Five Reasons Why Henry Ford’s Failure in Brazil Still Matters Today

By Marcos Colón, the writer, director, and producer of the documentary Beyond Fordlândia (2017).

I’m standing in the Amazon next to Henry Ford. The forest around us — eight million square kilometers spread across nine countries of complex ecosystems packed with more species than we will ever know — has long tempted men like Ford to try to exploit it for material gain. Brazilian writer Alberto Rangel called the place “Inferno Verde” — Green Hell — in his stories of the ensuing struggle among nature, local communities, and foreign self-styled pioneers. I can almost forget the history of predatory capitalism and its slow forms of violence when surrounded by the bucolic ambience of the forest. But then I am interrupted by a 500-horsepower tractor drenching the nearby soybean field with pesticides, and Henry Ford is with me once again.

Plantation of Romualdo Rech in Santarém, Pará, Brazil, showing area cultivated for soy production (brown) and adjacent area reforested under judicial mandate. Photo by Marcos Colón and Bruno Erlan, ©Beyond Fordlândia, 2017.

My new documentary, Beyond Fordlândia (75 min, 2017) connects the story of Ford’s decade in Brazil chasing El Dorado to the Amazônia I know and love. Today its residents, human and non-human, face neocolonial economics, toxic exposures, and ecological collapse that can be traced back, in clear and sometimes surprising ways, to the 1920s and Henry Ford’s model agricultural community of Fordlândia. What I’ve learned from taking this long view is that violence can take many forms and play out on different timescales. Violence also accumulates.

The violence is empowered by our ignorance. I made my film to raise awareness about processes of exploitation that are overlooked, misremembered, rebranded, and lied about, or just covered by trees and forgotten by history.

 Here are five things to know about Henry Ford’s time in Amazônia and how he continues to cast a long shadow.

1. Ford dreamed of taming nature — and capitalism. He was a pioneer of vertical integration. By the 1920s, his company controlled the extraction of just about every natural resource required to build a Ford car, except the latex for hoses, valves, and tires. The looming threat of a British monopoly in rubber spurred Ford to try to grow his own. In 1927, the legislature of the Brazilian state of Pará granted a concession of one million acres to his company, which quickly began slash-and-burn clearing of the land. The smoke from the fires darkened the sky and local fishermen said the heat could be felt on the opposite bank of the Tapajós River.

This was the beginning of Ford’s attempt to impose production-line logic on the largest and most complex biome on the planet. But, as historian Greg Grandin told me, “What Ford was trying to do was not so much conquer the Amazon. He was trying to conquer something much greater, something more wild.” He was trying to conquer capitalism.

2. But Ford failed because he misunderstood ecological communities. The most common rubber tree grown around the world, Hevea brasiliensis, was native to the Amazon. While the trees on Ford’s plantations flourished in the climate, so did the pests and diseases that had evolved with the tree for millennia. Planting the trees together tightly in monocrop fields made them more susceptible to infestation. This vulnerability was seen as a stroke of luck by those who opposed the project. “Luckily, the rubber tree fungi are our friends,” Marcus Barros, former director of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, said to me.

Kate Campbell - Rae Ann & Mac McLanahan - Fordlandia © steveide59

Folk singer Kate Campbell performs her song “Fordlândia,” featured in my film, which retells the history of Henry Ford’s adventure in the Amazon. Recorded at the Rose Garden Coffeehouse in Mansfield, Massachusetts, November 2009.

3. Despite its failure, many Brazilians are nostalgic for Fordlândia. Ford abandoned the project in 1934. But, surprisingly, local residents still speak kindly of the short-lived, ill-fated endeavor. Poet Carlos Correia, who has interviewed a number of those who are old enough to remember Fordlândia, describes this nostalgia as its “cruelest legacy.” In their memories, “the American dream came, but didn’t stay, and they’ve been waiting their whole lives for it to return.”

4. Ford’s dream was reborn in the soybean. As his project in Pará was failing, Henry Ford was back in Dearborn, Michigan, occupied with his latest obsession: finding industrial uses for the soya bean. In Ford laboratories, soy products became integrated into the production of plastics and enamels and even a prototype of a “soybean car.”

Back in the Amazon, the plantation logic Ford introduced into Amazonia would remain and soon be applied to growing soy. Today, Brazil leads the world in soybean exports, sending 54 million tons to fill a demand that Ford helped to create. Agribusiness giant Cargill, the world’s largest privately held company, operates a massively subsidized export terminal in Pará, threatening small producers and the indigenous peoples and traditional communities who use the land for subsistence farming.

Cargill export terminal and the conveyer installation used to reload the soybean crop from trucks onto ships for transport to international destinations. Photo by Marcos Colón and Bruno Erlan, ©Beyond Fordlândia, 2017.

5. Now, soybean agriculture is razing Amazonia’s forests and poisoning its people. Current and projected soy production is leaving a trail of deforestation incompatible with the survival of the Amazonian biome. Up the Tapajós River from Fordlândia, in the city of Santarém, 77,000 hectares of forest have already been lost, and experts expect nearly another 500,000 hectares to be cleared in the next five years.

To control pests and speed the ripening of soybeans, workers wearing masks in the closed cabs of massive tractors spray chemicals onto the crop. Local residents report nausea, headaches, and allergic reactions on the days when insecticides are used, and many express alarm about cancer rates in the communities abutting the soy fields.

Fordlândia cemetery with graves of Brazilian laborers who died while working on the Ford Company rubber plantation. Photo by Marcos Colón and Bruno Erlan, ©Beyond Fordlândia, 2017.

This is not just an environmental story. This is a story of those invested with power wielding it against their fellow humans. My film stands against their violence and indifference in hopes of stemming the loss of cultures and the breaking of bonds of indigenous and community solidarity that their actions cause. I hope Beyond Fordlândiamight offer a paradigm others can use when examining other economic incursions into the environment, anywhere in the world.

For more on the essential debates and mobilization around sustainable development and human coexistence with the Amazon rainforest, please visit the Take Action section of the Beyond Fordlândia website.

Featured image: The Fordlândia waterfront. Photo by Marcos Colón and Bruno Erlan, ©Beyond Fordlândia, 2017.

Marcos Colón is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is also a graduate associate in the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE). His dissertation explores representations of the Amazon in 20th-century Brazilian literature from an environmental studies perspective. He is the writer, director, and producer of the documentary Beyond Fordlândia (2017), which was named the World Wildlife Federation Best Awareness-Raising Documentary at the 24th International Environmental Film Festival (2017, FICMA-Barcelona) and has received awards at the Cabo Verde International Film Festival and the Impact DOCS Awards.


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