In the late 1920s, automobile tycoon Henry Ford transplanted a little piece of the United States to the middle of Brazil's Amazon jungle. Complete with whitewashed American-style houses set on impeccably manicured lawns, shaded patios, and tree-lined streets dotted with pretty churches, he called it Fordlândia and it was to become the world’s largest rubber production centre. While much of the housing and machinery is deserted, it's still a functional town and makes a fascinating detour.
My guide José, a tall thickset man, introduces me to Waldemar Gomes Aguiar, the Mayor of Fordlândia’s assistant. Waldemar warmly greets us at his office, ushering us in. He is eager for me to learn more about the history of this unusual town. “Latex was the gold of the Amazon”, he tells me. “It was expensive at the time so Ford found the ideal place to grow rubber trees.”
“Here, along the Tapajós River, Ford acquired a large tract of land. He called it Fordlândia. Let’s remember that at that time, in the early 1930’s, WWII was looming; people knew war was coming. Large supplies of rubber were needed not just for car tires, but also for war machines.” Brazilian tappers were brought in from the region to extract sap, and were provided with housing in the newly founded city.
José leads me to a rickety old building – one of the many structures that are decaying here in Fordlândia's abandoned city – its colourful paint long faded, leaving only traces of mellow hues. The long narrow structure formerly housed single male workers, while those with families were accommodated in larger residences. The houses were built using local wood, and the rest of the materials used to construct the city were entirely imported from the United States, including the large iron structure used to build the latex factory and riverside warehouse.
Photography copyright belongs to Kiki Deere.
While Brazilian workers lived in the town centre, American dignitaries were housed on a hillside on the outskirts, their grandiose mansions sitting side by side along a pretty mango shaded boulevard. José and I hop on his motorbike to investigate. There were only a handful of houses here at the time and most are still standing, but one of the structures lies in complete disrepair, only its cemented skeleton in place. On the right flank of the hillside, hidden behind overgrown grasses, is a large empty swimming pool that has long lain forgotten.
Brazilian workers were not permitted to enter this part of town. Today, rumours abound in Fordlândia that the Americans had other hidden motives. “Maybe a metal business, or maybe they were searching for gold”, Waldemar whispers to me during our interview. But my guide José is not convinced: “I don’t think the Americans had other motives. They just lived apart from their workers and didn’t want them to come here – that’s all.”
José accompanies me to the former rubber production plant. It now lies in ruin, its panes no more than fragments of glass precariously lodged into window spaces; shrubs push through the building’s concrete, branches are upflung in disarray. Under my feet, I hear the crackle of broken glass and tinkling metal. Inside, age-old machinery lies forgotten, the American names still very much legible: Brown & Sharpe, reads one of the panels. José’s voice echoes in the vacant surrounds: “There are some elderly people in town who worked here during Ford’s era; they’re very old but they still remember how to operate the machinery after all these years.”
An abandoned white car and a truck are parked inside the plant, cobwebs wrapping themselves around the steering wheels. Further along, bed frames sit, one on top of the other, like a messy puzzle. “These were brought over from the hospital; it was abandoned too,” José informs me, a slight hint of sorrow in his voice.
He leads me upstairs to a large attic room with scattered metal tools. Cobalt boxes and crates long sit on shelves laden with tools eaten by rust. The morning light gently penetrates the splintered windowpanes and fills the room, dancing unequally on the dusty surfaces. The factory lies neglected, yet I can picture it full of life; I imagine the hundreds of workers processing latex at full speed, ready for export to the United States.
The Americans certainly imposed order and rigorous discipline among their workforce, with strict routine, stringent timetables and number tags. By the main entrance, layers of dust have accumulated on rows of pigeonholes that neatly sit side by side. I can’t get any closer to them as this area is fenced off, but I can see the metal number tags hooked above each slot used to identify the rubber tappers. They even hired nutritionists to devise canteen menus of a balanced diet that would provide each worker with enough calories to toil in the plantations.
“The workers were provided with everything they needed: schools for their children, electricity, food, and so on. But there wasn’t much freedom”, Waldemar reveals. The suffocating environment eventually led the labourers to rebel, demanding better treatment and work conditions. But the demise of Fordlândia had long been near: the rubber trees were struck with a fungus that stumped their growth; the blight stricken plants never grew; and Ford’s project was ultimately a complete failure.
Unwilling to give up, Ford established Belterra, literally ‘pretty land’, a tract of land downstream that he deemed more suitable for the rubber trees. Here, too, Ford built rows of pretty neat houses, schools, sports centres and even South America’s best equipped hospital for the project’s thousands of administrators and workers. Schooling was compulsory and free afternoon workshops gave all the opportunity to learn new trades.
Yet, Ford’s dream here was short lived too. About ten years after the new town was established, just as the rubber plants started to grow and produce latex, scientists created synthetic rubber, leading the price of latex to collapse and Ford’s utopian dream of an Amazonian rubber powerhouse – that he would never even set foot in - to crumble once again.
The hub of this region is Santarém, located about mid way between Belém (at the mouth of the Amazon River) and Manaus, further upstream. There are regular flights to Santarém from Belém and Manaus. To get to Fordlândia from Santarém, there are slow boats (10-12hr) as well as fast boats (4hr30min). The best (and pretty much only) place to stay in Fordlândia is Pousada Americana, a family-run guesthouse with spic and span a/c rooms and tasty home cooked meals.