Fordlandia chronicles the rise and fall of eponymous rubber plantation established by Henry Ford in Brazil in 1927. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that it would be more accurate to say, “attempted to establish”. The book is a chronicle of the money spent, initiatives undertaken, and schemes hatched, all in an effort to wring profit from the Amazon and, at least in some cases, bring better living conditions to its inhabitants†.
Fordlandia is really three, interwoven stories. The surface story is about Ford’s efforts to push the limits of his autonomous, vertically integrated manufacturing by establishing a stable source of rubber in the Amazon, along the Tapajós River. Rubber was one of the few raw materials that Ford did not own or control production of, and was concerned that a British-initiated cabal could raise prices in the American market. Grandin gives the reader context in the form of Ford’s previous success with Fordism in the US, which is particularly interesting given the decline of the automobile industry of late.
Below the surface of the main story are two others: the story of the people of the Brazilian Amazon, and their exploitation during Brazil’s rubber boom and bust, and the story of Henry Ford’s personal evolution from industrialist to agriculturalist to paternalistic social engineer. As Fordlândia failed to produce rubber, it increasingly became a social experiment, attempting to export an idealized midwestern social structure to the Amazon. Ford and his managers attempted to impose what they believed to be the optimal structure — both social and corporate — on the workers. The results seem to have been directly, inversely proportional to the amount of control they tried to exert. Ford believed he was saving workers from the exploitative system of indentured servitude pervasive during Brazil’s rubber boom, but failed to understand the social dynamics that would dictate whether his new system was actually a success.
I found Ford’s evolution to be a particularly compelling part of the story. His massively integrated manufacturing system helped move people out of small towns and into urban centers. Despite this and his seeming contempt for the past, he idealized Puritan, small town America in the extreme. This story of trying to re-establish something he was responsible for weakening was one of the more compelling parts of the book.
Grandin concludes with an epilogue, “Still Waiting for Henry Ford.” In it he sounds a cautionary note about ongoing attempts to “modernize” the Amazon. The engaging, insightful chapters preceding this allow it to avoid any hints of panic or exaggeration. The Amazon is still waiting for the promises of Henry Ford to come true.
† While Grandin wisely does not attempt sweeping moral interpretation, it does seem that Ford truly believed he was helping the residents of the Brazilian Amazon. Unfortunately a complete disinterest in understanding their social and economic structure led to sub-optimal results.