The rise and fall of Henry Ford’s forgotten jungle city.
What were some of Ford’s more unusual demands of residents?
In some ways, Fordlandia mirrored other company towns that U.S. corporations set up in Latin America. But there were things very particular to Ford. By the mid-1920s he had become a bit of a cultural conservative. As part of this cultural conservatism he promoted square dancing, and had his Brazilian workers waltzing and doing polkas.
He was also a quasi vegetarian and tried to promote the consumption of brown rice and whole wheat bread and oatmeal, as well as other dietary habits that he thought were conducive to good health. He insisted that workers grow vegetable gardens in front of their houses and things like that.
What about Ford’s obsession with soybeans?
He was constantly trying to find industrial uses for agricultural products and markets for goods that came out of farming communities. He spent millions of dollars looking for ways to develop industrial uses for soybeans. He was also a big promoter of soybeans as food, including soy milk and soy cheese.
The irony is that Ford saw soy as being a wonder crop that would revive and rescue rural communities in the Amazon, but soybean production—which is low labor and highly mechanized—ended up wiping out one community after another.
Is it true that he developed a soybean car?
[Laughs]. He had a car built out of plastic that was largely made from soybeans. But they couldn’t get the formaldehyde smell out, and at the time, formaldehyde was needed to process the soybeans into plastic. From what I read, the smell was unbearable.
Typically, locals don’t have fond memories of departed multinationals. How is Fordlandia remembered by the natives?
Quite fondly. I think there is a certain kind of longing for a more humane version of industrialization in which companies care about what happens to their workers outside the factory gates. Although Ford was highly paternalistic, he did pay good wages and provide medical care. Considering what is available to most people in the Amazon, and considering the ruination in terms of logging and monoculture plantations, those fond memories are understandable.