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Episode
121

Fordlândia

First published on
January 5, 2021
Weird World
-
20
minutes
Brazil
Business
Colonialism
South America
USA

In the 1920s the boss of the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford, attempted to build a huge rubber plantation in the Amazon jungle.

It didn't quite go to plan...

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about the time that Henry Ford, the boss of the Ford Motor Company, tried to build a huge rubber plantation in the Amazon rainforest. 

[00:00:37] The name of his creation was Fordlândia.

[00:00:41] It's a fantastic story, and I have to give a shout out to a member of Leonardo English, an amazing lady called Susana, who requested an episode on it.

[00:00:51] So, thank you Susana, I hope you’ll enjoy today’s episode.

[00:00:56] OK, then, let’s get started.

[00:00:59] You will, no doubt, have heard of the Ford Motor Company, the American car company, and its iconic founder, Henry Ford.

[00:01:10] Henry Ford had introduced the Model T to the world in 1908, and created the first affordable, mass-market car. 

[00:01:20] You need a lot of different products to make the body of a car, but that car isn’t going to go anywhere without tyres.

[00:01:30] And what do you need for tyres

[00:01:33] Rubber.

[00:01:35] Brazil had historically been the world’s capital for rubber

[00:01:40] Rubber trees grew naturally in the Amazon rainforest, and up until the end of the 19th century Brazil was the only country in the world that exported rubber in any serious quantities.

[00:01:56] Brazilians that owned rubber plantations grew fabulously wealthy as the demand for rubber increased, and it was a great boost for the economy. 

[00:02:06] Indeed, this period was nicknamed the Amazon rubber boom.

[00:02:12] But just because Brazil was the only place that rubber grew naturally, it didn’t mean it was the only country in the world where it could grow.

[00:02:23] In 1876 an intrepid Englishman called Henry Wickham managed to export a large batch of rubber tree seeds out of Brazil, shipped them to London, and then took them to Malaysia, which was at the time a British colony, as well as to other colonies such as Sri Lanka, which was called Ceylon at the time. 

[00:02:47] Malaysia, and these other colonies, proved to be fantastic places for growing rubber.

[00:02:55] Rubber trees in Brazil were frequently attacked by pests and suffered from disease, and this wasn’t nearly as much of a problem in places like Malaysia.

[00:03:07] The British, with their Malaysian trees, were able to produce just as much rubber as the Brazilians could, at a lower price, and by the start of the 20th century the Brazilian stronghold, the Brazilian monopoly on the rubber industry was over.

[00:03:26] Companies now bought British rubber, not Brazilian rubber.

[00:03:31] Naturally, given that he was selling 40% of all of the cars in America, and all these cars needed tyres, Henry Ford needed to buy a lot of rubber.

[00:03:44] But he didn’t like being dependent on the British, and their colonial rubber

[00:03:50] Not only would the rubber take a long time to get to Ford’s factories in the US, but he had no control over that part of the supply chain

[00:04:01] Henry Ford was reportedly a huge control freak, and he wasn’t happy with this situation.

[00:04:09] He also knew that the Brazilians were suffering, as their rubber industry had been hugely damaged. 

[00:04:17] Brazil was a lot closer to America than East Asia was. 

[00:04:21] Rubber grew naturally in Brazil, and there was a huge amount of land.

[00:04:26] So, what if Ford applied the same business practices and skill that he had used to build very efficient factories in America to build a new rubber plantation in the Amazon?

[00:04:41] He would get his own supply of rubber, and wouldn’t be beholden to the British.

[00:04:46] The Brazilians would have a large customer, probably the world’s biggest customer for rubber, and this would give their economy a much-needed boost.

[00:04:57] It sounded like a win-win situation, and in the early 1920s Henry Ford sent some of his employees to Brazil to try to negotiate with the Brazilian government, and find some suitable land.

[00:05:13] As expected, the Brazilian government sensed an opportunity, and offered Ford a huge patch of land in the Amazon rainforest.

[00:05:24] Specifically, they offered him about 10,000 km squared to build a huge rubber plantation

[00:05:32] Ford wouldn’t have to pay any export taxes, but he would have to pay the Brazilian government 9% of the profits.

[00:05:43] 10,000 km squared is the kind of number that sounds large, but just to give you an idea of how big that actually is, it’s about the size of Jamaica, it’s about 10 times the size of Greater London and 20 times the size of Madrid. 

[00:06:01] It was a huge amount of land.

[00:06:04] But Ford wasn’t only interested in creating a place to produce rubber; he wanted to create a community, he wanted to build more than just a rubber plantation

[00:06:17] In Detroit, where Ford was based, the Ford factory had been instrumental in creating the American middle class. 

[00:06:27] The company paid a fair wage, it paid more than the average salary, and it took care of its employees.

[00:06:36] Henry Ford had this paternalistic view of the role of a company, that it was the role of a company to look after its employees, not just to make as much money as possible.

[00:06:50] That might seem like a slightly revolutionary idea now, but 100 years ago it was even more so.

[00:06:59] Ford believed that he could recreate his successes in America in the Amazon, so he sought to build a kind of mid-western town, an American town, in the heart of the Amazon.

[00:07:14] The name of that town was Fordlandia.

[00:07:18] Fordlandia was to be built a day and a half’s boat ride up the Amazon, in a state called Para. 

[00:07:26] For the non-Brazilians out there who need an explanation of where exactly that is, it’s right at the north of Brazil, just a few hundred kilometres south of the equator.

[00:07:38] Construction started and by 1928, Ford’s dream rubber city was completed.

[00:07:47] It had schools, a hospital, a swimming pool, a golf course - everything that Ford would have expected there to be in a civilised American town.

[00:07:58] And of course, there were huge rubber plantations.

[00:08:02] It was a daring move, a very bold move. 

[00:08:07] Henry Ford hadn’t even visited the site, and he hadn’t commissioned any sort of real survey of the land before going ahead with the deal.

[00:08:18] He also didn’t hire any botanists, or take any advice from any experts on how to actually grow rubber

[00:08:28] Reportedly he hated experts, and he had complete conviction in his own genius and business ability. 

[00:08:37] He had essentially created the entire automobile industry, and became one of the richest men in America, so he didn’t need to listen to any experts about what was and wasn’t possible, especially when it came to something as simple as what was really just farming.

[00:08:56] Or so Ford thought.

[00:09:00] Fordlandia was built, and managers from Ford America were shipped down to manage Henry Ford’s creation.

[00:09:08] To work on the rubber plantation, the American managers hired local workers. 

[00:09:14] They paid them double the normal rate in Brazil, and understandably had no problem finding people willing to work on this new, exciting American development.

[00:09:25] Fordlandia was in the middle of nowhere, there was nothing around it but the Amazon rainforest. 

[00:09:33] So most of the workers lived, worked, and played in the complex.

[00:09:39] But they soon found that their ideas of how they wanted to live their lives, and Ford’s idea of how a good life should be lived, weren’t exactly the same.

[00:09:52] With his paternalistic view of the role of a company, Ford believed that people living in Fordlandia, whether those were the Americans or the Brazilians, should live in a certain way, regardless of their cultural background.

[00:10:08] There was no meat served, as Ford was a vegetarian. 

[00:10:12] Alcohol was banned - Ford had been a great supporter of prohibition in the US. 

[00:10:19] Prostitution was also banned - that wasn’t something that fitted with Ford’s moral beliefs either.

[00:10:26] The Brazilian workers were required to adjust to American working customs. They had ID badges, and they were required to work at fixed, American hours, not at the times that were necessarily best to collect rubber.

[00:10:43] They were even expected to participate in activities like square dancing - this was a type of dance that was popular in America at the time, and Ford had apparently met his wife at a square dancing party. 

[00:10:59] As you might imagine, this custom was a little confusing for people who had grown up in the Amazon.

[00:11:07] They were paid a lot of money, compared to other opportunities, but because they were stuck in Fordlandia with nothing really to spend their money on, this didn’t matter that much, the only effect it had was making people more likely to leave. 

[00:11:25] Workers would stay for short periods, then disappear with their earnings to spend them elsewhere, only to come back weeks or months later, when the money ran out.

[00:11:37] And they weren’t prepared to just stick to these American customs and rules that were promoted by Ford.

[00:11:45] There was a report of some of the workers building their own brothel, their own house with prostitutes and a bar.

[00:11:54] This was actually built on the river, it was built on stilts, and just outside the boundary of Fordlandia, so that it technically wasn't part of Ford’s territory and the American managers couldn’t shut it down.

[00:12:10] It was called, somewhat amusingly, the Island of Innocence.

[00:12:15] So, there was a clash of cultures, a mismatch between the sort of life that Henry Ford thought his workers should be living and the lives that they actually wanted to live. 

[00:12:29] Henry Ford had essentially decided that everyone should live the life of a midwestern car factory worker, no matter whether they lived in Detroit or in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, and no compromises were made.

[00:12:46] Indeed, this clash of cultures reached a new level when a change was made to how the workers would receive their food in the cafeteria.

[00:12:57] Traditionally, the workers had sat down at tables and had their food brought to them. 

[00:13:04] But Ford, ever the efficiency-expert, thought it would be more efficient for workers to queue up and collect their food at a sort of buffet system.

[00:13:16] Enough was enough. 

[00:13:18] The workers rebelled, there was a huge riot, and parts of the cafeteria were destroyed. 

[00:13:25] They even pushed trucks into the river, and caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage. 

[00:13:32] The riot was only stopped when the Brazilian army arrived, and some compromises were reached between the workers and their American managers.

[00:13:43] It wasn’t just the local Brazilians that struggled to adapt to life in Fordlandia.

[00:13:49] The Americans who were sent to manage the land had huge trouble.

[00:13:54] Firstly, to state the obvious, the climate was very different. The Amazon rainforest is not Detroit.

[00:14:03] It was incredibly hot for most of the day. 

[00:14:06] There were poisonous snakes, bats, and all sorts of animals that they had to deal with.

[00:14:13] The houses that were built in Fordlandia were American style houses, the sort of houses you might see in the suburbs of Detroit. 

[00:14:22] They had metal roofs, which turned them into ovens in the heat of the Amazon.

[00:14:29] American managers came and went, and there was a huge turnover of staff.

[00:14:35] And the problems weren’t limited to the people working in Fordlandia.

[00:14:40] Ford had also not properly understood how rubber grows. 

[00:14:47] Rubber is produced by rubber trees, but in its natural habitat, in the Amazon, the trees grow in the rainforest, sheltered by other, larger trees.

[00:14:59] Ford decided to plant all the rubber trees together, close to one another in huge fields. 

[00:15:07] This meant that disease spread quickly from one plant to another, and hundreds of thousands of rubber trees were ruined, they were unusable.

[00:15:18] The American workers thought that the location of Fordlandia might be the problem, so in 1934 they abandoned the original area and created a new settlement downriver called Belterra.

[00:15:34] But that also proved to be not nearly as productive as Ford had hoped for.

[00:15:41]Indeed, the entire project was a far cry from Ford's vision of an Amazonian rubber utopia that not only solved the problem of producing enough rubber for all of the tyres in his cars, but also created a model society in the heart of the Amazon.

[00:16:00] After 17 years of Ford’s industrial experiment in the Amazon, the entire project was only able to produce 750 tonnes of rubber. 

[00:16:11] That might sound like a lot, but it was less than 2% of Ford’s goal of 38,000 tonnes. And not a single gramme of it ever made it into a Ford car.

[00:16:26] Throughout Forlandia’s existence, strangely enough, its creator, Henry Ford, didn’t visit even once. 

[00:16:34] It’s not clear exactly why he didn’t come.

[00:16:38] Perhaps he trusted his American lieutenants to fix it, perhaps he had too much else going on, or perhaps he just couldn’t bear to see that his project was a huge failure.

[00:16:53] And in 1945, after he handed control of the Ford Motor Company to his grandson, Henry Ford II, all of the land was sold back to the Brazilian government. 

[00:17:06] The Brazilian government paid $250,000 for it, a pittance, a tiny amount of money. 

[00:17:14] It’s estimated that Ford took a $20 million dollar loss on this investment, which would work out at almost $300 million dollars in today’s money.

[00:17:25] Amazingly enough, Fordlandia does still exist today, albeit mostly in ruins. 

[00:17:32] If you take a 15 hour boat trip up the Amazon you can still see the abandoned American project. 

[00:17:39] There are some clips on YouTube, and it's really amazing. I’d certainly love to visit if I ever find myself in that part of the Amazon rainforest.

[00:17:49] Now it’s just a monument to Ford’s industrial dream. 

[00:17:54] He had made it work in Detroit, and had brought great prosperity to his workers in America. 

[00:18:00] But, unfortunately for Ford and unfortunately for the workers in Fordlandia, Henry Ford hadn’t realised that just using the same formula in the Amazon as had worked in Detroit wasn’t the smartest of moves.

[00:18:16] And indeed, this particular move ended up being a lesson that cost Ford $300 million dollars to learn.

[00:18:26] OK then, that is that is it for today's episode on Fordlandia.

[00:18:31] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:18:36] We have quite a few Brazilian members, so I’d particularly love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:18:43] Did you know about Fordlandia? 

[00:18:45] What do you think of Ford’s plans? 

[00:18:48] Are there other examples of American industrialists trying to do similar things in Brazil?

[00:18:54] I'd love to know. 

[00:18:55] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:05] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:19:11] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]


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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about the time that Henry Ford, the boss of the Ford Motor Company, tried to build a huge rubber plantation in the Amazon rainforest. 

[00:00:37] The name of his creation was Fordlândia.

[00:00:41] It's a fantastic story, and I have to give a shout out to a member of Leonardo English, an amazing lady called Susana, who requested an episode on it.

[00:00:51] So, thank you Susana, I hope you’ll enjoy today’s episode.

[00:00:56] OK, then, let’s get started.

[00:00:59] You will, no doubt, have heard of the Ford Motor Company, the American car company, and its iconic founder, Henry Ford.

[00:01:10] Henry Ford had introduced the Model T to the world in 1908, and created the first affordable, mass-market car. 

[00:01:20] You need a lot of different products to make the body of a car, but that car isn’t going to go anywhere without tyres.

[00:01:30] And what do you need for tyres

[00:01:33] Rubber.

[00:01:35] Brazil had historically been the world’s capital for rubber

[00:01:40] Rubber trees grew naturally in the Amazon rainforest, and up until the end of the 19th century Brazil was the only country in the world that exported rubber in any serious quantities.

[00:01:56] Brazilians that owned rubber plantations grew fabulously wealthy as the demand for rubber increased, and it was a great boost for the economy. 

[00:02:06] Indeed, this period was nicknamed the Amazon rubber boom.

[00:02:12] But just because Brazil was the only place that rubber grew naturally, it didn’t mean it was the only country in the world where it could grow.

[00:02:23] In 1876 an intrepid Englishman called Henry Wickham managed to export a large batch of rubber tree seeds out of Brazil, shipped them to London, and then took them to Malaysia, which was at the time a British colony, as well as to other colonies such as Sri Lanka, which was called Ceylon at the time. 

[00:02:47] Malaysia, and these other colonies, proved to be fantastic places for growing rubber.

[00:02:55] Rubber trees in Brazil were frequently attacked by pests and suffered from disease, and this wasn’t nearly as much of a problem in places like Malaysia.

[00:03:07] The British, with their Malaysian trees, were able to produce just as much rubber as the Brazilians could, at a lower price, and by the start of the 20th century the Brazilian stronghold, the Brazilian monopoly on the rubber industry was over.

[00:03:26] Companies now bought British rubber, not Brazilian rubber.

[00:03:31] Naturally, given that he was selling 40% of all of the cars in America, and all these cars needed tyres, Henry Ford needed to buy a lot of rubber.

[00:03:44] But he didn’t like being dependent on the British, and their colonial rubber

[00:03:50] Not only would the rubber take a long time to get to Ford’s factories in the US, but he had no control over that part of the supply chain

[00:04:01] Henry Ford was reportedly a huge control freak, and he wasn’t happy with this situation.

[00:04:09] He also knew that the Brazilians were suffering, as their rubber industry had been hugely damaged. 

[00:04:17] Brazil was a lot closer to America than East Asia was. 

[00:04:21] Rubber grew naturally in Brazil, and there was a huge amount of land.

[00:04:26] So, what if Ford applied the same business practices and skill that he had used to build very efficient factories in America to build a new rubber plantation in the Amazon?

[00:04:41] He would get his own supply of rubber, and wouldn’t be beholden to the British.

[00:04:46] The Brazilians would have a large customer, probably the world’s biggest customer for rubber, and this would give their economy a much-needed boost.

[00:04:57] It sounded like a win-win situation, and in the early 1920s Henry Ford sent some of his employees to Brazil to try to negotiate with the Brazilian government, and find some suitable land.

[00:05:13] As expected, the Brazilian government sensed an opportunity, and offered Ford a huge patch of land in the Amazon rainforest.

[00:05:24] Specifically, they offered him about 10,000 km squared to build a huge rubber plantation

[00:05:32] Ford wouldn’t have to pay any export taxes, but he would have to pay the Brazilian government 9% of the profits.

[00:05:43] 10,000 km squared is the kind of number that sounds large, but just to give you an idea of how big that actually is, it’s about the size of Jamaica, it’s about 10 times the size of Greater London and 20 times the size of Madrid. 

[00:06:01] It was a huge amount of land.

[00:06:04] But Ford wasn’t only interested in creating a place to produce rubber; he wanted to create a community, he wanted to build more than just a rubber plantation

[00:06:17] In Detroit, where Ford was based, the Ford factory had been instrumental in creating the American middle class. 

[00:06:27] The company paid a fair wage, it paid more than the average salary, and it took care of its employees.

[00:06:36] Henry Ford had this paternalistic view of the role of a company, that it was the role of a company to look after its employees, not just to make as much money as possible.

[00:06:50] That might seem like a slightly revolutionary idea now, but 100 years ago it was even more so.

[00:06:59] Ford believed that he could recreate his successes in America in the Amazon, so he sought to build a kind of mid-western town, an American town, in the heart of the Amazon.

[00:07:14] The name of that town was Fordlandia.

[00:07:18] Fordlandia was to be built a day and a half’s boat ride up the Amazon, in a state called Para. 

[00:07:26] For the non-Brazilians out there who need an explanation of where exactly that is, it’s right at the north of Brazil, just a few hundred kilometres south of the equator.

[00:07:38] Construction started and by 1928, Ford’s dream rubber city was completed.

[00:07:47] It had schools, a hospital, a swimming pool, a golf course - everything that Ford would have expected there to be in a civilised American town.

[00:07:58] And of course, there were huge rubber plantations.

[00:08:02] It was a daring move, a very bold move. 

[00:08:07] Henry Ford hadn’t even visited the site, and he hadn’t commissioned any sort of real survey of the land before going ahead with the deal.

[00:08:18] He also didn’t hire any botanists, or take any advice from any experts on how to actually grow rubber

[00:08:28] Reportedly he hated experts, and he had complete conviction in his own genius and business ability. 

[00:08:37] He had essentially created the entire automobile industry, and became one of the richest men in America, so he didn’t need to listen to any experts about what was and wasn’t possible, especially when it came to something as simple as what was really just farming.

[00:08:56] Or so Ford thought.

[00:09:00] Fordlandia was built, and managers from Ford America were shipped down to manage Henry Ford’s creation.

[00:09:08] To work on the rubber plantation, the American managers hired local workers. 

[00:09:14] They paid them double the normal rate in Brazil, and understandably had no problem finding people willing to work on this new, exciting American development.

[00:09:25] Fordlandia was in the middle of nowhere, there was nothing around it but the Amazon rainforest. 

[00:09:33] So most of the workers lived, worked, and played in the complex.

[00:09:39] But they soon found that their ideas of how they wanted to live their lives, and Ford’s idea of how a good life should be lived, weren’t exactly the same.

[00:09:52] With his paternalistic view of the role of a company, Ford believed that people living in Fordlandia, whether those were the Americans or the Brazilians, should live in a certain way, regardless of their cultural background.

[00:10:08] There was no meat served, as Ford was a vegetarian. 

[00:10:12] Alcohol was banned - Ford had been a great supporter of prohibition in the US. 

[00:10:19] Prostitution was also banned - that wasn’t something that fitted with Ford’s moral beliefs either.

[00:10:26] The Brazilian workers were required to adjust to American working customs. They had ID badges, and they were required to work at fixed, American hours, not at the times that were necessarily best to collect rubber.

[00:10:43] They were even expected to participate in activities like square dancing - this was a type of dance that was popular in America at the time, and Ford had apparently met his wife at a square dancing party. 

[00:10:59] As you might imagine, this custom was a little confusing for people who had grown up in the Amazon.

[00:11:07] They were paid a lot of money, compared to other opportunities, but because they were stuck in Fordlandia with nothing really to spend their money on, this didn’t matter that much, the only effect it had was making people more likely to leave. 

[00:11:25] Workers would stay for short periods, then disappear with their earnings to spend them elsewhere, only to come back weeks or months later, when the money ran out.

[00:11:37] And they weren’t prepared to just stick to these American customs and rules that were promoted by Ford.

[00:11:45] There was a report of some of the workers building their own brothel, their own house with prostitutes and a bar.

[00:11:54] This was actually built on the river, it was built on stilts, and just outside the boundary of Fordlandia, so that it technically wasn't part of Ford’s territory and the American managers couldn’t shut it down.

[00:12:10] It was called, somewhat amusingly, the Island of Innocence.

[00:12:15] So, there was a clash of cultures, a mismatch between the sort of life that Henry Ford thought his workers should be living and the lives that they actually wanted to live. 

[00:12:29] Henry Ford had essentially decided that everyone should live the life of a midwestern car factory worker, no matter whether they lived in Detroit or in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, and no compromises were made.

[00:12:46] Indeed, this clash of cultures reached a new level when a change was made to how the workers would receive their food in the cafeteria.

[00:12:57] Traditionally, the workers had sat down at tables and had their food brought to them. 

[00:13:04] But Ford, ever the efficiency-expert, thought it would be more efficient for workers to queue up and collect their food at a sort of buffet system.

[00:13:16] Enough was enough. 

[00:13:18] The workers rebelled, there was a huge riot, and parts of the cafeteria were destroyed. 

[00:13:25] They even pushed trucks into the river, and caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage. 

[00:13:32] The riot was only stopped when the Brazilian army arrived, and some compromises were reached between the workers and their American managers.

[00:13:43] It wasn’t just the local Brazilians that struggled to adapt to life in Fordlandia.

[00:13:49] The Americans who were sent to manage the land had huge trouble.

[00:13:54] Firstly, to state the obvious, the climate was very different. The Amazon rainforest is not Detroit.

[00:14:03] It was incredibly hot for most of the day. 

[00:14:06] There were poisonous snakes, bats, and all sorts of animals that they had to deal with.

[00:14:13] The houses that were built in Fordlandia were American style houses, the sort of houses you might see in the suburbs of Detroit. 

[00:14:22] They had metal roofs, which turned them into ovens in the heat of the Amazon.

[00:14:29] American managers came and went, and there was a huge turnover of staff.

[00:14:35] And the problems weren’t limited to the people working in Fordlandia.

[00:14:40] Ford had also not properly understood how rubber grows. 

[00:14:47] Rubber is produced by rubber trees, but in its natural habitat, in the Amazon, the trees grow in the rainforest, sheltered by other, larger trees.

[00:14:59] Ford decided to plant all the rubber trees together, close to one another in huge fields. 

[00:15:07] This meant that disease spread quickly from one plant to another, and hundreds of thousands of rubber trees were ruined, they were unusable.

[00:15:18] The American workers thought that the location of Fordlandia might be the problem, so in 1934 they abandoned the original area and created a new settlement downriver called Belterra.

[00:15:34] But that also proved to be not nearly as productive as Ford had hoped for.

[00:15:41]Indeed, the entire project was a far cry from Ford's vision of an Amazonian rubber utopia that not only solved the problem of producing enough rubber for all of the tyres in his cars, but also created a model society in the heart of the Amazon.

[00:16:00] After 17 years of Ford’s industrial experiment in the Amazon, the entire project was only able to produce 750 tonnes of rubber. 

[00:16:11] That might sound like a lot, but it was less than 2% of Ford’s goal of 38,000 tonnes. And not a single gramme of it ever made it into a Ford car.

[00:16:26] Throughout Forlandia’s existence, strangely enough, its creator, Henry Ford, didn’t visit even once. 

[00:16:34] It’s not clear exactly why he didn’t come.

[00:16:38] Perhaps he trusted his American lieutenants to fix it, perhaps he had too much else going on, or perhaps he just couldn’t bear to see that his project was a huge failure.

[00:16:53] And in 1945, after he handed control of the Ford Motor Company to his grandson, Henry Ford II, all of the land was sold back to the Brazilian government. 

[00:17:06] The Brazilian government paid $250,000 for it, a pittance, a tiny amount of money. 

[00:17:14] It’s estimated that Ford took a $20 million dollar loss on this investment, which would work out at almost $300 million dollars in today’s money.

[00:17:25] Amazingly enough, Fordlandia does still exist today, albeit mostly in ruins. 

[00:17:32] If you take a 15 hour boat trip up the Amazon you can still see the abandoned American project. 

[00:17:39] There are some clips on YouTube, and it's really amazing. I’d certainly love to visit if I ever find myself in that part of the Amazon rainforest.

[00:17:49] Now it’s just a monument to Ford’s industrial dream. 

[00:17:54] He had made it work in Detroit, and had brought great prosperity to his workers in America. 

[00:18:00] But, unfortunately for Ford and unfortunately for the workers in Fordlandia, Henry Ford hadn’t realised that just using the same formula in the Amazon as had worked in Detroit wasn’t the smartest of moves.

[00:18:16] And indeed, this particular move ended up being a lesson that cost Ford $300 million dollars to learn.

[00:18:26] OK then, that is that is it for today's episode on Fordlandia.

[00:18:31] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:18:36] We have quite a few Brazilian members, so I’d particularly love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:18:43] Did you know about Fordlandia? 

[00:18:45] What do you think of Ford’s plans? 

[00:18:48] Are there other examples of American industrialists trying to do similar things in Brazil?

[00:18:54] I'd love to know. 

[00:18:55] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:05] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:19:11] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about the time that Henry Ford, the boss of the Ford Motor Company, tried to build a huge rubber plantation in the Amazon rainforest. 

[00:00:37] The name of his creation was Fordlândia.

[00:00:41] It's a fantastic story, and I have to give a shout out to a member of Leonardo English, an amazing lady called Susana, who requested an episode on it.

[00:00:51] So, thank you Susana, I hope you’ll enjoy today’s episode.

[00:00:56] OK, then, let’s get started.

[00:00:59] You will, no doubt, have heard of the Ford Motor Company, the American car company, and its iconic founder, Henry Ford.

[00:01:10] Henry Ford had introduced the Model T to the world in 1908, and created the first affordable, mass-market car. 

[00:01:20] You need a lot of different products to make the body of a car, but that car isn’t going to go anywhere without tyres.

[00:01:30] And what do you need for tyres

[00:01:33] Rubber.

[00:01:35] Brazil had historically been the world’s capital for rubber

[00:01:40] Rubber trees grew naturally in the Amazon rainforest, and up until the end of the 19th century Brazil was the only country in the world that exported rubber in any serious quantities.

[00:01:56] Brazilians that owned rubber plantations grew fabulously wealthy as the demand for rubber increased, and it was a great boost for the economy. 

[00:02:06] Indeed, this period was nicknamed the Amazon rubber boom.

[00:02:12] But just because Brazil was the only place that rubber grew naturally, it didn’t mean it was the only country in the world where it could grow.

[00:02:23] In 1876 an intrepid Englishman called Henry Wickham managed to export a large batch of rubber tree seeds out of Brazil, shipped them to London, and then took them to Malaysia, which was at the time a British colony, as well as to other colonies such as Sri Lanka, which was called Ceylon at the time. 

[00:02:47] Malaysia, and these other colonies, proved to be fantastic places for growing rubber.

[00:02:55] Rubber trees in Brazil were frequently attacked by pests and suffered from disease, and this wasn’t nearly as much of a problem in places like Malaysia.

[00:03:07] The British, with their Malaysian trees, were able to produce just as much rubber as the Brazilians could, at a lower price, and by the start of the 20th century the Brazilian stronghold, the Brazilian monopoly on the rubber industry was over.

[00:03:26] Companies now bought British rubber, not Brazilian rubber.

[00:03:31] Naturally, given that he was selling 40% of all of the cars in America, and all these cars needed tyres, Henry Ford needed to buy a lot of rubber.

[00:03:44] But he didn’t like being dependent on the British, and their colonial rubber

[00:03:50] Not only would the rubber take a long time to get to Ford’s factories in the US, but he had no control over that part of the supply chain

[00:04:01] Henry Ford was reportedly a huge control freak, and he wasn’t happy with this situation.

[00:04:09] He also knew that the Brazilians were suffering, as their rubber industry had been hugely damaged. 

[00:04:17] Brazil was a lot closer to America than East Asia was. 

[00:04:21] Rubber grew naturally in Brazil, and there was a huge amount of land.

[00:04:26] So, what if Ford applied the same business practices and skill that he had used to build very efficient factories in America to build a new rubber plantation in the Amazon?

[00:04:41] He would get his own supply of rubber, and wouldn’t be beholden to the British.

[00:04:46] The Brazilians would have a large customer, probably the world’s biggest customer for rubber, and this would give their economy a much-needed boost.

[00:04:57] It sounded like a win-win situation, and in the early 1920s Henry Ford sent some of his employees to Brazil to try to negotiate with the Brazilian government, and find some suitable land.

[00:05:13] As expected, the Brazilian government sensed an opportunity, and offered Ford a huge patch of land in the Amazon rainforest.

[00:05:24] Specifically, they offered him about 10,000 km squared to build a huge rubber plantation

[00:05:32] Ford wouldn’t have to pay any export taxes, but he would have to pay the Brazilian government 9% of the profits.

[00:05:43] 10,000 km squared is the kind of number that sounds large, but just to give you an idea of how big that actually is, it’s about the size of Jamaica, it’s about 10 times the size of Greater London and 20 times the size of Madrid. 

[00:06:01] It was a huge amount of land.

[00:06:04] But Ford wasn’t only interested in creating a place to produce rubber; he wanted to create a community, he wanted to build more than just a rubber plantation

[00:06:17] In Detroit, where Ford was based, the Ford factory had been instrumental in creating the American middle class. 

[00:06:27] The company paid a fair wage, it paid more than the average salary, and it took care of its employees.

[00:06:36] Henry Ford had this paternalistic view of the role of a company, that it was the role of a company to look after its employees, not just to make as much money as possible.

[00:06:50] That might seem like a slightly revolutionary idea now, but 100 years ago it was even more so.

[00:06:59] Ford believed that he could recreate his successes in America in the Amazon, so he sought to build a kind of mid-western town, an American town, in the heart of the Amazon.

[00:07:14] The name of that town was Fordlandia.

[00:07:18] Fordlandia was to be built a day and a half’s boat ride up the Amazon, in a state called Para. 

[00:07:26] For the non-Brazilians out there who need an explanation of where exactly that is, it’s right at the north of Brazil, just a few hundred kilometres south of the equator.

[00:07:38] Construction started and by 1928, Ford’s dream rubber city was completed.

[00:07:47] It had schools, a hospital, a swimming pool, a golf course - everything that Ford would have expected there to be in a civilised American town.

[00:07:58] And of course, there were huge rubber plantations.

[00:08:02] It was a daring move, a very bold move. 

[00:08:07] Henry Ford hadn’t even visited the site, and he hadn’t commissioned any sort of real survey of the land before going ahead with the deal.

[00:08:18] He also didn’t hire any botanists, or take any advice from any experts on how to actually grow rubber

[00:08:28] Reportedly he hated experts, and he had complete conviction in his own genius and business ability. 

[00:08:37] He had essentially created the entire automobile industry, and became one of the richest men in America, so he didn’t need to listen to any experts about what was and wasn’t possible, especially when it came to something as simple as what was really just farming.

[00:08:56] Or so Ford thought.

[00:09:00] Fordlandia was built, and managers from Ford America were shipped down to manage Henry Ford’s creation.

[00:09:08] To work on the rubber plantation, the American managers hired local workers. 

[00:09:14] They paid them double the normal rate in Brazil, and understandably had no problem finding people willing to work on this new, exciting American development.

[00:09:25] Fordlandia was in the middle of nowhere, there was nothing around it but the Amazon rainforest. 

[00:09:33] So most of the workers lived, worked, and played in the complex.

[00:09:39] But they soon found that their ideas of how they wanted to live their lives, and Ford’s idea of how a good life should be lived, weren’t exactly the same.

[00:09:52] With his paternalistic view of the role of a company, Ford believed that people living in Fordlandia, whether those were the Americans or the Brazilians, should live in a certain way, regardless of their cultural background.

[00:10:08] There was no meat served, as Ford was a vegetarian. 

[00:10:12] Alcohol was banned - Ford had been a great supporter of prohibition in the US. 

[00:10:19] Prostitution was also banned - that wasn’t something that fitted with Ford’s moral beliefs either.

[00:10:26] The Brazilian workers were required to adjust to American working customs. They had ID badges, and they were required to work at fixed, American hours, not at the times that were necessarily best to collect rubber.

[00:10:43] They were even expected to participate in activities like square dancing - this was a type of dance that was popular in America at the time, and Ford had apparently met his wife at a square dancing party. 

[00:10:59] As you might imagine, this custom was a little confusing for people who had grown up in the Amazon.

[00:11:07] They were paid a lot of money, compared to other opportunities, but because they were stuck in Fordlandia with nothing really to spend their money on, this didn’t matter that much, the only effect it had was making people more likely to leave. 

[00:11:25] Workers would stay for short periods, then disappear with their earnings to spend them elsewhere, only to come back weeks or months later, when the money ran out.

[00:11:37] And they weren’t prepared to just stick to these American customs and rules that were promoted by Ford.

[00:11:45] There was a report of some of the workers building their own brothel, their own house with prostitutes and a bar.

[00:11:54] This was actually built on the river, it was built on stilts, and just outside the boundary of Fordlandia, so that it technically wasn't part of Ford’s territory and the American managers couldn’t shut it down.

[00:12:10] It was called, somewhat amusingly, the Island of Innocence.

[00:12:15] So, there was a clash of cultures, a mismatch between the sort of life that Henry Ford thought his workers should be living and the lives that they actually wanted to live. 

[00:12:29] Henry Ford had essentially decided that everyone should live the life of a midwestern car factory worker, no matter whether they lived in Detroit or in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, and no compromises were made.

[00:12:46] Indeed, this clash of cultures reached a new level when a change was made to how the workers would receive their food in the cafeteria.

[00:12:57] Traditionally, the workers had sat down at tables and had their food brought to them. 

[00:13:04] But Ford, ever the efficiency-expert, thought it would be more efficient for workers to queue up and collect their food at a sort of buffet system.

[00:13:16] Enough was enough. 

[00:13:18] The workers rebelled, there was a huge riot, and parts of the cafeteria were destroyed. 

[00:13:25] They even pushed trucks into the river, and caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage. 

[00:13:32] The riot was only stopped when the Brazilian army arrived, and some compromises were reached between the workers and their American managers.

[00:13:43] It wasn’t just the local Brazilians that struggled to adapt to life in Fordlandia.

[00:13:49] The Americans who were sent to manage the land had huge trouble.

[00:13:54] Firstly, to state the obvious, the climate was very different. The Amazon rainforest is not Detroit.

[00:14:03] It was incredibly hot for most of the day. 

[00:14:06] There were poisonous snakes, bats, and all sorts of animals that they had to deal with.

[00:14:13] The houses that were built in Fordlandia were American style houses, the sort of houses you might see in the suburbs of Detroit. 

[00:14:22] They had metal roofs, which turned them into ovens in the heat of the Amazon.

[00:14:29] American managers came and went, and there was a huge turnover of staff.

[00:14:35] And the problems weren’t limited to the people working in Fordlandia.

[00:14:40] Ford had also not properly understood how rubber grows. 

[00:14:47] Rubber is produced by rubber trees, but in its natural habitat, in the Amazon, the trees grow in the rainforest, sheltered by other, larger trees.

[00:14:59] Ford decided to plant all the rubber trees together, close to one another in huge fields. 

[00:15:07] This meant that disease spread quickly from one plant to another, and hundreds of thousands of rubber trees were ruined, they were unusable.

[00:15:18] The American workers thought that the location of Fordlandia might be the problem, so in 1934 they abandoned the original area and created a new settlement downriver called Belterra.

[00:15:34] But that also proved to be not nearly as productive as Ford had hoped for.

[00:15:41]Indeed, the entire project was a far cry from Ford's vision of an Amazonian rubber utopia that not only solved the problem of producing enough rubber for all of the tyres in his cars, but also created a model society in the heart of the Amazon.

[00:16:00] After 17 years of Ford’s industrial experiment in the Amazon, the entire project was only able to produce 750 tonnes of rubber. 

[00:16:11] That might sound like a lot, but it was less than 2% of Ford’s goal of 38,000 tonnes. And not a single gramme of it ever made it into a Ford car.

[00:16:26] Throughout Forlandia’s existence, strangely enough, its creator, Henry Ford, didn’t visit even once. 

[00:16:34] It’s not clear exactly why he didn’t come.

[00:16:38] Perhaps he trusted his American lieutenants to fix it, perhaps he had too much else going on, or perhaps he just couldn’t bear to see that his project was a huge failure.

[00:16:53] And in 1945, after he handed control of the Ford Motor Company to his grandson, Henry Ford II, all of the land was sold back to the Brazilian government. 

[00:17:06] The Brazilian government paid $250,000 for it, a pittance, a tiny amount of money. 

[00:17:14] It’s estimated that Ford took a $20 million dollar loss on this investment, which would work out at almost $300 million dollars in today’s money.

[00:17:25] Amazingly enough, Fordlandia does still exist today, albeit mostly in ruins. 

[00:17:32] If you take a 15 hour boat trip up the Amazon you can still see the abandoned American project. 

[00:17:39] There are some clips on YouTube, and it's really amazing. I’d certainly love to visit if I ever find myself in that part of the Amazon rainforest.

[00:17:49] Now it’s just a monument to Ford’s industrial dream. 

[00:17:54] He had made it work in Detroit, and had brought great prosperity to his workers in America. 

[00:18:00] But, unfortunately for Ford and unfortunately for the workers in Fordlandia, Henry Ford hadn’t realised that just using the same formula in the Amazon as had worked in Detroit wasn’t the smartest of moves.

[00:18:16] And indeed, this particular move ended up being a lesson that cost Ford $300 million dollars to learn.

[00:18:26] OK then, that is that is it for today's episode on Fordlandia.

[00:18:31] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:18:36] We have quite a few Brazilian members, so I’d particularly love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:18:43] Did you know about Fordlandia? 

[00:18:45] What do you think of Ford’s plans? 

[00:18:48] Are there other examples of American industrialists trying to do similar things in Brazil?

[00:18:54] I'd love to know. 

[00:18:55] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:05] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:19:11] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]