Student Projects

Independent-learning super-curriculum projects: reading, research and ideas shared by Perse students

Fordlandia: Why Henry Ford’s Utopian City in the Jungle failed

By Daniel R – Y9

This essay aims to explore why the now mostly derelict city of Fordlandia in Brazil was established by the American industrialist Henry Ford in the late 1920s. Ford aimed to overturn the British monopoly of rubber production, but no Ford car ever used rubber from his ill-fated plantation. This essay looks at the failure of this project whose name is associated with a man of unprecedented industrial success.

The Ford Motor company was founded on the 16th of June 1903. The company’s first car was the original Model A, made in 1903 and 1904, followed by the B, K and C between 1904 and 1906. However, the model B and K were high end cars costing around $55000 in today’s money, and the A/C, F and N, although much cheaper, did not sell that well. In 1908 Ford introduced the Model T. Although not recognised at the time, it was one of the first cars to be designed for ease and cheapness of manufacture. Henry Ford’s famous 1909 quote: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” was inaccurate because the cars were initially available in green, red, grey and blue, and only available solely in black from 1914. When Louis Chevrolet started also producing cars in the 1910s, his company began to introduce features like electric starters that Ford thought a luxury and not a necessity. Ford, having added more features and continuing to lower the price of his car was so confident in the Model T’s success he did not purchase any advertising from 1917 to 1923 because people considered the Model T the best and default choice for a car suited to almost any purpose. However, Louis Chevrolet’s company had developed competition such as the Series 490 and as Chevrolet introduced new models and features the popularity of his cars grew. By the mid-1920s Ford sales were decreasing from their peak of 2,011,125 in 1923 and the company knew a replacement was due.

The second generation of Ford Model A was one of the first cars to be designed for flexible mass production, or designed for manufacturability (DFM), unlike the Ford Model T. During the 1920s the limitations of the first generation of rigid mass production had been realised. The Model T production line had been designed just to make Model Ts, meaning engineering of the production line would be required to incorporate new features and changes into vehicles, temporarily dissuading Ford from the idea. The new Model A’s flexible production line meant there were many more variants of the Model A, such as pickup trucks, roadsters and sedans, increasing its popularity with a wider market span.

The Model A was launched on January 9th 1928 at the Ford Industrial Exhibit in the old Fiftieth Street Madison Square Garden, which Ford’s son Edsel described as “a visual demonstration of the operation of the Ford industries, from raw materials to the finished product.” It showcased all the different processes involved in making a Ford motorcar, how all parts of the car were made, from the glass in the windows to the leather trimmings and upholstery, and models of mines for coal and iron, Michigan timberlands, and ships and planes. Such was its popularity that over a million people visited, more than the National Car Show. Many doubted Ford could make the changeover between producing the Model T and the Model A because the just opened River Rouge factory had been fitted to roll out Ts into the indefinite future, and needed to be retooled to produce the A, costing an estimated $250 million. Ford responded with a quote interpreted by some as worried and others as confident: “Nothing is wrong with anything”. However, on the two days after the Madison Square debut over 10 million Americans visited Ford dealerships, and within a few months over 700,000 orders had been placed, proving Ford had made a remarkable comeback to market dominance.

However, Ford’s future prosperity faced a major weakness – he did not control the supply chain of rubber. Rubber had been grown and produced in the Amazon for many years, due to the presence of Hevea Brasiliensis, the rubber tree whose sap is natural latex. This was the main species of tree used to grow rubber in the Amazon basin.  In the 1870s, entrepreneurial explorers had smuggled a stash of Hevea Brasiliensis rubber tree seeds to Asia. This overturned the monopoly of the Amazon rubber empire, rendering the traditional South American rubber-burners obsolete. For the many thousands of rubber burners who lived in smoky huts, turning balls of rubber over fires, they had to look for a different life altogether. Manaus, which was the second city in Brazil to be electrified, due to the large wealth from the rubber boom, stopped being lit up, because the city no longer had enough money to run the generators. The area and other cities also connected with the rubber trade fell into decline, having lost their economic backbone.

The shift of rubber production to Asia gave Britain almost complete control of the rubber trade, largely from Sri Lanka, meaning if they put the price up, Ford would have to pay. Their rubber trade had a major advantage because Asian plantations did not have any of the native blight and parasites found in the Amazon, so the plantation could be more efficient with trees closer together, being much more yielding and harvested much more.

Ford had been planning to build a city to grow rubber for a long time, originally in Central America but information about rubber trees in the Amazon meant he wanted to establish his rubber-producing colony there instead. Negotiations about buying the land from the Brazilian government started when Dionísio Bentes travelled to the United States to meet Ford. Bentes was the governor of the Brazilian state of Pará, which contained the Tapajos river, a branch of the Amazon Ford wanted to use for his rubber colony. An agreement was signed and Ford received an area called ‘Boa Vista’ of around two and a half million acres. This was to become Fordlandia, his utopian city for growing rubber.

Companhia Ford Industrial do Brasil started work in the area in 1926. It was hindered by diseases which affected the workers such as yellow fever and malaria and was logistically disadvantaged because the only way to the site was by the Tapajos river, no roads having been constructed. The site was developed as a planned community with different areas of the city designated for Brazilian workers and American managers who lived in the so-called America village. The houses were built in contemporary American style, and so were the factories, as seen in figure 4, and the town had amenities such as a hospital, hotel, school and library as well as a swimming pool, playground and golf course. In 1928 Ford sent two merchant ships, Lake Ormoc and Lake Farge containing everything the town could need, like doorknobs, hospital equipment and even the town’s water tower. Several offices were opened in Belem and Manaus attracting workers with the promise of good wages of 37 cents a day, nearly double the typical wage for manual work at the time.

Despite the high pay rates there was considerable dissatisfaction among the workers which went on to cause a host of problems. In Fordlandia, the workday was long, starting in the hours after dawn and continuing through the hot midday sun. Due to the way the sap spreads from the base of the rubber tree throughout it during the day, it becomes less efficient to harvest the sap at late hours, meaning the workers had to start work at 5’o clock, assigned separate areas to tap so different workers did not tap the same trees. They disliked the ID badges they were forced to wear, had to labour through the hot midday sun with no rest and thus many refused to work.

The workers were also displeased with their accommodation arrangements, the range of food on offer and the strict and stringent rules. They were forced to live in American style housing, made to eat unfamiliar American cuisine like hamburgers and canned food, and there was a total ban on women, alcohol and tobacco anywhere in the town, managers checking workers’ homes regularly to see everything was organised and complied with the strict set of rules. Workers caught eating their traditional cuisine were either fired or lost pay. Unsurprisingly, inhabitants found their way around this by paddling to merchant riverboats moored past the town jurisdiction, often hiding banned food like watermelons. A small, unofficial settlement was made on one of the islands about five miles upstream, containing bars, brothels and nightclubs, where inhabitants could escape the strict lifestyle of the town. It was ironically named the ‘Island of Innocence’.

Another flaw with Fordlandia was its geography and geology. Ford had little knowledge of plants and did not consult botanists when buying Fordlandia. This meant the land he ended up with was the rocky, infertile side of a mountain, not suitable for farming or plantations of any kind. In the wild, rubber trees grow interspersed throughout the rainforest to stop the spread of parasites. None of Ford’s managers had any knowledge of tropical agriculture either so the trees were planted too close together. They became the ideal habitat for pests like sauva ants, lace bugs, red spiders and caterpillars, and were at huge risk from blight.

However, when the workers were finally settling down and accepting the conditions they had to live in, there was a violent revolt. In the workers’ café, skilled workers and supervisors were separated from manual labourers. On December 20th, 1930, an argument between supervisor Kaj Ostenfield and Manuel Caetano, a brick mason working at the city quickly escalated out of control. Workers rallied behind Caetano on a rampage through the city, vandalising generators, manufacturing equipment and even their own homes. Ford’s managing staff managed to escape by ship and they were only able to subdue the violence with the help of the Brazilian military.

Following this low point, Ford finally found a successful manager, having gone through several in the first two years, in the form of Archibald Johnston. He turned the city around after the riot by paving the roads, which were rough and unsurfaced as seen in figure 1, finishing the much-needed housing and beginning work on proper access roads to the vast inland plantation and territory. Johnston brought Fordlandia closest to its original idea, bringing many American amenities into the heart of the Amazon, the centrepiece being an entertainment facility screening Hollywood films and holding dances. Johnston put into place Ford’s strict rules on behaviour, though the alcohol ban was still hard to enforce. He also put an emphasis on gardening and a strict diet.

There was one major problem. Fordlandia was still not producing any rubber. Jungle was still being cleared and trees still being planted, but the few trees that took root were killed by blight. Ford, with little botanical knowledge and a view on Fordlandia as a large rubber-producing appliance, ordered the trees to be put closer together. He once said, “You know, when you have lots of light, you can put the machines closer together.” Plantation workers noticed the blight on the new trees early on, as seen in figure 2, and when the trees grew large enough for their crowns to touch the blight spread like wildfire. Ford finally brought in an expert botanist in the form of James R Weir, who condemned most of the blight-ridden plantation, and in 1936 ordered for a new plant to be built in Ford’s territory called Belterra. Johnston could not argue, and carried out Weir’s orders to build another plant within Ford’s territory called Belterra. Weir unceremoniously disappeared a year later without informing anyone of his intentions, but Johnston still carried out his orders and made a second plant at Belterra, persisting for nearly a decade, even though both towns were beyond their economic rationale.

Ford’s car manufacturing operation became more involved with the Second World War, and Fordlandia was forgotten. By the time the war ended, Henry Ford was in poor health. His grandson Henry Ford II took over the Ford Motor Company and quickly sold underperforming assets to reduce the company’s ballooning costs. As part of this, Fordlandia was sold back to the Brazilian government for a fraction of what the company originally paid, at a loss of $20 million, around $215 million in today’s money. The American managers, chefs and workers simply left, leaving everything behind, furniture, cars, cutlery and even Brazilian employees, many of whom did not know the Americans were leaving until they boarded ship and sailed down the Tapajos River. The town still has a small population of around two thousand, but all the factories lie empty.

In conclusion Ford’s utopian city in the jungle had failed from its very beginnings. Many construction workers fell ill or died of yellow fever, malaria, infections or animal bites, and the culture shock aggravated the workforce to the point of rebellion. The forest was cleared at the wrong time of year, meaning copious amounts of kerosene had to be used to burn the rotting logs, which could not be touched otherwise whatever touched them would be swarmed by ants and spiders. Due to Ford’s initial ignorance of botany, the trees were infested with blight and ravaged by pests, and by the time James Weir had solved those problems Fordlandia was past its economic rationale. Having spent over $20 million on the land, and over $20 million on building the town, the creation of the city cost nearly $500 million in today’s money, plus workers’ wages and town running costs, and not a single ounce of rubber from either plantation ever made its way on to a Ford car. Belterra might have gone on to be a success but its opportunity to shine was swamped when the area was sold, and by the time it got going natural rubber was outclassed and outpriced by synthetic compounds which could be adapted to their purpose and were more durable than latex. In my opinion Ford should have accepted the British monopoly on rubber, or invested with major tyre producers Firestone and Goodyear, in synthetic rubber. It existed and was used in tyres, but not widely used as the poster shows. His rubber plantation was doomed to fail from the beginning.



Figure 1- Ford Zephyr stuck in the mud of the unpaved roads – something Johnston fixed






Figure 2- Blight-stricken rubber tree





Figure 3 – Rioters pushed vehicles into the river






Figure 4 – The factory when new in 1934, with a more modern picture below






  1. Grandin, Fordlandia: The rise and fall of Henry Ford’s forgotten jungle city (UK edition, 2010) first published August 2006, by Alan Bellows first published February 2003, by Tom W. Bell first published July 2013, by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan photographs of Fordlandia taken in 2011 by Tom Flanagan Trip Advisor page last updated June 2016 first published August 2011, no author given,fordlandia/Timeline Images of Fordlandia, dates and authors not given dates and authors not given dates and authors not given extract from G. Grandin’s book, Fordlandia: The rise and fall of Henry Ford’s lost jungle city published online February 2010 dates and authors not given dates and authors not given dates and authors not given dates and authors not given dates and authors not given dates and authors not given dates and authors not given dates and authors not given dates and authors not given dates and contributors not given Contributed to Wikipedia by the U.S National Archives and Records Administration, poster created January 1941

All websites correct when written – subject to change

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