English dethroned Amazônia and became the largest producers of rubber in the world, with disastrous consequences for a region whose economy still relied on predatory extraction of native rubber, and would continue to do so for another half century.

“When the damned English stole our rubber and set up plantations in Asia, driving us out of the market, it was terrible.. A lot of people went broke. There was no more money, no more market, no more shipping on the river, no more rubber. Rubber was worth less than the sweat spent producing it. The rubber-tappers were dying of famine, and weeds grew in the streets of Manaus. It was a catastrophe of epic proportions“. Thus laments Taylor, a character in the novel“The Weeping Tree: The Romance of Rubber,” by American writer Vicki Baum.

If the English are the villains of the piece, then Ford enters from stage right as a potential savior.

Ford and the Idea of Rubber Production in the [Brazilian] Amazon

The effects were also felt in Dearborn when the English, in a bid to keep rubber prices high, created the Southeast Asian rubber cartel, forcing Henry Ford to being thinking of how to produce his own raw material in order to guarantee the supply of latex for the manufacture of tires for his cars, at competitive prices.

This was the genesis of Ford’s plan to produce rubber in the Amazon. The choice of the Tapajós Valley as the seat of the rubber enterprise stemmed from the fact that Wickham’s 70,000 seeds originated there. But the story of the acquisition of these million hectares in July 1927 is a somewhat complicated one, in which Jorge Dumont Villares, heir to a prosperous São Paulo coffee dynasty, and W.L. Reeves Blakeley would play major roles.

Local sharpsters rolling drunk tourists.

Warren Dean, in his book “The Struggle For Rubber in Brazil,” reports that Henry Ford paid Villares for land that the State could have ceded to him free of charge had he negotiated directly with the government.


Once the land was acquired, the next step was to build the city that would support the plantation system, baptized Fordlândia (Fordland) and situated on the right bank of the Tapajós River, in the Cupari River basin, in the municipalities of Aveiro and Itaituba, in a community known as Boa Vista.

In December 1928, two ships, the Lake Ormoc and the Lake Farge, unloaded the materials from which the new city of Fordlândia would be built. Under the direction of the American Einar Oxholm, Brazilian workers immediately went to work building what in a short time could become the third most important city in Amazônia, providing its inhabitants with hospitals, schools, indoor plumbing, housing, a movie house, electricity, a port, machine shops, warehouses, a restaurant, a football field, a church, fire hydrants in the street, employment.

The city blossomed quickly in the heart of the jungle. The water tower, symbol of the Ford presence in the region, was shipped in crates from the U.S. and set up in a strategic location so that all who made port there could see it.

Yeah, yeah, the Benthamite panopticon, yada yada.

There is actually a historically preserved real-life panopticon to be played with in the São Paulo city of Paranapiacaba, former railhead of the English-owned São Paulo Railroad — which likewise reverted to government control when the coffee cycle exhausted the soil. The city remains a working railyard (barely).

The tour of the strategically located home on the hill of the Chief Engineer demonstrates clearly the intention to conduct Benthamite surveillance on every nook and cranny of the installation. Intricate little bits of English lens-grinding.

The guide also makes a point of emphasizing how those wankers, the English, did everything possible to avoid technology transfer, even using wooden trail molds to avoid having the formula for good English steel and true fall into the hands of the Sambodians.

You can tell from this spiel that the city, located in the heart of the ABC region — cradle of Lulismo — is governed by the PT, the party of Lula.

Brazil is now saying, for example, that technology transfer is the big sticking point on whether the Air Force will buy the F-16, the Rafale, or the Saab Griffen.

Housing complexes were built for workers, managers and visitors. Fordlândia would be the first “company town” erected in Amazônia, created to support large-scale production schemes and setting off a veritable revolution in local and regional life, transforming the social reality and labor relations of its population.

“Housing complexes”: PT-Br vilas. These are basically circular cul de sacs with one common entrance, ringed by individual homes — what today would be called a “closed horizontal condominium,” I guess.

Jacob Cohen, in his book “Fordlândia, The Great Interrogation of the Future,” written in 1929, describes the building of the city as follows: “The first concern of the engineers in charge was to lay the first foundations, part of them built incorporating the old foundations of Boa Vista, which were renovated. Next, they built the Central Barracks, which served as office, medical and dental clinic, pharmacy, storage deposit, mess hall, and more, lighting it with electricity and equipping it with telephones and electric fans.

Next they constructed the port and the hospital, which Cohen described as ‘a model of its kind, observing the strictest hygiene and boasting an ambulance service rivalling that of Belém. The warehouse, built in the form of a chalet, also housed the electrical utility. The carpentry shop, set up temporarily near the warehouse and port, boasted an array of power saws for processing logs as well as a planing machine, which receiving their power from a central plant and storied it through the use of chemical batteries.

Simultaneously with the construction of the city, work began on cutting the forest and planting the rubber trees. In late 1929, the clearing and planting of 400 hectares had been completed — well short of the goal planned for by managers of the Companhia Ford Industrial do Brasil (CFIB), S.A., created in 1927 to, among other things, “move forward with the planting of rubber trees and the extraction of raw materials related to this product,“ as its Articles of incorporation stated. In the next two years, another 900 hectares were stripped and planted.

This was the first major sustained deforestation of Amazônian lands. At the time, the cattle industry was still in its infancy, restricted to the flood plains along the riverbanks, with their natural but precarious pasturelands — a method that would only change with the floods of 1953, which forced the cattle ranchers to create pastureland outside the flood plain.

Create by burning and replanting — what the anthropologists call “swidden” agriculture.

The Failure

Starting with the deforestation of the future rubber plantations, Fordlândia began to run into problems. The idea of removing marketable natural hardwood from the burn zone before clearing it slowed the pace of work. The wood extracted was to be exported to Europe and the U.S., but the plan to recover the initial investment in this way failed, and was abandoned in 1929. The Company had set up what was considered the largest lumber mill in Latin America at that time, which was soon reduced to making planks for the construction of warehouses and housing, along with firewood for the boilers.

The most significant factor in the Company’s failure to start a viable rubber industry in Fordland was poor technical judgment in choosing the site. This choice was encouraged by Vilares and Blakeley, who months before had received, gratis, the concession for these million hectares from the state government of Pará, flipping it to Ford for $125,000.

The mountainous landscape and the predominantly sandy soil of Fordland made mechanical cultivation difficult, raising the cost of planting. There was also the problem of climate, characterized by high relative humidity that made the site a perfect breeding ground for the scourge of the Amazonian rubber tree, the “leaf sickness,” caused by the Microcyclus ulei fungus, previously unknown to the Americans of Fordland, who therefore were not equipped to deal with it.

The impression we have today is that Blakeley, eager to consummate the land deal concocted by Villares, convinced Henry Ford that because the seeds used to create the Malaysian rubber industry came from the Tapajós Valley, it would be easy to produce rubber in that region, the natural cradle of the rubber tree. To use a football metaphor, it would be a simple matter of executing the corner kick and then running in to join the celebration of the goal.

Among the technicians who arrived in 1927 to build the town and the plantations where engineers, doctors, accountants, electricians, and draftsmen, but this initial team had not a single agriculturalist, botanist or plant geneticist. Not a single agricultural expert.

A local man, Monteiro da Costa, was hired to manage the plantations. Jacob Cohen described him as a “polyglot who worked for years as director of the Experimental Rubber Tree Cultivation Field in Manaus, a true specialist in Hevea brasiliensis.” Cohen does not detail his academic credentials, however.

The fact is that Microcyclus virtually decimated the plantations of the first several years, finally forcing the Company, in 1934, to negotiate with the State a land swap involving 281,000 hectares, situated in the interior of the tract previously acquried, for another of equal size in the municipality of Santarém, on the right bank of the Tapajós River. There, another city, called Belterra, was built, and the rational.production of rubber trees restarted. Six years after reaching Fordlândia, the Company was back to square one.

The F. Scott Fitzgerald maxim about American lives and second acts does not apply, in other words.

Along with its geography and climate, Fordlândia was four days distant by boat from Belém, and during the dry season the Tapajós River grew more shallow, preventing large ships from arriving at the company port.

The Search for a Solution

The failure of Fordlândia forced the company to bring in a specialist to diagnosis the cause of low productivity. Ford hired James R. Weir, who “in his initial report pointed to certain basic errors of agricultural management, and suggested, as a stop-gap measure, the importation of highly productive clones from Southeast Asia.“

They had to pay Microsoft a licensing fee to get access to the API, kind of.

According to Dean, this took place in 1934, with the arrival of 53 clones handpicked by Weir himself, who advised that these be planted in Belterra, a plateau 150 meters high on the same bank of the Tapajós, 50 km south of Santarém, with unhindered navigation for large ships year-round.

In Belterra, however, despite the favorable soil, climate and geographical situation,.the rubber trees were once again attacked by the leaf disease. The use of such management practices as seed selection, the use of resistant clones and slips taken from healthy treetops, and the application of fungicides, resulted in a rubber tree able to cope with Microcyclus.

In 1941 the first rubber trees planted in Belterra begain to be tapped, but the extremely low productivity, coupled with high production costs, was a bucket of cold water in the face of Company managers.

Pulling Out

The presence of the Ford Motor Co. in Amazônia lasted 18 anos (1927-1945). In 1945, Henry Ford’s grandson, who had spearheaded the project, decided to abandon it, blaming fungus and problems with workers for the decision.

“Problems with the workers”: Here begins another tale, the tale of the caboclo resistance and the assassination of Chico Mendes. On which more later.

The argument for withdrawing made by Henry Ford II must have been a bit more detailed than that: His grandfather immediately lost interest in producing rubber so far from Dearborn, at such a high price. World War II had ended, and demand for natural rubber had declined as synthetic rubber began to replace it. The United States and England were now partners, which led the English to dismantle the Southeast Asian cartel..

The Company spent eighteen years operating a million-hectare concession in Amazônia before withdrawing,“handing over” the lands and their improvements to the Brazilan goverment.

Federal Decree-Law 8,440 of 1945 set guidelines for the acquisition of CFIB assets in Brazil, a transaction realized through the Banco de Credito da Borracha S.A. — the present-day Banco da Amazônia — for the symbolic price of 5 million cruzeiros ($250,000). According to Warren Dean, this was the amount owed to workers by Ford under a Brazilian law requiring prior notice to employees. Estimates are that the Fordland ad Belterra plantations cost the Ford Company an investment of some $20 million.

For this symbolic sum, the federal government received six schools, four of them in Belterra and two in Fordlândia; two hospitals; teams of sanitation inspectors; the water collection, treatment and distribution systems of both cities; power plants; more than 70 km of well-maintained roads; two ports; a radio station and telephone exchange; two thousand houses for workers; 30 warehouses; a clinic for autopsies and the study of disease; two latex purification units; housing courts for management; and a department of soil research and analysis.

Ford gave good value for money.

(Ford still makes cars in Brazil today.)

Not to mention the 5 million rubber trees planted during those 18 years: 1.9 million in Fordlândia and 3.2 million in Belterra.

The agriculturalist Eymar Franco, in his memoir “The Tapajós That I Recall”, remembers the arrival of the Americans in 1928, when he was a seven year old living in Urucurituba, on a farm across from where the Ford Co. would settle: “The arrival of the Americans in the region set off a veritable revolution all up and down the river. Those pale, pale men, blond and blue-eyed, speaking another language: It was though beings from another planet had invaded Earth.

There are still Brazilians and gringos who throng to the region due to the 1977 UFO sightings there, reported by information warriors of the military dictatorship and pounded into the collective consciousness by the Globo TV network.

“In 1928 the CFIB arrived, bringing with it an era of prosperity that promised to last. In late 1945 and early 1946, Ford pulled out of Tapajós which sank back down in silence and oblivion, poorer than it had been before,” says Eymar.

Not exactly true. Ford would simply relocate further along the Tapajós Valley.

Fordlândia is abandoned today. Visitors will glimpse only faded traces of that “era of prosperity” to which Eymar Franco refers. After the Americans pulled out, the material infrastructure of Fordlândia was divided up and carted off little by little, through a series of official auctions, and some not so official ones as well, which might well be called a vritual plundering of the assets built by the Company and acquired by the State.

A few ruins remain and still draw the small number of tourists and researchers who wish to observe and understand the American presence in the Brazilian Amazon. They come attracted by what rubber represented to the world economy in the XIXth century and the first half of the XXth, and by the importance of the Amazon in this regard. They come in search of a history that had a direct impact on the Brazilian and global economies of the day, but which we Brazilian never understood fully enough to enable us to reproduce it.

This, too, is a debatable explanation.

After all, Ford would return to Brazil in later decades, making it its South American manufacturing hub. Brazilian heavy industry and agrobusiness are pretty advanced nowadays.

“We Brazilians are too dumb to fathom the ways of the gringo” is a deplorable, masochistic sentiment often to heard in dive bars. It tends to go hand in hand with Generalíssimo Figueiredo’s comment on the ill-considered 1974 congressional elections, in which ARENA, the party of the dictatorship, was whomped. Said the then head of the Brazilian CIA, the SNI, “Dumbass Brazilians, who can’t even vote right!”

The 1980s New Wave band Ultraje a Rigo immortalized this commonplace with the satirical “Inútil.”

We don’t know how to pick a president
We don’t know to take care of ourselves
We don’t even know to brush our teeth
You got gringos out there who think we’re bums

We is

Did JBS Friboi not just buy the emblematic Swift & Co., makers of Farmer John sausage — official sponsor for decades of the Los Angeles Dodgers?

Official histories of this part of Brazil tend to avoid the issue of the latifúndio like the plague, or else perform some heavy historical-revisionist macumba when retelling it.

Brazil is the only nation on the continent that has yet to execute a successful program of agrarian reform.

Symptom: The status of the biography of activist-journalist Chico Mendes on Lusophone Wikipedia (below).

Go into the history page of that entry and play around a little bit, redlining different versions and such. There is quite a story behind that story.

"This page contains passages that do not respect the principle of impartiality. Work to improve it by making it more impartial."

"This page contains passages that do not respect the principle of impartiality. Please improve this page by making it more impartial." The Wikipedia warning sign does not point out which ones violate the rule of equal time for Liberty Valence.

A brief account of backlands cargo cults:

In Fordlândia you will still meet a few inhabitants left over from the rubber boom, who remember how good it was to work for and live with the Americans, with medical benefits for the whole family, a school with teachers brought from Belém to education their children, nutritionists to oversee the diets of the gringos and caboclos, pure, plentiful water out of the tap, electric lighting at home.

Someone recently discovered residents of a tiny community in Ceará who, although the consider themselves Roman Catholics, still perform the Passover seder — apparently without any awareness of its significance or relation to Judaism.

Brazil was principally colonized in the early years by the Cristão Novo — “Recite the Nicaean Creed, Jewboy, or you will never work in this town again. (That goes for you too, camel jockey!) And act like you mean it!”

Fordlândia, which in 1930 attained a popuation of 2,500 inhabitants — half the population of Santarém at the time — withered away. Today, 1,700 inhabitants survive there with no prospect of better days, abandoned to their own devices, with no real possibility of establishing a competitive agricultural industry, thanks to the dismantling of the supply chain: insufficient technical support, credit, research, inputs, roads, commodities trading venues, warehousing, and so on.. They are isolated and alone.

Decrease in population of the town over eight decades: 32%.

Tourism, which might provide a viable alternative, needs investments in order to organize the attractive tourist experience that Fordlândia, now a district of the municipality of Aveiro, might represent..

Belterra, meanwhile, with 16,275 inhabitants,gained its political independence from Santarém in 1997 after a struggle spanning decades, and was elevated to the status of a municipality.

From these facts, the rubber tree plantations of Ford seem like simple hedges — pardon the pun — against price-gouging in the commodities markets. Perfectly rational thing to do, too bad it did not work out, but it was not as though Ford abandoned the country completely, with its tale between its legs, singing Bob Dylan lyrics:

I’m going back to New York City
I do believe I’ve had enough …

It returned, in force, under the generalíssimos, along with Fiat and VW — giving rise to the trade unionism that eventually produced the current president of Brazil.