Summer 2002

“Shades of Tarzan!”

Ford on the Amazon

Elizabeth Esch

Though it is widely acknowledged to be the most American of American companies, it is more accurate to describe the Ford Motor Company as having been built by the whole world’s labor, land, and natural resources. By the end of the 1920s, Ford was operating factories on every continent, in over 20 countries, and was selling more cars, trucks, and tractors than any other manufacturer. In the US, the 100,000 workers in the mammoth River Rouge Plant in Detroit came from over 70 countries. Determined to “vertically integrate”— that is, to own and thus to control all the raw materials that went into making a car—Ford purchased ships, railroads, ports, forests, plantations, coal mines, iron mines, sand pits, and farms across the US and around the globe.

As represented by Diego Rivera in his 1932 Detroit Industry frescoes in Detroit, Ford’s strategy linked nature to industry through human toil and creativity. Among the most beautiful images in Rivera’s frescoes is a Brazilian rubber tapper. Separated by a smooth ocean from the Rouge Plant, then the largest auto factory in the world, the rubber tapper bends in a graceful, time-tested stance into the latex-producing heveas brasilis tree. Existing as an unchanging conduit between the past and the present, the figure is meant to suggest the mutually beneficial relationship that Rivera imagined was possible between industry and nature, technology and tradition, progress and continuity. Yet even as Rivera painted, the Ford Motor Company was hard at work destroying the possibility he imagined in the rainforests of Brazil.

Backed by a state department eager to free American industry from British domination of the rubber market, Ford, Firestone, and Goodyear had all pledged their allegiance to producing “American” rubber in Sumatra, Brazil, Liberia, and Malaya. In 1927, Ford purchased 2,500,000 acres of land in the state of Para in northern Brazil as the site for its rubber plantations. By spring 1928, the Ford-owned Lake Ormoc had set sail from Detroit for the newly founded Fordlandia. Carrying enough provisions to house and care for the “American staff” for up to two years, and to construct a powerhouse, sawmill, radio station, and hospital, the Ormoc’s arrival on the Brazilian coast signaled the beginning of a short but lethal misadventure in the history of America’s imperial adventures.

Small pickup truck coming down a narrow road close to Fordlandia, ca. 1940. Images courtesy The Henry Ford Museum.

A company publication reported: “The first obstacle that confronted Ford was the almost impenetrable tropical jungle. But it had to be cleared and for every 40 acres a clearing gang of 20 native workers was organized.” As early as the summer of 1929, 1,500 acres of rainforest had been slashed, burned, and planted with rubber saplings. By 1930, 3,000 acres were cleared, and the infrastructure of the plantation—administrative offices, barracks, a clinic—had been constructed. Intent on conquering the very ecology that had nurtured the trees it was there to turn into product, Ford’s willful ignorance in the face of decades of local knowledge of rubber production is staggering. Within a year, the first 1,500 acres of trees planted were all killed by a fungus common to the region. Grown in their natural environment, rubber trees are protected from the spread of the disease by the shelter of other plant life and the distance between them. Ford, having planted the trees in rows on barren land, could not stop the fungus once it started.

This was just the beginning of the company’s problems. Convincing enough people to live and work on the plantation was the largest challenge it faced, and one it was never able to win. The company clearly thought its plan—of creating a waged labor force of single men who slept in barracks, punched time clocks, and worked 11-hour shifts—was not only agreeable but generous in contrast to the quasi-feudal social arrangements on other plantations. At Fordlandia, workers were paid in money as opposed to company scrip, and thus were not tied by debt to the plantation, although they were still required to work off the costs of their own transportation to the plantation, and to pay for their own food, hammocks, and tools. Ford’s managers had been certain that “in the beginning plenty of laborers can be recruited on the Tapajos and neighboring rivers. These men when well fed and cured of hook worm, malaria etc. will make good laborers.” But Ford was consistently proven wrong, and recruiting became a constant necessity.

An early report by Carl LaRue, who scouted the Amazon region for the company, offered the following:

The dwellers of the Amazon Valley are of three main stocks: Portuguese, Indian and Negro. ... Admixture has gone on so long that it is difficult to distinguish the different types. The mixture is not a particularly good one from a racial standpoint but it is by no means a bad one ... The fate of these people is more tragic because they are not possessed of the stolidity of the orientals, but have enough of the white race in them to suffer keenly and long intensely for the better things.

The company’s own racism severely limited its ability to create Ford workers out of the people living in the region, as well as its capacity to get them to stay at Fordlandia once they were recruited. Ranking the people they encountered in degrees of “savagery” and “tameness,” Ford managers projected their white supremacist fantasies onto the bodies of the “tropical” people they needed to produce their product. From a tour of villages he had been sent to inspect, one labor recruiter sent a telegram which read, “Even if they were tame they are lazy and undisciplined.” The company replied, “Suggest we only take 100 with the distinct understanding that they are subject to discipline or they will be of no value. They must guarantee to do steady work every day or they would be without value and if they cannot talk Portuguese we might be better off without them.”

Every colonial administration has its own idea of what it means to “tame savages.” In Ford’s case, the measurement was clearly capitalist work discipline. A “tame” worker wore shoes, lived on the plantation, returned to work the day after being paid, and worked for 11 hours through the heat of the day. In kind, “taming savages” was not unlike what Ford did in Detroit: there, the company required male immigrant workers to study English and have their homes and wives inspected before they could qualify for the five-dollar-a-day wage. Social control is a necessary part of making people perform alienating wage labor. But in degree, Fordlandia was different. The men Ford sought to recruit as wage workers lived in the region of Brazil that had once provided more than 90% of the world’s rubber. They came from long traditions of skill, and while they worked in hierarchical networks that accessed the global economy, their work was autonomous and it built communities. Indeed, the poverty the company encountered when it arrived in the region was the result not of the nature of rubber tapping, but of the global economy from which the Brazilian rubber tappers had been eliminated. Using seeds smuggled out of Brazil and nurtured in Kew Gardens, British companies had launched large-scale rubber plantations with which indigenous rubber tapping methods could not compete.

Mirroring the Brazilian eugenics movement’s obsession with disease and sanitation, the American managers at Fordlandia lived in a constant state of fear of “the tropics,” which included its people and its ecology. Hospital visits and inoculations were compulsory, as was the wearing of shoes (to guard against hookworm). Doctors played an increasingly significant role in the management of workers on the plantation; the hospital was the place where sick workers were distinguished from the “just lazy” ones: the latter were fired.

Ford’s extravagant commitment to its own ideas of how work should be organized and workers managed, perfected in its auto factories in Detroit, made little sense in Brazil. Yet the less those ideas seemed to work, the more tenaciously—and absurdly—the company seemed to cling to them. In an exchange of letters with steam whistle manufacturers, a manager expressed concern that the company had not yet found a whistle that could withstand a tropical climate, or that was loud enough for workers on all sides of the plantation to hear it. Of course, the company had scheduled the whistles at 5:30, 6:00, 6:30, 7:00, 11:00, 11:30 am; noon; 3:30, 4:00, 4:30, 5:00, and 5:30 pm. But of what use is all this precision if no one can hear the whistle? And what good is punching time cards if time is not uniformly understood? As one manager put it, “Owing to the fact that our daily labor is punching time cards, it is imperative that time signals be controlled. Otherwise the hours of operation are not uniform throughout the plantation.” Indeed, Ford management thought electric service would be advisable throughout the plantation in order to accommodate time clocks and bells “similar to those in the factory.”

A strike in December 1930 revealed the depth of disgust the workers felt toward the highly controlled living arrangements on the plantation. The strike began when workers in the cafeteria were told they would have to wait in line for their food, rather than have it served at their tables. When they confronted managers about the new policy, the workers were told that “the Company now and then puts new rules into effect but it was always for the betterment of the workers.” Not satisfied with the “betterment” program, workers immediately banded together as the managers fled by boat. Targets of destruction during the strike included the cafeteria, all the time clocks, the punch card racks, and all the trucks.

The Ford workers presented a list of demands to management which included the dismissal of two managers who were considered particularly vicious; access to the docks and river without passes; the right to visit neighboring villages; the elimination of the rule that prohibited the consumption of alcohol; the end of the requirement to eat in the company cafeteria; and the cessation of arbitrary firing. In response, the company called in the Brazilian military, which arrested more than 30 “ringleaders.” Following the strike, Ford required its workers to be photographed when they were hired, and agreed to a police proposal to create passports for all workers, which contained their fingerprints and previous police records.

Automobile stuck in the mud on the road to Fordlandia, ca. 1940.

In 1934, after clearing 8,000 acres of rainforest, Ford admitted defeat at Fordlandia. Marking a radical shift in strategy, the company abandoned virtually the entire plantation, save what it would use for research purposes, and bought over 700,000 acres of land 80 miles away. The new plantation, named Belterra, promised better growing conditions and easier access. The move to Belterra coincided with another shift in policy, as management decided to allow some men to bring their families to live on the plantation and build housing for them. Fantastic fears that the plantation would be overrun by poor women and their children who would require care but could not work had guided past policy. But as fewer and fewer men were willing to uproot themselves from their communities and families, and more and more single men left after working on the plantation for a short period of time, the company conceded. Having succeeded in creating neither a “loyal” nor a “disciplined” workforce, Ford set its sights on the workers of the future: children.

In a letter to Detroit, a manager at Belterra described the “youngsters who are growing up on the plantations … [as] our best prospects for future employees.” Photos of President Vargas’s visit to the plantation show smiling children waving Brazilian flags—which bear the slogan “Order and Progress.” One photo in a Ford promotional brochure bears the caption: “Shades of Tarzan! You’d never guess these bright, happy healthy school children lived in a jungle city that didn’t even exist a few years ago!”

If Fordlandia became the site for experimentation with heveas brasilis, Belterra became the site for experimentation with people. Virtually every activity on the plantation carried the potential for Fordist ideas about nationalism, thrift, science, and progress to be shaped into behavior-modifying campaigns. With the introduction of family living at Belterra came the imposition of a multitude of requirements. School was compulsory for adults—“The night shift is reserved for adults and the one who refuses, goodbye”—and for children. Required uniforms were provided by the company: “Boys wore outfits similar to Boy Scouts and girls neat white pleated skirts and white blouses.” The decision to provide uniforms to those children who could not afford them was defended by one manager who noted, “It is our opinion that the psychological effect on the morale of all the children justifies the expenditure.” Working from a textbook called Moral Education: My Little Friends, children studied Portuguese, geography, Brazilian history, arithmetic, and geometry. Described by one writer as a “children’s paradise,” the residents of Belterra learned American folk dancing, an obsession of Henry Ford’s, and were entertained by Ford-made motion pictures. So successful did the company think this practice was that Edsel Ford proposed to make films about the plantations and show them at points “along the Amazon and northern Brazilian coast” in order to entice workers to this “irradiating center of civilization.”

From its inception in the late 1920s until 1940, no significant amount of rubber was exported from Ford’s plantations to Detroit for use in auto production. One manager wrote that “a great amount of work has been done… and a great deal of money spent but… very little has been done along the lines of what we came here to do, namely plant rubber.” In spite of Ford’s poor production record, its plantations started to receive a tremendous amount of attention in the early 1940s due to the changed global political situation. The US, worried that access to rubber would become increasingly threatened, sought to support the development of production in the western hemisphere. Both Time and Fortune magazines asked to visit, though both were denied. The Detroit Times ran a series of articles on the plantations that was republished as a small booklet supporting the war effort. Harpers, Cosmopolitan and Business Week all ran features on the plantations in 1944. The caption underneath a photograph of a time clock in Business Week read: “And time clocks—incongruous devices in the customarily indolent atmosphere of a steaming Amazon jungle—measure the workers’ 11-hour days.”

In 1941, Ford published its own promotional pamphlet. “The Ford Rubber Plantations” told the story of the lucky Brazilian people who were being civilized through the generosity and vision of the company. Describing both the natural and built environments at Fordlandia and Belterra, the pamphlet seems designed to lure potential managers and scientists, as well as investors in the US. The homey pamphlet set out “to give you some idea of the problems that are involved in this vast project and of the methods by which they are being brought to successful conclusion,” and reminded the reader that “the Ford Rubber Plantations of Brazil represent but one of many Ford Motor Company projects for the scientific development and utilization of natural resources… projects that in no small measure make possible the building of finer and finer cars at low prices within the reach of more and more people.” The scary specter of “wasteland” and the “jungle” featured prominently in the story of “natives” being brought into the fold of modernity: “Paved roads, cement walks, comfortable homes, electric lights, telephones—this might be any midwestern town. But it is Belterra, buried deep in the jungle of Brazil.... Yes, there is even a golf course—a sporty 18 holes—at Fordlandia. Beautiful clubhouse, tropical foliage—and 700 miles from civilization.”

One journalist was moved to note the participation of the plantations’ schoolchildren in the creation of “Latin-Saxonian unity”: “Undismayed by isolation, these boys and girls are going ahead, playing their part in a great movement that is not only setting an example for satisfied workmen and helping to unify the Western Hemisphere but producing a necessary product for the Americas in the Americas.”

But if the automobile remained a “necessary product,” natural rubber did not. With the introduction of synthetic rubber in the US, Ford—and the American government—found a new solution to its production worries. Having estimated in 1941 that the Ford plantations “would produce from 30 to 40 million pounds of high-quality rubber during the next ten years … and thereafter a minimum of 10,000,000 pounds per year,” in 1946, the company left Brazil more abruptly than it had arrived, departing virtually overnight. The plantations were sold back to the Brazilian government for $250,000—a fraction of the sum of $20 million that Ford had poured into the project.

Elizabeth Esch is completing a dissertation in the Department of History at New York University.

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