Review of Fordlandia by Greg Grandin

Fordlandia by Greg Grandin

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Book Review of Fordlandia by Greg Grandin

I love the cover of Fordlandia.  It shows an idealised American suburb with mothers and children walking down a street of bungalows, complete with white picket fences bordering the gardens, and newly-planted apple trees. 

However, the backdrop is undeniably the tall trees of the South American jungle, for this illustration shows Fordlandia, Henry Ford’s attempt to build a new model community in Amazonia where rubber would be harvested to provide the raw materials for his ever-growing factories.

Reality in these squalid bungalows did not conform to this idealised picture.  Designed in Michigan and shipped in pre-fabricated form to Brazil, the houses had poured concrete floors and metal roofs lined with asbestos, and turned out to be “midget hells, where one lies awake and sweats the first half of the night ” and then “undergoes a fierce siege of heat provoking nightmares” in the second.

But let’s start at the beginning.  By 1928, Ford had seen considerable success with the Model T Ford, but sales were slipping drastically as newer competitors came to the market.  The Model A was about to be launched and the company seemed to be about to make a startling come-back, having received orders for 700,000 model A cars.  

Less well-known was that the Ford Motor Company had acquired a vast land concession in the Amazon, about the same size as a mid-ranged US state.  It was Henry Ford’s plan to plant millions of rubber trees, but also tame the jungle, to sanitise it, and to form an idealised community with all the values of middle-America transported thousands of miles south into this notoriously inhospitable region.

The language used to describe this vision shows how much the world has changed over the last century.  Time magazine reported that the whole jungle would be industrialised, and “soon boa constrictors will slip down into the jungle centres; monkeys will set up a great chattering.  Black Indians armed with heavy blades will slash down their one-time haunts to make way for future wind-shield wipers, floor mats and balloon tyres”.

The actual execution of the Fordlandia vision was an organisational nightmare.  Quite apart from the chaotic conditions in the run-down ports at which Ford’s ships had to land, the jungle was a difficult beast to tame.  Ford’s emissaries burned hundreds of hectares of jungle, creating fires that burned out of control for days at a time, wreaking terrible devastation on the ecology. 

Smoke blocked out the sun and ash fell several kilometres away.  Ford’s managers began to fall our among themselves and soon no-one was visibly in charge and conditions among the hundreds of workers began to deteriorate.   Discipline among the Ford managers was now so poor that they were defrauding the company of large sums of money, even hiding their stash in hollowed-out tree trunks.

New managers were appointed, and the Brazilian workforce was increaded to over one thousand, with a population of 5000 needing support from an uncompleted infrastructure which now had every appearance of a jungle shanty-town, with a proliferation of  “filthy small cafés, gambling houses and thatched bordellos”.

When eventually an American-style compound was created for Ford’s expatriate workers, it was found that many of them succumbed to ill-health, starting with malaria and ending with a variety of serious illnesses, often requiring repatriation.

Even the industrial development of Fordlandia proved impossibly hard to get underway with the rubber crop failing, inappropriate equipment at the lumber mill making it as good as useless for anything other than the preparation of coffins. 

When eventually some sort of ordered industrial processes had been put in place, labour relations turned out to be a huge problem with even riots and up-risings taking place which threatened the lives of the American workers.

Eventually there was a degree of success, with a small amount of rubber from Fordlandia contributing to the vast world-wide supply.  But the success was hard-won, with battles against plant diseases and infestations creating a constant demand on resource.  

The Second World War had a huge impact on the rubber economy and then the effective development of synthesised rubber dealt a final blow to Fordlandia  and it is no surprise to read that Ford pulled out in 1945, never to return.

I found this a fascinating book.  Greg Grandin skilfully blends company history and personal stories to create a very readable account of this almost unbelievable industrial hubris.  I am inclined to think of the incredible arrogance of Henry Ford who actually thought that the power of American invention could rise to the vast challenges of domesticating the Amazonian jungle. This really is a story of saints and sinners, with the latter invariably gaining the upper hand as their greed led them to ruthlessly exploit the resources to hand, both human and natural.

It would be a compliment to the author to say that I was reminded of Jonathan Raban’s classic story of the American Dream gone wrong, Bad Land,  which details the homesteading confidence trick perpetrated on poor European immigrants who were promised plots of fertile land in Montana, only to find dust and rocks.

The book is illustrated throughout with contemporary photographs from Fordlandia.  I much appreciated these because without them I might have been tempted to doubt some of the more incredible stories told in these unusual book.

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