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Quirk of history

Henry Ford’s disastrous Amazonian foray

An abandoned building in Fordlândia. Joel Auerbach/Getty

In 1927, Henry Ford convinced the Brazilian government to let his company set up a rubber-producing operation in the Amazon. The result, says Terrence McCoy in The Washington Post, was Fordlândia, a “bucolic Midwestern town” in the middle of the world’s largest rainforest. On one side were “fire-hydrant-lined streets”: Riverside Avenue, Hillside, Main Street. On the other was the “American Village”, where the US executives had everything from a golf course to a cinema, along with five stately homes “furnished with wooden American furniture and paintings of rural Midwestern landscapes”. Ford himself imprinted his idiosyncratic tastes on the settlement, discouraging drinking, gambling and Catholicism – along with cows, to which he had a strange aversion.

Alas, Fordlândia’s fundamental goal – to harvest rubber – proved harder than anticipated. The company’s “buffoonish” executives planted the crops “in the wrong season, in the wrong terrain, with the wrong seeds”. When pests invaded, ants were introduced to kill them off – and “the ants became yet another pest”. Ford executive William Cowling told his superiors the whole project was like “dropping money into a sewer”. In 1945, after two decades and $20m, the company abandoned the whole thing. The Brazilians, rather aptly, turned the place into a cattle ranch.