Fordlandia: Henry Ford’s American utopia in the Brazilian Amazon


A view of Fordlândia, founded almost a century ago by Henry Ford, who envisioned an oasis of civilization in the remote Brazilian Amazon. (Video: Rafael Vilela)

FORDLÂNDIA, Brazil — When he was a young man, Luiz Magno Ribeiro felt nothing but pride in his city. It was, he believed, the most miraculous town in Brazil, a place of many firsts. The first settlement deep in the Amazon rainforest to have running water and electricity. The first to treat patients in a modern hospital. The first to build a swimming pool, a cinema, street lamps — an oasis of civilization in a remote jungle: Fordlândia. Where Henry Ford tried to defeat the Amazon and was instead defeated.

But one recent morning, as he set out to inspect the community, it wasn’t awe that the 49-year-old felt. It was frustration and grievance.

Despite all of Magno’s efforts, despite the community’s backing, despite the help of federal attorneys and a recent order by a judge, the remarkable history of Ford’s conquest to harvest Amazon rubber was being lost, historic building by historic building. And the roughly 2,000 people still here, many of them impoverished descendants of Ford workers, were being forgotten — again.

Now came another sign of neglect.

As Magno, the town historian, walked through the neighborhood where Ford’s executives once enjoyed the comforts of a Midwest suburb — wide-screened balconies, concrete sidewalks, porcelain bathtubs — he smelled something acrid. There, inside one of the stately houses, he saw it: bat guano. Mounds of it. The elegant home had been taken over by a squatter — and a colony of bats.

“He didn’t even clean it up,” said Magno, furious at the squatter. “There must be 20 pounds of guano here. And no one does a thing. I’ve never seen this city in worse condition.”

Nearly a century ago, the Ford Motor Co. spent heavily in blood and coin to construct what became, practically overnight, one of the Amazon’s largest cities. Thousands of acres of forest were razed. Millions of dollars were spent. Hundreds of workers died.

But neither Ford nor the Brazilian government, which assumed control of the property when the company departed in 1945, has done much of anything to preserve this historic town whose brief heyday came at so high a cost. William Clay Ford Jr., Henry’s great-grandson and now the company’s executive chairman, reportedly supported in 1997 the opening of a rubber museum here, but nothing came of it. Meanwhile, the Brazilian government, according to federal attorneys, has for more than 30 years ignored pleas to endow the town with historical protections.

Ford didn’t respond to requests for comment. Neither did Brazil’s National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute, which is charged with safeguarding the country’s historic sites.

In recent years, Fordlândia’s collapse has only accelerated. The hospital, designed by Ford architect Albert Kahn and the first to perform complicated surgeries deep in the Amazon, was ransacked a decade ago and stripped of its roofing and walls. Down came a historic home where Ford executives had lived. The cinema, where American poetry was read in Portuguese, was condemned as a safety hazard in 2020 and knocked down.

And this year, the last resident who had worked for Ford died, at 102.

“There won’t be a Fordlândia in 30 more years,” Magno lamented. “It will all be lost.”

He has come to think of it as two towns. There’s the Fordlândia that’s been portrayed in the media: a ghost town whose story ended when Ford left. Then there’s the reality: Fordlândia never suffered an exodus. If it’s not quite thriving, it remains a community with schools, shops and churches.

What connects the two Fordlândias is failure. First, the failure to conquer the jungle. And now, the failure to preserve.

Building the Midwest in the Amazon

Henry Ford had a problem. He had revolutionized factory assembly work and made the automobile affordable for the masses. But he didn’t have direct control of a rubber supply that would guarantee the company’s continued success.

Most rubber was produced by European colonial plantations in Southeast Asia. By the 1920s, there was talk of a rubber cartel.

Ford feared that such a group could dictate rubber prices worldwide, giving it the power to cripple his company. So the pioneering industrialist, an early believer in vertical integration, looked for a way to outflank them and produce his own rubber. He settled on the region where it was first harvested: the Amazon.

He found willing partners in Brazil, which was keen to revitalize the rainforest’s moribund rubber industry. Brazil, in an early example of the extraordinary incentives it would offer multinational corporations to set up in the Amazon, granted Ford in 1927 a parcel nearly the size of Connecticut.

The prospect was attractive to Ford for several reasons. Increasingly disillusioned by an America turning toward urbanism, he saw in the Amazon an opportunity to start over. He wanted to build not just factories and plantations, but a pastoral utopia, transporting a bucolic Midwestern town, imprinted with his own idiosyncratic tastes and interests, to the heart of the Amazon. He discouraged drinking, gambling, Catholicism, yuca flour and … cows.

“The crudest machine in the world,” Ford called the animal. At the maternity ward, infants would be given soy milk.

“He thought this was the perfect way to save rural life,” said Greg Grandin, a historian and the author of “Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City.”

By some measures, Ford succeeded. By the 1930s, a new town had risen out of the forest. On one side extended fire-hydrant-lined streets: Riverside Avenue, Hillside, Main Street. At the center were massive, Detroit-style warehouses. And on the other side was the “American Village.”

Built for American executives, the neighborhood had it all: a clubhouse, hotel, tennis court, swimming pool, golf course, swing sets, a movie theater and five stately homes furnished with wooden American furniture and paintings of rural Midwestern landscapes.

Ed Townsend, 81, grew up inside one. “I remember it being a very pleasant environment,” recalled Townsend, now a banker in Oklahoma. “An enjoyable, pleasant, beautiful, clean city.”

But there was a dark side. Hundreds died in the town’s construction, according to Florida State University researcher Marcos Colón, most of them from disease. “The sanitary situation in Fordlândia is terrible,” the newspaper Diario Carioca reported in 1929, “making victims every day.”

And in its fundamental purpose — to harvest rubber — the experiment was a disaster. Ford’s buffoonish executives did virtually everything wrong. Planting in the wrong season, in the wrong terrain, with the wrong seeds. Clustering Hevea brasiliensis, a rubber tree that grows best when naturally dispersed.

Plagues struck. Pests invaded. When Ford workers introduced ants to kill them, the ants became yet another pest.

“Like dropping money into a sewer,” Ford executive William Cowling wrote to his superiors.

In 1945, after nearly two decades and $20 million spent, Ford wanted out. The company sold its properties and everything on them — the hospitals, houses, factories, manufacturing equipment — to the Brazilian government for a pittance, then departed.

The Brazilians, as if to punctuate that Ford’s strange experiment was over, turned Fordlândia into a cattle ranch.

More than 70 years later, in the spring of 2016, a young judge named Domingos Moutinho accompanied his wife on a work trip to the nearby gold-mining town of Itaituba. One day, when his wife busy at work, he decided to visit a place whose history had always fascinated him. Fordlândia was just up the river.

Riding up the Tapajós, Moutinho watched as verdant forest blurred past, each bend indistinguishable from the last. Then the unusual spectacle came into view: Sprawling rusted warehouses. A 150-foot water tower — once the Amazon’s tallest structure. A water treatment facility. Stepping ashore, Moutinho asked if anyone could give him a tour.

That was when he met Magno. The historian was just finishing up his day job as a schoolteacher.

The pair spent hours touring the town. Moutinho was stunned. One of the warehouses looked suspended in time, as if the workers had dropped their tools mid-shift and never returned. It was filled with dust-lacquered machinery, lugged from cities as distant as Cincinnati and stamped with the manufacturers’ insignia: Southwark Foundry and Machine Co., Brown & Sharpe, Westinghouse.

Looking down, Moutinho spotted an antiquated calculator on the floor.

“If I had wanted to put it into my backpack and leave, I could have,” he recalled. “There wasn’t any kind of real security.”

Magno told Moutinho that Fordlândia had been left to rot. Despite pledges to preserve the town, no Brazilian authority had done much. Not the federal government, and not the city of Aveiro, which included Fordlândia within its borders.

In 1990, state officials, responding to the lamentations of townspeople, submitted a request for historical recognition. The designation, granted by the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute, protects historic properties and incentivizes restorations with tax write-offs. Fordlândia’s leaders considered the recognition a crucial step toward resurrecting the town and drawing tourists. But the request, which typically takes about five years to be processed, languished without explanation for more than 25.

“An abusive delay,” federal attorneys said in a 2015 lawsuit. They alleged that every level of the Brazilian government had been negligent in its duty to maintain the town. While the request for historical recognition sat pending, the hospital had been ransacked and stripped of its valuable tiling. Some of the houses in the American Village had suffered an “invasion” of squatters, they said. Another had been demolished.

Late that afternoon, Magno walked Moutinho back to the port. The historian had enjoyed the visit, but didn’t think much would come of it. Moutinho seemed like just another curious passerby.

Neither knew that before long Moutinho would become a central player in the town’s struggle to survive.

‘We were born rich, then became poor’

Early one morning in December 2021, Magno stepped out of his house and into the rain, hopeful for the first time in a long while.

Fate had placed Moutinho in charge of the court deciding the city’s case. Moutinho had called a meeting for that morning that drew officials from throughout Pará state. For the first time, the people of Fordlândia would have an opportunity to urge authorities publicly to preserve the city, and Magno had been selected as their representative.

Magno felt as if he’d prepared for decades for this day. The son of the chauffeur of an American doctor, he’d been raised to respect what Ford built here. Studying the town’s history for his college thesis, his admiration for Ford had only deepened. In a time when slave labor dominated much of the Amazon, the company had paid workers well and treated them with relative dignity. Then it had left it all behind — the makings and technology of a mighty Amazon city.

All the people had to do, Magno believed, was rise up and seize the opportunity.

But rather than race ahead, Fordlândia somehow slipped behind. In what promised to be an automotive capital, not a single road is paved. Electricity can go out for days at a time. None of the water is treated. Four in 5 people in the broader city of Aveiro live in poverty, and 1 in 4 adults are illiterate. So much potential, Magno often found himself thinking, and none of it went fulfilled.

“We were born rich,” he liked to say, “then became poor.”

Now was a chance, at least in one small way, to set things right. Standing in front of the audience, he tried to make his case for its historical designation.

“This would be a declaration that would look, with great care, to the common good,” he said. Then, later: “There are larger cities. Cities with better infrastructure. But there is no city that has a history like Fordlândia.”

Within days, Moutinho delivered his decision.

“The historic value of Fordlândia is incontestable,” he wrote. “There remains to us no other measure but granting a historical designation.” He ordered Brazil’s heritage agency to finish the necessary paperwork and, by October 2022, to present to the community a “complete restoration plan.”

But none of the deadlines were met. The designation was never awarded — and may never be. In a January filling, the agency doubted whether Fordlândia merited it. The community was found to have only “potential archaeological value,” the filing said. “Potential value” wasn’t enough for a historical designation.

The request was filed away for additional review. No further action has been taken.

A forgotten past, dissolving into the future

Magno no longer gives tours to random visitors. Other than attending to questions about history from lawyers and academics, he tries to live in the present, rather than the past crumbling around him.

But every now and then, he sees a sign of neglect so egregious he has to look away. So the day he saw the guano dirtying the American-style house, he didn’t go inside. Instead, he walked across the street, to where a newcomer had moved in, and witnessed what he’d come to believe was the birth of a new Fordlândia.

Every year, more outsiders were coming to the town. Many were drawn by the promise of wealth that had nothing to do with its past. Shortly after Ford pulled out, a massive deposit — 350 million tons of high-grade gypsum, used in fertilizers and construction — was discovered nearby. For decades, the difficulties of reaching Fordlândia had kept miners away. But now two companies were busy at work. Some days, Magno would stop and marvel at the size of their barge, weighed with thousands of tons of ivory-colored earth.

“A new economic cycle is opening,” said Moutinho, the judge.

And here now, before Magno, was more evidence of it. The newcomer, a transplant from the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, had not restored the American-style home, which had been badly vandalized and shorn of its roofing. Instead, he demolished it entirely and rebuilt it Brazilian-style.

“This is Brazil,” said José Joaquim, 68, admiring his house, painted teal blue. “And I’m Brazilian.”

Magno listened as Joaquim spoke of his plans for his house — a fence over here, a pool over there — and nodded in resignation. This was the other Fordlândia, the real Fordlândia.

“And of course,” Joaquim continued, “there will be a big barbecue grill.”

Magno smiled. He said the plans sounded nice. Then he finished the conversation and walked back to the school, where he had work to do.

Marina Dias in Brasília contributed to this report.

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