Ford Motor Company's Brazilian Rubber Plantations
The Start of Fordlandia
A New Start
Sources and Further Reading
The plantations of Fordlandia and Belterra were two attempts by the Ford Motor Company from 1928-1945 to establish a permanent rubber plantation presence in Brazil. The goal of setting up the Ford Motor Company of Brazil was two-fold: to supply Ford’s internal demand for rubber as well as to provide a better way of life for the Brazilians who lived and worked on the plantations. The plantations were testaments to the innovations of agriculture and industry related to commercial cultivation in the jungle, but they were also marked with failures such as not understanding native culture and trying to impose a Dearborn-like work schedule and life on the native Brazilians.
- On October 11, 1927, when public interest in Ford’s upcoming Brazilian plantation was high, Henry Ford announced that he would embark on a tour of South America, including the site of the plantation, with Charles Lindbergh in the pilot’s famous Spirit of St. Louis. The tour never happened.
- Ford looked into the possibility of producing commercial quantities of products other than rubber that were grown on the plantations to support the community of workers. These products included teak, balsa, mahogany, eucalyptus, kapok, tamarind, sisal, hemp, jute, cinnamon, ginger, coconut oil, palm, cacao tea, pineapple, citrus fruits, bananas, soy beans, and coffee.
- By 1940, Belterra had 7,000 inhabitants, more than 2,000 workers (including 261 women and 60 boys), 844 houses, and wooden barracks that could accommodate 950 men.
- Nicknamed “Dearborn in the Jungle,” Belterra was a model community with three major and two outlying schools to serve more than one thousand students, churches, stores, a recreation building, a golf course, a library, radio stations, a power plant, a sanitary department, a water purification plant, and more.
- The hospitals at Fordlandia and Belterra had over 120 beds and were well-equipped with X-ray and ultraviolet-ray equipment, laboratories, pharmacies, operating rooms, hot and cold water, and dental offices.
- By 1941, there were 3,651,500 rubber trees planted at Fordlandia and Belterra.
- Ford initially invested 2 million dollars to set up the Fordlandia plantation. By the time custody of Fordlandia and Belterra was transferred to the Brazilian government, the total investment had been 20 million dollars.
|Belterra Golf Course, 1941 (THF57422)
||Fordlandia Hospital, 1931 (THF57423)
||Fordlandia Rubber Trees, 1936 (THF57424)
In the early 20th century, the Netherlands and England had dominance over the world’s market for rubber production with plantations in the East Indies. Although the rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis was native to the Amazon, 70,000 seedlings were taken from Brazil by Henry Wickham of England in 1876 and then brought to the East Indies for cultivation. This effectively robbed Brazil of its position as the number one exporter of rubber in the world. The dominance of Eastern rubber over world supply became especially obvious with the Britain Stevenson Plan in 1922, which attempted to establish the world price of rubber much higher than the cost of production. Because three quarters of the rubber imported into the United States was used in the automobile industry, the US government and the private sector started looking for new locations for plantations to bypass the unfair prices set by the British.
The start of Fordlandia
Henry Ford was one of the business owners most interested in finding an alternate location to grow rubber trees. Influenced by a 1923 United States government survey that named the Amazon as an ideal location for producing rubber, Henry Ford commissioned his own independent study of the Tapajos River valley in 1926. On July 21, 1927 he was given a free land concession of one million hectares (2.5 million acres) along the Tapajos River with a deal that he was to pay 7% of his annual profits to the Brazilian government and 2% of annual profits to local municipalities after 12 years of operation. It was initially estimated that when the plantation was under full cultivation, it would produce enough rubber to make tires for 2,000,000 automobiles a year.
In August of 1928, two ships, the steamer Lake Ormoc pulling the barge Lake Farge, left for the Amazon with supplies to establish a settlement. The original settlement consisted of tractors, prefabricated buildings, a sawmill, food, hospital equipment, a powerhouse, ice-making machinery, railroad equipment, and more. The Danish sea captain, Einard Oxholm, who led the expedition became the first manager of the plantation, although he had no agricultural experience. The first order of business was to clear the jungle before the buildings could be erected. Local Portuguese Indians were hired to help, and the small settlement of Boa Vista, which was later renamed Fordlandia, was begun.
Interest throughout Brazil in Ford’s new plantation was high. It was hoped that Ford could bring the rubber industry back to Brazil. Further enticing the country was Ford’s commitment to hire Brazilians for the majority of the work. Wages for the employees were good compared to what they were accustomed to and also compared to what contemporaries were receiving in the Far East. Compared to the typical pay of 20 cents per day in the Far East, Ford started out by offering workers 35 cents a day and providing them with free food, shelter, and medical care. Along with free housing, the workers were provided with a community pool, a hospital, tailors, shops, restaurants, and shoemakers.
|Lake Ormoc Steamer, 1928 (THF57425)
||Fordlandia Construction, 1929 (THF57426)
One of the major concerns of the Ford Motor Company was to eradicate native diseases on the plantations and enforce proper sanitation. Malaria and hookworm were the two most common diseases among the natives. By enforcing basic sanitation such as wearing shoes and dispensing quinine to the workers, the doctors were able to eradicate epidemic diseases on the plantation.
An early problem at Fordlandia was the Amazon’s heavy rains that washed out the nutrient-rich soil needed for growing the rubber trees. Extensive terracing was needed to prevent flooding on the cleared land. Fordlandia was also plagued with other troubles, such as drought during the dry season and diseases and insects that attacked the trees. Among the attackers were a deadly leaf fungus and pests such as sauva ants, lace bugs, red spiders, and leaf caterpillars. The early troubles of Fordlandia partly had to do with the fact that the plantation was under the supervision of Ford factory-trained men rather than horticultural specialists.
Additionally, Fordlandia had trouble with the native workers who were encouraged against their wishes to conform to a Dearborn-style way of life. This included eating a Midwestern-style diet provided to them free by Ford, participating in social events such as square dancing and poetry readings, and living in squat two-family houses that were very different from their native homes (which had palm-thatched roofs and were built high off the ground to keep out animals and insects). The Brazilians complained of stomach troubles with the unfamiliar diet. They also did not like working the hours the Ford Motor Company expected, preferring to work before sunrise and after sunset. Because of these lifestyle changes, there was a significant amount of turnover on the plantation. The high wages and free lodging, food, and health care were attractive enough to draw new employees in, but the workers typically worked a short while before leaving.
Fordlandia fell victim to several riots and disputes. The first and most serious was when the Brazilian workers learned they were going to receive their food through a self-serve food line instead of being waited on at tables as they were accustomed to. The workers grabbed their machetes and destroyed the cafeteria while the North American employees waited in their boats for the riot to end. A second incident occurred when Ford attempted to bring in workers from Barbados. The native Brazilians resented the foreigners for taking their jobs and also a rumor that they made higher wages, and they complained to the company. After a quarrel during which one West Indian was stabbed and several Brazilians were injured, Ford promptly banned the Barbadians from the plantation.
Along with internal troubles, Ford was also faced with outside critics who complained that the company was being too secretive about what was happening in Brazil. Some critics claimed that it was nearly impossible for the plantation to become financially viable based on the investment versus the probable rubber production. Additionally, the company had trouble with journalists who exaggerated the conditions on the plantation and made subjective observations that needed to be later denied by Ford.
|Fordlandia Terracing, 1931 (THF57427)
||Dancing at Fordlandia, 1933 (THF57428)
||Fordlandia Employee Housing, 1933 (THF57429)
A New Start
By 1933, after years of trouble with leaf diseases and pests, it was clear that changes were needed. Ford hired Dr. James Weir, a plant pathologist, who after a survey of the surrounding land suggested a new property eighty miles downstream from Fordlandia. The new plantation, Belterra, was established at the site. As Henry Wickham had originally spirited away rubber tree seedlings from Brazil half a century earlier, Weir obtained 2,046 buddings from high-producing trees in the Far East and brought them back to Brazil to start growing at Belterra. Weir founded a research laboratory and nursery at Belterra to experiment with producing high-yielding and disease-resistant strains of rubber. Fordlandia was not abandoned, but the major operations of the plantation were transferred to Belterra. By 1940, 500 employees were working at Fordlandia while 2,500 employees were working at Belterra.
The early success of Belterra partially had to do with Ford being more accommodating to the needs of the natives than at Fordlandia. A former sheriff, Curtis Pringle, was hired to manage the plantation, and he relaxed the Dearborn-style regulations that had been a problem at Fordlandia, deferring to local Brazilian customs for meals and entertainment. Belterra grew into a successful community. In 1940, Belterra was visited by the president of Brazil, who praised it as being a model community. In 1942, the first commercial tapping of the rubber trees began, and 750 tons of latex were produced. This was well short of the 38,000 tons Ford needed annually, but it was estimated that by 1950 the two plantations would produce that amount. Although Belterra was beginning to produce rubber, the new location was still plagued with leaf fungus problems. Technicians tried to contain the epidemic through bud grafting. Although this approach worked, the start of the Second World War brought on additional problems that impacted the rubber industry.
|Belterra Seedling Nursery, 1935 (THF57430)
||President Vargas of Brazil, 1940 (THF57431)
||Bud Grafting in Belterra, 1940 (THF57432)
During World War II, the rubber supply was cut off from the Far East, harming the US government’s wartime need for tire production. The Ford plantations continued to produce rubber, but a leaf disease epidemic and additional labor problems made producing a reliable supply of rubber difficult. By the time the war ended and the Far Eastern rubber plantations were opened again, Ford did not see the need to keep the Brazilian plantations open. For a mere $250,000, Ford gave up its rubber interests in the Amazon to the Brazilian government. The plantations were put under the control of the Brazilian Northern Agronomical Institute, and the legacy of Ford in the jungle was brought to an end. As of 1987, Belterra was being used by a company called LATEX PASTORE to produce rubber, but not at commercially viable levels. Fordlandia remained abandoned.
“We will get our men in Brazil. We are not going to South America to make money but to help develop that wonderful and fertile land…We’ll train the Brazilians and they’ll work as well as any others.”
--Henry Ford in “Is Henry Ford a Genius?” by Dr. Decio De Paula Machado. The Magazine of Business, May 1928.
“The Ford Motor Company of Brazil is said to be one of the best equipped and most liberally funded expeditions that ever entered the region.”
--Unknown author of “The Ford Motor Company of Brazil.” The Inter-American Review, July 1929.
“Mr. Ford’s presumed object is to grow his own rubber, but it only requires a few months’ stay on the concession to realize that, although rubber may eventually be grown there, the cost, both of bringing the area into bearing and producing the rubber will be so fantastically enormous, that the whole scheme from a commercial point of view is doomed to failure. At any rate, it is the writer’s contention that the Eastern planter need not worry from any competition from rubber produced by the Ford Company on the Amazon for at least another hundred years – that is, judging by the rate of progress made up to date.”
--Unknown author of “With Ford on the Amazon.” India Rubber Journal, Jan 1931.
“What has been accomplished by the Ford Company in the Amazon through the application of engineering and agricultural skill ranks as one of the outstanding examples of North American private enterprise at work in foreign fields.”
--Edward J. Cleary in “An Engineer’s Role on a Rubber Plantation.” Engineering News Record, March 9, 1944.
“The really big idea behind and in front of rubber is the lesson of Henry Ford. Ford with his heroic plantation will not bring us all the rubber we need, but he is the man who had brought rubber home; brought it back to the Western Hemisphere to stay! No matter what happens, in war or peace, never again will we be dependent on the far-off East Indies for our rubber.”
--H.A. Phillips in “The Big Three: Rubber, Iron, Oil.” Cosmopolitan, July 1944.
“I would have told him that Fordlandia should be abandoned. It was a very picturesque place and would have been a wonderful hideaway for Ford executives – like a little Switzerland for fishing and hunting – but it was not appropriate for a plantation. For Belterra, if I had had a chance, I would have told him to keep going. They shouldn’t have given it up.”
--Dr. Emerick Szilagyi, a Henry Ford Hospital surgeon who ran the plantation hospitals from 1942-1945, on a cancelled Detroit lunch meeting in 1945 in which he was to discuss the future of the plantations with Henry Ford II. The meeting was never rescheduled. In “Fordlandia” by Mary A. Dempsey, Michigan History, Jul/Aug 1994.
Sources and Further Reading
(All sources available in the Benson Ford Research Center Collections)
- Bryan, Ford R. Beyond the Model T. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997.
- Cleary, Edward J. “An Engineer’s Role on a Rubber Plantation.” Engineering News-Record. Mar 9, 1944.
- Dempsey, Mary A. “Fordlandia.” Michigan History. Jul/Aug 1994.
- De Paula Machado, Decio. “Is Henry Ford a Genius?” The Magazine of Business. May 1928.
- Galey, John. “Industrialist in the Wilderness: Henry Ford’s Amazon Venture.” Journal of InterAmerican Studies. Vol. 21, No. 2. May 1979.
- Grandin, Greg. Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City. New York City, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2009.
- Holdridge, Desmond. “A Native Returns to the Amazon.” Living Age. Apr 1941.
- Phillips, H.A. “The Big Three: Rubber, Iron, Oil.” Cosmopolitan. Jul 1944.
- Russell, Joseph A. “Alternative Sources of Rubber.” Economic Geography. Oct 1941.
- Russell, Joseph A. “Fordlandia and Belterra, Rubber Plantations on the Tapajos River, Brazil.” Economic Geography. Vol. 18, No. 2. Apr 1942.
- Smith, A.M. “Diseases, Wages, Politics Threaten Ford Project.” The Detroit News. Nov 8, 1928.
- Spencer, Erwin. “Development of the Brazil Plantations.” Herald. Vol. VII, No. 17. Sep 13, 1940.
- Wilson, Charles Morrow. “Mr. Ford in the Jungle.” Harper’s Magazine. Jul 1941.
- “Ford Motor Co. Disposes of Natural Rubber Holdings in Brazil.” Rubber Age. Dec 1945
- “The Ford Motor Company of Brazil.” The Inter-American Review. Jul 1929.
- “With Ford on the Amazon.” India Rubber Journal. Jan 1931.