Fordlândia: An American Town in the Amazon Rainforest

by Amizade Global Service-Learning

If a person were to voyage down the Tapajós River in 1930, along the dense foliage of the Amazon Rainforest, it may seem unlikely that they would stumble upon an American community, complete with a hotel, golf course, library, hospital, and rows of American-style housing. However, if they were to come across the town of Fordlândia, the failed attempt of American Henry Ford to gain access into the rubber industry, that is precisely what they would see. Today, the remnants of this peculiar development within the Amazon remain. When Amizade volunteers travel to Santarém, Brazil, they get to visit Fordlândia, and learn the history of such a strange and spectacular failure.

During the early portion of the 20th Century, the only source of rubber for the manufacturing of automobiles came from a specific tree in South America called the Hevea brasiliensis, which produces a natural latex from its sap. The town of Fordlândia was established within the jungle of the Amazon, as an effort by famed automobile manufacturer Henry Ford to grow and produce rubber for automobile tires and avoid purchasing rubber from outside manufacturers. The population within the community subsequently grew as American workers were relocated and Brazilian natives were hired to work on the land. Developed extensively, the town had everything from restaurants to tailor shops. One thing that Fordlândia wasn’t able to develop was a successful way to grow plants and produce rubber. Henry Ford neglected to hire an expert in horticulture to oversee the growing of rubber-producing trees, and production suffered, as the land was simply unsuitable for growing the particular plants. Inevitably, the entire plan ended in disaster, as a new synthetic form of rubber was invented in 1945, and Ford’s son Henry Ford II was forced to sell Fordlândia for a loss of $20 million.

Today, only the ruins of Fordlândia remain. From a distance, the area could be mistaken for a small town in the American Midwest. There are rows of empty white houses, a water tower, vacant warehouses, rusted fire hydrants along dilapidated sidewalks, and a desolate hospital. Amizade volunteers in Brazil get to walk the streets of Fordlândia and observe the remnants of what was once a promising industrial development. They get to learn the history and stories behind Henry Ford’s botched effort to produce his own rubber within the Amazonian jungle. Visiting Fordlândia is an exciting and interesting learning experience during Amizade programs in Brazil, an opportunity to see how the influence of American industry can stretch all the way to the vast Brazilian wilderness.