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How Henry Ford's utopian dream collapsed in the Amazon rainforest

Fordlândia, Brazil
Parts of Fordlândia have been reclaimed by the rainforest - The Washington Post/Getty

Looking up at the ceiling of the Paz theatre in Belém’s old town I thought I could see pink river dolphins. Maybe it was a touch of heat stroke. It wasn’t yet 9.30am and it was sweltering. It would soon be 35°C – with a “feels like” temperature of over 40°C. The city, at the mouth of the Amazon, and just 1.5 degrees from the equator, is always sultry, but summer had come early. I was seeing as much as possible before the real heat slammed home around lunchtime.

Belém, capital of Pará state, was beautified during the rubber boom of 1880 to 1912. There’s grandeur everywhere, much of it weathered and worn. But the theatre is particularly well-preserved. Artists had smuggled in local allusions. Wavy brown mosaics in the foyer symbolised the silty river; frescoes showed an indigenous girl spurning European “science”; cherubs had the particoloured wings of jungle birds.

I had lunch at the old docks, built in 1909 with English iron. Next door, the Ver-o-Peso, the biggest market in Latin America, is still a place to trade tropical fruits, meat and fish. I visited the blindingly white cathedral and the Cirio basilica, respectively refurbished and built during the belle époque. The rubber barons’ request to be buried in the latter church – to get a foot in the door despite their sinful lives, immense wealth and slaves – was rejected, but their surnames adorn the ceiling.

Belem market
Belem's waterfront is home to a colourful food market - Moment/Getty

I liked Belém, with its Portuguese-tiled buildings, riverside heave and hustle, mangrove park with scarlet ibises and iguanas. But I had come to chase a human story – and not near the Atlantic but deep in the forest, down one of the tributaries of the Amazon. I had come to visit the former rubber town of Fordlândia.

Why? Curiosity mainly. But the Amazon’s destruction is one of the great tragedies of our time. A past effort to colonise it might offer insights. I recently returned to live in my native Lancashire, and have seen many industrial ruins. They are saddening, nostalgia-inducing, evocative – and they matter to people, and history.

Henry Ford decided to establish a rubber plantation in Brazil in 1928, as he was retooling his production lines to manufacture the Model A which he hoped would rival the new cars being made by the upstart General Motors. Firestone had taken charge of rubber in Liberia. Dunlop and other British firms dominated in Malaya. Ford went to the source: the Hevea brasiliensis tree. He would build a town beside the Rio Tapajós. He would send ships and his best men. He would pay local tappers honest wages. By late 1929, thousands of seedlings had been planted. After that, it all got a bit complicated.

Old car in a warehouse, Fordlândia, Brazil
Fordlândia's motoring past is brought to life in its abandoned warehouses - The Washington Post/Getty

Discovering Belterra

From Belém I flew an hour west to Santarém, another steamy riverside town, with a wedding-cake church, market, ferry port and fish restaurants. Since 2003, it has been the local base for Cargill, the Minnesota-headquartered American firm that has turned millions of acres of Amazon rainforest into dusty soya fields.

Before going to Fordlândia I was taken by local guide-and-driver Paulo to visit a later development. Belterra was suggested by plant pathologist James Weir, mainly so that he could take credit for a new venture. I wasn’t expecting much. I knew it hadn’t prospered as a commercial venture. I knew how the Amazon weather caused buildings to crumble and decay. But, thanks to conservation efforts and the quality of the original constructions, much of the old town was in good shape.

The houses on Street Number One – also known as “salaried-workers street” – had smart gables, shady verandas, beautiful gardens, and their clapperboards were still painted in regulation white and green – like the ones Ford had built in company towns in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

US style houses Belterra with Brazilian flag
The houses on Street Number One have smart gables, beautiful gardens and clapperboards painted in white and green

At Belterra’s small museum I met Antonio di Castro, who had just written a history of Fordlândia and Belterra. We chatted for over an hour and he showed me black-and-white photographs of plantation workers and ancient Ford cars repurposed as work vehicles. Exhibits included latex-gathering tools, a zinc bucket, old phones and computers and oil lamps.

I mentioned the well-tended houses and Ford’s interest in gardening as good for workers’ spirit – not least to keep them out of the bars and brothels. “Doña Clara gave out prizes to the best gardens in Belterra,” said Antonio, referring to Henry Ford’s wife. Holding out a fistful of rubber seeds, he shot me a sly smile and pronounced the name Henry Wickham. He was notorious in Brazil, a British explorer who smuggled rubber seeds out of Brazil in 1876, launching the Asian rubber market – and laying waste to the Amazonian one.

Artefacts at Belterra museum
Belterra’s small museum is filled with trinkets collected throughout the town's history - Chris Moss

On the drive back, Paulo suggested a dip in a roadside creek. As I was getting in, a local man pulled over and came down to the water for a drink.

“Hope there are no caimans,” I joked.

His brow wrinkled. “I doubt it. Probably sucuri though.”

I looked at Paulo, who translated: “Anacondas”.

The end of the road

I have had Eldorado explorations in South America, looking for beauty and riches. I have had mock-conquistador experiences, half-killing myself to reach an airy summit or a remote glacier. The drive to Fordlândia was, as metaphors go, my Heart of Darkness. I could have gone by boat but the tour operator had plumped for a six-hour road trip; he’d hired a Fiat Mobi, ideal for nipping to the supermarket. Hardly anyone goes to Fordlândia – so it was a shot in the dark.

Paulo turned up at 8.30am and we were soon on the BR-163. One of Brazil’s mega-roads, it links the Amazon to the far south; a sign advised that Rio de Janeiro was 4,114km away. No holiday hardtop, it was built for industry, with two lanes rammed with twin-trailer lorries, sometimes in convoys. The asphalt kept breaking up into laterite and chaotic roadworks. I saw near misses, sometimes saw nothing at all – when we were driving blind into a cloud of red dust – and I saw two feet and a blanket: a fatality, involving a soya lorry.

Eventually, we turned right for the final section – all dirt now – to Fordlândia. We checked into the Pousada Americana, where a man called Guilherme fed us on fried fish, rice, beans and fresh mangos from his trees. After a siesta I met Magno, a local history teacher who showed me around.

Hotel Zebu Fordlandia
The former Hotel Zebu now lies shuttered and mouldering - Chris Moss

Above town, the manager’s houses were only just standing, with roofs imploding, paintwork mottled and plaster falling off in chunks. One had been turned into a hotel – the Hotel Zebu – shuttered and mouldering, with a swimming pool cracked by invading vegetation.

The large former customs depot and warehouse on the river was a car park. One-ton blocks of rubber had once been stacked here for shipping to the US. The old machine shop was still a workplace, but what remained of the original machinery was rusty and dilapidated. Equipment for vulcanisation had been dumped in fields.

The most American-looking building, a spindly water tower, stood tall above the town, but the famous cursive lettering that told passing boats they were close to a Ford establishment was long gone. The only instance of the name I could find was on the blistered cylinder head casing of an ambulance that looked quite old, but definitely post-Fordlândian.

Leaning water pump tower in Rio Tapajos, Fordlandia
Signs of Fordlândia's past include a leaning water pumping station - Chris Moss

A water pumping station in the river leaned over precipitously, and looked as if it might soon sink. Fire hydrants dotted around the streets were not connected to any pipelines. The old pier had lost half its length. The railroad that had run deep into the rubber plantation was nowhere to be seen. A jail block was still standing though. Magno said people didn’t get locked up for long as any miscreants were ejected. Most of the golf course has been taken over by the forest. Henry Ford approved of golf because its players only ever looked forward.

It was all a bit dispiriting, but only a bit. For I knew beforehand Fordlândia had failed. I knew there were many reasons: the ignorance of its planners was greater than their idealism; rubber trees that grew healthily in the wild didn’t like to be sown as crops; local workers rebelled against the arduous regime, awful food, disrespect shown by foreign managers. Synthetic rubber was invented. After spending the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars, the site was abandoned in 1945; Henry Ford would sell the land to the Brazilian government for pennies.

Chris Moss in front of warehouse on waterfront in Fordlândia, Brazil
Chris Moss took a nostalgic trip to Brazil's Fordlândia - Chris Moss

The locals seemed fond of their heritage. Magno said, “People get emotional when they talk about Fordlândia. To think of a town in the Amazon in 1928 in which there was running water, electricity, salaries for employees and houses to live in. Coming here was like winning the lottery. People competed to get one of the five thousand jobs.” Guilherme was more measured: “Henry Ford was a visionary. But he never came here. There was a saying that anything would grow in the Amazon. But he was fooled because he never hired an agronomist who knew how to grow rubber. He could work with cars but not with plants.”

A visit to Fordlândia is more than a nostalgia trip. Fordian utopianism failed. Americans often expect others to live and work as they do. Brazilians refused. The expats wilted in the heat and no amount of quinine could repel snakes, jaguars and dysentery. But where rubber refused to grow, soya is burgeoning. Agro-industrialisation, cattle-ranching and deforestation are turning the Lower Amazon to flames, death and devastation. The backdrop to Fordlandia in 1928 was rainforest.  Now charred trees lie all around like a great unknown.

How to do it

Humboldt Travel (01603 340680) has a 14-day holiday to the Amazon featuring a visit to Fordlândia and Belterra, as well as Belém, Alter do Chao and culminating with a four-day cruise up the Rio Negro from Manaus.  From £5,970 per person including all accommodation, transfers, guides and all flights within Brazil.

How to get there

Tap Portugal flies direct to Belém from Lisbon from £795 return; several airlines operate between UK airports and Lisbon, Latam flies to Santarém and Belém via São Paulo.

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