Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City

Rob Attar on a tale of hubris in the Amazon

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Reviewed by: Rob Attar
Author: Greg Grandin
Publisher: Icon
Price (RRP): £9.99

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Fordlandia was based on the premise that what worked in Michigan would work in the Amazon. That premise turned out to be untrue.

In 1927 American car maker Henry Ford bought a huge tract of jungle land in Brazil where he aimed to establish a rubber plantation. The rubber grown there would provide raw materials for his automobile factories and free Ford from a dependence on latex produced in the Asian colonies of European powers.

Ford’s industrial genius had made him the richest man in the world but his appreciation of the realities of climate and biology was far more limited. After two decades of fruitless struggle against the hostile jungle and legions of pests, Fordlandia was abandoned.

In acquiring Fordlandia, the industrialist also hoped to create a model worker community inspired by his own rural childhood and in stark contrast to the sweeping changes taking place in America.

Again, Ford’s idealism did not match the situation on the ground. Many workers appreciated the higher wages and decent healthcare but baulked at the strict regulation of their diet and entertainment – especially prohibition.

New York history professor Grandin tells this exotic tale in a fluent and entertaining fashion. The flaws in Ford’s schemes are thoroughly exposed but Grandin’s thoughtful analysis stops short of total excoriation. As the stark epilogue reveals, the failings of Fordlandia pale in comparison with the current despoliation of the Amazon and its people.

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Rob Attar is deputy editor of BBC History Magazine