An aerial view of Fordlandia

Five Reasons Why Henry Ford’s Failure in Brazil Still Matters Today

I’m standing in the Amazon next to Henry Ford. The forest around us—eight million square kilometers spread across nine countries of complex ecosystems packed with more species than we will ever know—has long tempted men like Ford to try to exploit it for material gain. Brazilian writer Alberto Rangel called the place “Inferno VerdeGreen Hellin his stories of the ensuing struggle among nature, local communities, and foreign self-styled pioneers. I can almost forget the history of predatory capitalism and its slow forms of violence when surrounded by the bucolic ambience of the forest. But then I am interrupted by a 500-horsepower tractor drenching the nearby soybean field with pesticides, and Henry Ford is with me once again.

Deforestation. Trees surrounded by tilled fields.

Plantation of Romualdo Rech in Santarém, Pará, Brazil, showing area cultivated for soy production (brown) and adjacent area reforested under judicial mandate. Photo by Marcos Colón and Bruno Erlan, ©Beyond Fordlândia, 2017.

My new documentary, Beyond Fordlândia (75 min, 2017) connects the story of Ford’s decade in Brazil chasing El Dorado to the Amazônia I know and love. Today its residents, human and non-human, face neocolonial economics, toxic exposures, and ecological collapse that can be traced back, in clear and sometimes surprising ways, to the 1920s and Henry Ford’s model agricultural community of Fordlândia. What I’ve learned from taking this long view is that violence can take many forms and play out on different timescales. Violence also accumulates.

The violence is empowered by our ignorance. I made my film to raise awareness about processes of exploitation that are overlooked, misremembered, rebranded, and lied about, or just covered by trees and forgotten by history.

 

Here are five things to know about Henry Ford’s time in Amazônia and how he continues to cast a long shadow.

1. Ford dreamed of taming nature—and capitalism. He was a pioneer of vertical integration. By the 1920s, his company controlled the extraction of just about every natural resource required to build a Ford car, except the latex for hoses, valves, and tires. The looming threat of a British monopoly in rubber spurred Ford to try to grow his own. In 1927, the legislature of the Brazilian state of Pará granted a concession of one million acres to his company, which quickly began slash-and-burn clearing of the land. The smoke from the fires darkened the sky and local fishermen said the heat could be felt on the opposite bank of the Tapajós River.

Ford dreamed of taming nature—and capitalism.

This was the beginning of Ford’s attempt to impose production-line logic on the largest and most complex biome on the planet. But, as historian Greg Grandin told me, “What Ford was trying to do was not so much conquer the Amazon. He was trying to conquer something much greater, something more wild.” He was trying to conquer capitalism.

2. But Ford failed because he misunderstood ecological communities. The most common rubber tree grown around the world, Hevea brasiliensis, was native to the Amazon. While the trees on Ford’s plantations flourished in the climate, so did the pests and diseases that had evolved with the tree for millennia. Planting the trees together tightly in monocrop fields made them more susceptible to infestation. This vulnerability was seen as a stroke of luck by those who opposed the project. “Luckily, the rubber tree fungi are our friends,” Marcus Barros, former director of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, said to me.

Folk singer Kate Campbell performs her song “Fordlândia,” featured in my film, which retells the history of Henry Ford’s adventure in the Amazon. Recorded at the Rose Garden Coffeehouse in Mansfield, Massachusetts, November 2009.

3. Despite its failure, many Brazilians are nostalgic for Fordlândia. Ford abandoned the project in 1934. But, surprisingly, local residents still speak kindly of the short-lived, ill-fated endeavor. Poet Carlos Correia, who has interviewed a number of those who are old enough to remember Fordlândia, describes this nostalgia as its “cruelest legacy.” In their memories, “the American dream came, but didn’t stay, and they’ve been waiting their whole lives for it to return.”

4. Ford’s dream was reborn in the soybean. As his project in Pará was failing, Henry Ford was back in Dearborn, Michigan, occupied with his latest obsession: finding industrial uses for the soya bean. In Ford laboratories, soy products became integrated into the production of plastics and enamels and even a prototype of a “soybean car.”

Back in the Amazon, the plantation logic Ford introduced into Amazonia would remain and soon be applied to growing soy. Today, Brazil leads the world in soybean exports, sending 54 million tons to fill a demand that Ford helped to create. Agribusiness giant Cargill, the world’s largest privately held company, operates a massively subsidized export terminal in Pará, threatening small producers and the indigenous peoples and traditional communities who use the land for subsistence farming.

A large factory on the waterfront.

Cargill export terminal and the conveyer installation used to reload the soybean crop from trucks onto ships for transport to international destinations. Photo by Marcos Colón and Bruno Erlan, ©Beyond Fordlândia, 2017.

5. Now, soybean agriculture is razing Amazonia’s forests and poisoning its people. Current and projected soy production is leaving a trail of deforestation incompatible with the survival of the Amazonian biome. Up the Tapajós River from Fordlândia, in the city of Santarém, 77,000 hectares of forest have already been lost, and experts expect nearly another 500,000 hectares to be cleared in the next five years.

To control pests and speed the ripening of soybeans, workers wearing masks in the closed cabs of massive tractors spray chemicals onto the crop. Local residents report nausea, headaches, and allergic reactions on the days when insecticides are used, and many express alarm about cancer rates in the communities abutting the soy fields.

Crosses and gravestones

Fordlândia cemetery with graves of Brazilian laborers who died while working on the Ford Company rubber plantation. Photo by Marcos Colón and Bruno Erlan, ©Beyond Fordlândia, 2017.

This is not just an environmental story. This is a story of those invested with power wielding it against their fellow humans. My film stands against their violence and indifference in hopes of stemming the loss of cultures and the breaking of bonds of indigenous and community solidarity that their actions cause. I hope Beyond Fordlândia might offer a paradigm others can use when examining other economic incursions into the environment, anywhere in the world.

For more on the essential debates and mobilization around sustainable development and human coexistence with the Amazon rainforest, please visit the Take Action section of the Beyond Fordlândia website.

Featured image: The Fordlândia waterfront. Photo by Marcos Colón and Bruno Erlan, ©Beyond Fordlândia, 2017.

Marcos Colón is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is also a graduate associate in the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE). His dissertation explores representations of the Amazon in 20th-century Brazilian literature from an environmental studies perspective. He is the writer, director, and producer of the documentary Beyond Fordlândia (2017), which was named the World Wildlife Federation Best Awareness-Raising Documentary at the 24th International Environmental Film Festival (2017, FICMA-Barcelona) and has received awards at the Cabo Verde International Film Festival and the Impact DOCS Awards. Contact.

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21 Comments

  1. Marilene Corrêa da Silva Freitas

    Excelente artigo e registro importante para intervenções científicas e politicas na Amazônia . Filme de Marcos Colón redesenha a história de povos, territórios , biomas e ecossistemas atingidos por práticas predatórias contínuas do capitalismo.

  2. Paulo Vieira

    Filme sensível ao coração da Selva, rodando o muito! Prêmios mais que merecidos!

  3. Bernard Weisblum

    Insightful understanding of the Brazilian ecology that has relevance for all of us.

  4. Joe Rohlf

    First off, I think that the movie does an unbelievable job of shedding light on an issue that has seen to have a blanket put over it for people in my generation. Seeing the destruction that capitalism can bring to the people of Brazil was most definitely an eye-opener for me. It is no secret to me that capitalism and the greed for power can cause people to do unethical things, but what I find as bad, if not worse, is the way that people view these past experience through a lens that has almost no regard for human or environmental health. Fordlandia does something not a lot of movies seem to do, and that is view Ford’s destruction of the Amazon from a Brazilian perspective, and that is an aspect of the movie that is monumental to the message I received and feeling I got while watching the movie. In a broader sense, the fiasco in the Amazon has the potential to have far reaching effects and that is what I find most captivating about the movie. By learning about what went on in this part of the world and the terrible consequences that people in the past and the current people are facing, the film, if given enough exposure, has the ability to change the way that capitalism works and the way that the world works.

  5. Marissa Martens

    This documentary does an extraordinary job and displaying the detrimental effects that Ford caused in the Amazon. Capitalism and greed have destroyed the Amazon and the communities surrounding it. Fortlandia is powerful, impactful, moving, and insightful. The film is so well made and does an amazing job representing the people and communities of Brazil. Overall, 10/10!

  6. Marcos Colon’s BEYOND FORLDANDIA is an instant education in the history of the Amazon and its fragile condition today. The film elucidates the treacherous idealism of Henry Ford’s ambition to tame the jungle for profit in the 1930’s which has transmogrified into deforestation in the service of the soy bean. The consequent poisoning of the land and of its people is documented by Colon with scary interviews and deft cinematography.
    The vivid and deadly contrasts of jungle juxtaposed to plantation portray the sad erosion of diversity by Fordmania.

  7. Laura Chagas

    O avanço do agronegócio sobre o bioma Amazônia representa um desequilíbrio socioeconômico e ambiental de prejuízos incalculáveis. Passados 90 anos e com modernos aparatos tecnológicos, destrói-se grandes áreas de florestas nativas para o plantio de monocultura, em especial da soja. O documentário chama pra essa reflexão e alerta quanto a grande agressão provocada pelo avanço do capital que a cada dia despreza os valores sociais, econômicos, culturais e ambientais da região. Destruir a Amazônia é interferir no ciclo as chuvas, na estabilidade do clima. Parabéns Marcos Colón pela sensatez e seriedade com que produziu esse trabalho!

  8. It is difficult to overstate the reputation Henry Ford had built for himself by that time – whether in Brazil, America, or anywhere else on the planet. In his day, Ford’s name was every bit as evocative of the glimmering promise of technological revolution as Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg – perhaps even more so.

    Within a decade of its founding in Dearborn, Michigan in 1903, the Ford Motor Company had revolutionised car production by introducing the assembly line – isolating tasks within the complex process of car assembly, allowing new models of his flagship vehicle, the Model T, to be cranked out faster than ever before, making the company a global success.

  9. Parabéns Marcos!
    Fordlândia hoje possui a maior de suas riquezas na sua própria história e na vida de seu povo!
    Sucesso…

  10. Olben Falcó

    This is not just an environmental history. Nor is it an isolated example of the wild capitalism illustrated by Henry Ford in search of greater profit. No, this is the story of human ambition. It’s a story of how ironically industrial development can make us more ignorant and disrespectful to our environment no matter how distant the borders are. I believe that “Beyond Fordlândia” helps us to think about the result of our actions beyond our good or bad intentions when we try to modify the beauty and the diverse natural state of the environment.

  11. Jonab Gama

    Um documentário que vai fazer você ponderar sobre o capitalismo que explora irresponsavelmente: você não medirá questões ambientais e a sustentabilidade da mesma forma. O filme retrata de maneira inédita e com uma sensibilidade incrível problema colossal, mas que parece que passou e passa desapercebido. É uma denúncia do que aconteceu no passado, é um alerta para o futuro, é uma visão única de um problema que está à porta. Marcos Colón, com um tino como nenhum dos que o precederam, põe no centro do debate o assunto que o mundo não pode ignorar.

  12. Túlio Zille

    We often think of Henry Ford’s project as a thing of the past, but Marcos Colón’s documentary does an incredible job at showing that the mindset that influenced Ford’s megalomania is still very much alive. The movie connects Ford with the expansion of soy plantations in a very compelling way. Today the communities of the municipality of Santarém are struggling against a second port that is about to be built in the interest of soy producers, while other port projects for the Tapajós river are also imminent. This continues a colonial policy trend for the Amazon: that decisions for the region are made outside it, and this can be said even if there is local business interests at stake. I see in Beyond Fordlandia a call for us to pay attention not only to the connections between past and present, but also to local knowledges and ways of being that present us with solid alternatives to the degradation that benefits few.

  13. Bruno Avelino Leal

    Um documentário histórico crítico sobre as ambições do Magnata Henry Ford no coração da Amazonia. Trazendo a tona questões que estao no ordem do dia sobre os projetos de desenvolvimento mas que por outro lado acaba interferindo nas biodiversidade e mesmo populaçoes tradicionais.

  14. Dear Mr. Albert Trotter

    Thank you for your comment to my post…

    Henry Ford unquestionably left a deep impact on industry worldwide.

    Ford was not perfect and his impact had both positive and negative effects.

    The impact of the generous $5 a day salary for auto workers in Detroit should also be viewed in the light of the diminished welfare of indigenous peoples of the Amazon forest.

    Now that Cargill has a thriving soy business in the Amazon area it will be helpful to use Ford’s experience as the basis for avoiding similar problems as those created by Ford despite the best of intentions.

    Currently, there are plans to dam up the Amazon and its tributaries at 150 locations…

  15. ERIK JENNINGS

    Marcos Colón’s Beyond Fordlandia is a thought-provoking documentary that stirs the emotions, involving us in a sense of belonging to the Amazonian world and to this small fragile planet. Watching this movie is to feel the wonder of nature, yet simultaneously understand how socio-economic relationships destroy the environment and ultimately, kill; not only the forest, not only the eco-system, but the very people living as one with nature.
    The documentary connects the mistakes of the past, beginning with Henry Ford, to the great deceptions of today. It provides enough power to light a flame in each of us to fight for greater equality and policies increasing the security of the environment and the Amazonian people.
    Marcos Colón is a passionate observer who has deep knowledge of the Amazonian world. I was a witness to him striving to make this film – the sleepless nights, the endless research and the dangerous interviews could not prevent the realization of this wonderful work; the data collected leading to moments of indignation and revolt. All this was carefully managed with reason, but without allowing the feeling to escape. When Marcos Colón found his path between emotion and objectivity the result was a product of love – Beyond Fordlandia.

  16. Paulo Cesar Ribeiro

    Excelente como cinema e documento histórico! Ótimo para informar e formar especialmente as novas gerações para que lutem pela preservação da vida e por democracia!

  17. Nassif Jordy

    É isso aí, Marco! Parabéns!

  18. Davi Avelino Leal

    O excelente documentário de Marco Colón abarca dois momentos cruciais da recente história da Amazônia e conecta, de forma inédita, os interesses de Henry Ford e seus experimentos com a soja, aos atuais empreendimentos da agroindustria na região do Oeste do Estado do Pará. Muitos são os méritos do olhar de Colón que, ao ouvir as vozes da floresta, através da fala de pequenos produtores e povos indígenas, inverte a lógica do discurso sobre a região e permite uma abordagem crítica a partir das populações locais. Por tudo isso e muito mais, o documento produzido por Colón se faz imprescindível para os debates contemporâneos sobre a Amazônia.

  19. Lucas Nascimento

    This documentary deserves the awards already won and many more!

    Ford’s ghost goes by many names in different places and times, and the movie is a very important reminder of that.

    Keep up the good work, mr Colón!

  20. Olivia Kerhsbaumer

    O filme é muito importante para expandir nossa consciência em relação aos conflitos sociais e ambientais que ocorrem em uma parte do nosso próprio território que, infelizmente, ainda não conhecemos de fato.

  21. De Melo Foucher

    Excellent documentaire! Un des meilleurs des ses derniers temps. Un alerte sur l’avenir environnementale de l’Amazonie qui ne cesse de se dégrader.

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