Claudio, the rumpled Argentinian at the town’s tour company, finished his spiel about the myriad options we had available to us. Hiking in the jungle, boat trips to isolated lagoons, visits to native villages. We sat in his bar/office/gallery. A bare bulb threw some light around, just enough to illuminate the indigenous crafts, the bottles full of snakes, and last year’s Che Guevara calendar hanging on the wall. We were in Alter de Chão, a remote beach town tucked into the elbow of the Tapajós River, miles from the nearest city: Santarém, itself a half-baked jumble of civilization on the banks of the Amazon.
Before he could go on I stopped him.
“Actually, where we would really like to go is Fordlandia.”
He raised his bushy grey eyebrows and looked skeptical.
“Do you mind if I ask why?”
We’d heard of Fordlandia before we left for the trip, its peculiar history now intertwined with the story of Brazil and the exploitation of the Amazon forest. As connoisseurs of industrial ruins and failed Utopian projects, we knew we had to try to visit. We told him all of this, and described our project for the New Yorker.
His face broke into a weathered smile. He knew well what the ruins of Fordlandia would mean to a photographer.
Until the invention of synthetic latex, all the rubber for all of the tires in the world came from the Hevea brasiliensis, rubber trees native to the Amazon basin. A small contingent of companies worked to monopolize the rubber trade, forcing a nascent automobile industry to pay dearly for the last but most important four parts of the car, the tires.
Henry Ford, the prototypical American industrialist, decided to break the back of the rubber cartel. In 1928 he devised a plan to build his own rubber plantation in the Amazon jungle and set to work finding the perfect location. He hired a Brazilian named Villares to search. After some time, and probably very little searching, Villares proposed a location on the Tapajós River. It was prime land and was available to purchase from a very amenable owner, who was coincidently, himself.
Despite what should have been a red flag, Ford purchased the land and began sending shiploads of supplies, factory parts, and prefabricated buildings. The jungle was cleared and burned, a city grid laid down. Sewers and water pipes were installed with custom manhole covers reading ‘FMC’. Wood-framed Middle-American style houses were erected in neat little rows, along with sidewalks, lamp posts, and regular rows of trees. A team of engineers began planting acres of rubber trees, not a botanist amongst them, but at this point science was incidental: Ford’s career as a rubber baron had begun.
It ended soon afterwards. The trees were planted too close together, and the gentle slope of Villares’ land was the perfect incubation sight for rubber tree blight. The plantation failed. The invention of synthetic latex and the success of Asian rubber plantations were the final nails in the coffin. Fordlandia was sold to the Brazilian government for a loss without ever producing a single tire. As the Americans packed up and left, the forest closed in on Fordlandia.
We found ourselves skimming across the remarkably placid surface of the Tapajós River, the wake of our outboard longboat distorting the otherwise perfect reflections of the Amazon Jungle. Magda was perched in front, shooting scenery in the crisp morning light. I was next in the line of single seats, behind me was our friend Peter, a young Belgian and a much better speaker of Portuguese than us. He wore a small cap with a vestigial bill, had a bright red nose and puffy cotton pants, not unlike those worn by that other intrepid explorer of Belgian origin, Tintin. Behind him, manning the powerful outboard motor that propelled us along, was our guide through the wilderness, appropriately named Moises. Moises was a sharp witted Amazonian with chestnut skin, a small mustache and a baseball hat. He wore a look that said he found us all perpetually amusing. Occasionally he leaned the outboard away from a clump of river weeds but it otherwise would have been hard for him to chose a more direct path, he drew a straightedged line with the boat from point to point on the river. He knew the river very well having grown up near Fordlandia and we were saving a little money by spending the night at his mothers house.
The jungle was for the most part an unbroken stretch of forest. For hours the dense foliage unrolled beside us, only occasionally dotted by a palm-roofed shack. The outboard droned on all day.
That the Tapajós River isn’t one of the biggest in the world astounds me. At points it was difficult to see the other side and resembled a vast inland sea. That I’d never heard of this river wasn’t unusual either, five of the fifteen biggest rivers in the world empty into the Amazon. The Tapajós is just one of many magnificent waterways paying tribute to the biggest river on earth.
In the late afternoon, a familiar looking water tower appeared, levitating above the forest. It looked exactly like a water tower you might see in Dearborn, Michigan. As we approached, more buildings broke the monotony of the forest and collected to form a little town. Our ideas of a lost American town in the jungle evaporated as a neat little city park appeared, a well tended lawn surrounding a freshly painted church on a hill. It seemed that someone was living in Fordlandia.
As was Ford’s habit he imposed “American” values, working hours, religion and even cuisine on his Brazilian employees. Not just the architecture of Fordlandia was American, its very heart was as well. Workers who didn’t appreciate the Baptist church, hamburgers, or a prohibition on alcohol were welcome to leave. The harshest condition was the American work day, which coincides with the most brutal heights of the equatorial sun. Locals usually worked before dawn and after sunset to avoid the heat but this was counter to American values, thus the nine to five work day was strictly enforced.
Before the fall of Fordlandia, the Brazilian workforce rioted, protesting the conditions imposed upon them. They ran their American overseers out into the river, where they waited for reinforcements.
When the Americans left, that chapter of Fordlandia was finished. But afterwards the Brazilians who had worked there settled into the incongruous American houses and carried on. And here they were, the descendants of Ford’s workers living in the barracks built for their parents and the rows of suburban houses built for the American management. Some of the houses sagged from neglect. Several had fallen down altogether. But many had been well cared for, even to the point of having freshly mowed lawns*.
The forest had reclaimed some of Fordlandia. An old hospital was more tree than building, vines having pulled down much of its structure, leaving empty hallways filled with broken ceiling tiles. Shafts of sunlight filled empty rooms where crisp white sheeted hospital beds once lined the walls. We explored the old building with a guide from the town, and he waited patiently while Magda and Peter crawled through the unsteady ruins. I stood nervously under a sturdy looking beam, calling out for them to be careful. Rusty nails stuck out like stray hypodermic needles and fallen beams lay haphazardly across the floor. I held my breath until they returned, our guide was entirely unconcerned, though he said he agreed, caution was warranted.
Just as we exited the building between tall bushes, there was a loud crash. The trees behind the building shook and it was clear something had given way. We all looked at each other, I glanced at our guide, worried he might want to call it a day. He looked back with a shocked expression, eyebrows raised, and then laughed out loud. We hopped into the back of his pickup and drove on in search of the next historical monument to destroy.
We stopped for a long time at a row of houses overlooking the town, the water tower and the river. It was from here that Ford’s engineers must have watched their project failing, even as their children rode bikes on the newly minted sidewalk, between the rows of mango trees. Some of the ornate street lamps had fallen over, all had empty, rusted sockets. A swimming pool yawned open, dry and full of lichens. The first house in the row had collapsed.
A grouping of factory buildings are the only part of the complex off limits to visitors and our guide drove us all over town looking for the government official with the authority to let us in. We drove past unmistakably American made barracks, a Baptist church, an elementary school, its old name obscured. We also drove by new buildings, the town was growing despite its remote location. Small wooden houses with tile roofs sat with roosters strutting in the front yards.
The sun was getting low by the time we made it into the factory. Giant machines imported from the U.S. with embossed logos of companies from Chicago, New York, and Detroit still dominated the floor. They had been in use after Ford left, but it was unclear for how long. A dusty old Ford truck from the 70’s stood in the rear of one building, along with much older trucks of Brazilian make. A mesh fronted cabinet stuffed with piles of documents gave some clue. The latest date I could find was from the 80s.
How piles of documents several decades old could have survived the extreme humidity I can not guess. It crossed my mind that the scene may have been staged somehow.
A locked cage held more fascinating artifacts: cubbyholes stuffed with personal documents and the metal ID tags each worker was required to wear. Each was rusting and hard to decipher, but I recalled reading that workers needed to pay for their own tin badge out of their first month’s pay.
In the back, near the old trucks was a grizzly detail. Stacks of painted white metal bed frames were discarded here, rescued from the collapsing hospital. Next to these was an empty coffin unceremoniously placed beneath a window. Though the viewing panel was open, the lid was bolted closed, to better preserve the body of any American who died in Fordlandia. All victims of tropical disease or other maladies were posthumously sent home.
A great empty hall greated us upstairs, the walls were made if mildew-stained glass, the floorboards of thick Amazonian hardwood. At some point dozens of people had spent a lot of time shelling Brazilnuts up here, hundreds of empty shells sat in great piles around the room.
When the sun passed behind a ominous looking cloud we headed back to meet Moises at the docks. On the way I noticed one last descendant of the North Americans who had shipped out sixty years before: a big tom turkey stood below the church, puffing its chest out and surveying the grounds. We could not have been sent off with a better metaphor.
The evening was spent around Moises’ sister-in-law’s kitchen table. He told us of his passion for local products, his pride in the fruits of the Amazon and his sorrow that his people were fast forgetting their traditional foods. He also described his favorite recipe for caipirinhas, which was the usual formula, minus the limes, sugar and ice. It was a tiny house. A miniature toy store was being run out of the front room, a few dozen items of Chinese make tacked to the walls.
After dinner we swam in the dark river, washing off the day, reveling in the scenery of the remote little town, the forest beyond and an Amazonian lightning storm crackling on the other shore. We didn’t see, and didn’t want to see, a single caiman.
Magda and I set up hammocks in a room with a dirt floor, Peter strung up his hammock in the toy store, swinging amongst pale skinned, empty eyed dolls. Just after the lights started clicking off, there was a huge crash from the front, the sound of Peter moaning, and uproarious laughter from our hosts. His hammock had come unstrung and he’d crashed to the ground. Grinning, Moises retied the knot with a practiced hand, but Peter was shellshocked for the rest of the night, anticipating another plunge.
During our long journey back to Alter de Chão, we stopped at an indigenous rubber tapper’s village where we hiked into the jungle, rowed around a sunken forest and spent the night swinging in well fastened hammocks, in a big stilt house perched over the river. On the sandy beach just outside of the house, and all around the village, were rubber trees, the source of so much wealth and grief for the people of Brazil, and for Henry Ford. The people of Jameriqua still tapped the trees, selling the latex and making crafts from it to sell to tourists like us. Generations had accessed the tree’s sap, dozens of diagonal scores decorated the bark, some fresh, some long healed.
Rubber was a much sought after commodity at the turn of the 20th century, it sparked an economic gold rush in the Amazon and was the foundation for cities like Santarém and Belém. Artists from Europe helped build Manaus, a second Paris in the middle of the jungle with money from the rubber trade. But the tree itself is humble, small, and can be tapped repeatedly for years, making it a fantastically lucrative renewable resource. It was one of the few natural resources that did not require wholesale destruction of the environment and could have been sensibly harvested by the native people of the area.
But for an giant of industry like Henry Ford, that would have been too simple.
*the lawn, that most American of concepts had also been imported to the jungle.