Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Henry Ford’s Jungle Kingdom

In the late 1920s, Henry Ford set up an American-style town called Fordlandia eighty miles south of the Brazilian city of Santarem. Fordlandia was the centerpiece a two million acre land concession the size of Connecticut. It was here that Ford planned to by-pass the English rubber growers of Malaya and to operate his own rubber plantations. The rubber from Brazil would be used for the tires of the automobiles pouring out of Ford’s factories.

Dozens of Ford employees were relocated to Brazil, and a model American town was built in the jungle, complete with a modern hospital, a library, a golf course, and rows of white bungalows. The streets were dotted with Model T Ford automobiles. Henry Ford exported small town America to the jungle.

Local Brazilian workers were offered twice the pay they could make elsewhere, but the terms of employment included adopting what Ford called, “the healthy lifestyle”, which was enforced with a totalitarian efficiency. The plantation cafeterias served American fare such as hamburgers. Local workers had to live in American-style houses, and were assigned numbers which they wore on badges. Alcohol was strictly forbidden inside Fordlandia, even within the workers’ homes, on pain of immediate termination. Brazilian workers were forced to work the customary American nine-to-five shifts under the hot Amazon sun, using Ford’s assembly-line philosophies. It was Ford’s way, or the highway.

In December 1930, worker resentment reached critical mass in the company cafeteria.

A Brazilian man stood and shouted that he would no longer tolerate the dictatorial conditions imposed on workers. A chorus of voices joined his, which was soon joined by banging cups and shattering dishes. Members of Fordlandia’s American management fled swiftly to their homes or into the woods, some of them chased by machete-wielding workers. A group of managers scrambled to the docks and boarded boats, which they moved to the center of the river and out of reach of the escalating riots. The riots went on for three days until put down by the Brazilian military.

Ford misjudged the temperament of his workers, but also failed to grasp the demands of the natural environment. Ford's engineers were not knowledgeable about tropical agriculture. Rubber trees were packed closely together on plantations rather than being widely spaced as they were in the jungle. The British successfully used this technique in Malaya after smuggling Brazilian plants to Asia. In Asia, the transplanted Amazonian rubber trees faced no natural predators (they were an invasive foreign species), but in Brazil the technique of close packing trees was unworkable. By 1945 synthetic rubber had been developed, reducing world demand for natural rubber. Ford's investment opportunity dried up overnight without producing any rubber.

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