Few people are aware that Henry Ford tried to build the world’s largest rubber plantation on the banks of the Amazon River. Readers of Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia, which was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in history, will be entertained by a fascinating story of idealism, good wishes, arrogance, ignorance, greed, and incompetence, as the head of the world’s largest car manufacturing company unsuccessfully attempted to establish an independent source of rubber in Brazil. Discussion of the project began during a July, 1925, luncheon with tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone, who feared that British and Dutch owners of plantations in South Asia, which produced the overwhelming majority of the world’s rubber, would combine into a monopoly and greatly increase his costs. Ford needed rubber for tires, as well as for hoses, valves, gaskets, and other parts of his cars.

To make his company self-sufficient, Ford had deliberately established control of most of the raw materials he needed. Company-owned forests in Michigan provided lumber, and company-owned mines provided coal and iron ore to feed the world’s largest steel foundry at his enormous River Rouge plant. Rubber was a major raw material he did not control, but Ford did not accept Firestone’s proposal jointly to produce their own supply.

Brazilian consular representatives and Amazonian land speculators encouraged Ford to invest there. Brazil seemed a logical location. In the nineteenth century, its native rubber trees were the only source of latex until smuggled seeds were used to create large plantations in Asia, where trees produced much more latex sap, since Amazonian rubber-tree predators were absent. Lower-cost competition effectively ended the profitability of Brazilian production. What little rubber Brazil exported in 1925 came from individual sap collectors who sold their latex to local merchants. The merchants held the collectors in virtual debt peonage.

In early 1927, Ford sent a Michigan botanist to survey the possibilities for rubber production in Brazil. The botanist returned a positive report and recommended acquiring land held by speculators. His description of the latex collectors’ terrible working and living conditions stimulated Ford to make the investment, even though by 1927 the original reason for wanting an independent source of rubber was no longer present. The feared monopoly never occurred; instead, overproduction of latex had significantly driven down prices. Grandin notes a recurrent theme in the Fordlandia story: Every time economic goals were less persuasive or proved elusive, social objectives would justify continuing.

The Amazon project appealed to an idealist streak in Ford. To service his large lumber holdings in Northern Michigan, he had built model towns run by his rules, trying to demonstrate that industrialism was compatible with the small-town America he remembered from his youth and that his mass-production techniques were destroying. In 1927, the same year that he began assembling a replica of an ideal nineteenth-century town in Greenville, Michigan, Ford set out to create a profitable, industrial-scale rubber plantation, built around an example of a model American town. He would show Brazil and the world how to combine material and ideal values. He intended Fordlandia to be profitable and pay decent wages, while also teaching the workers thrift, good nutrition, and proper hygiene. Fordlandia would be a commercial enterprise with a civilizing mission.

Ford sent two employees to Brazil with power of attorney to assemble the needed land. They acquired 2.5 million acres of jungle, about the size of Connecticut, half from speculators who were paid $150,000 and half as a grant of public land ratified by the state legislature of Pará on September 30, 1927. Nationalists criticized the terms of the grant, which seemed to permit Ford to operate Fordlandia as though it were a separate state. A 1929 investigation revealed an unsavory tale of kickbacks and payoffs to get the grant approved, but Grandin believes the controversy did not damage Ford’s reputation for honesty as much as his reputation for competence, since he could have received the entire grant for free.

A self-made man, Ford distrusted experts. He saw them as people who told him what he could...

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