Sunday, 8 August 2010

Fordlândia.

It was some time ago when I first came across an old and almost forgotten story that fascinated me. I read all I could get, mostly articles. There's not a lot online, bits and pieces here and there, all repeating the same stuff. A recently published book about it I could not get hold of. But then one night at a bus terminal, while killing time by leafing through magazines, I bumped into a recent Brazilian publication with an article titled: "Kill all the Americans; the revolt of the workers in the Amazon against the managers of Fordlândia." That was it, I had to visit this place.

The history of Fordlândia is short but dense and complex. In 1929 Henry Ford bought 15,000 sq.km of jungle on the banks of Rio Tapajós, 100kms south of Santarém, in order to produce cheaply the rubber he needed for his cars. He dreamed, planned and constructed an American Utopia, a complete prefabricated town with water tower, houses with white picket fences, hospital, library, church and of course factories. And with them came industrial production lines, strict working hours and clocks, metal numbered badges, hamburgers, puritanism and prohibition. It even aligned with the time-zone of Detroit. The plantations themselves proved to be a catastrophe mostly because of ignorance and poor planning and it wasn't long till the Brazilian workers revolted against the alien regime and the army had to step in. It was finally 1933 when the town of Fordlândia and its land was abandoned without ever producing a single ton of rubber. It was exchanged for new land downriver and the experiment was attempted once more under the name of Belttera, before having the same fate in 1945. The total cost reached $200 million in modern value. Henry Ford never set foot in Brazil.

The thing that struck me (and tickled my curiosity even further) was the fact that there is almost no reference to Fordlândia's present and very few images of it on the web, nearly all of them old. From what I could tell, it is a ghost town, with rotting old buildings, the jungle reclaiming rusty metal carcasses and the possibility of a few people squatting in the remains. Apparently it is difficult to access and very few outsiders go there.

The truth is a little different. A 12 hour boat trip down Tapajós from Santarém dropped me and half a dozen other people on a little wooden pier, next to an ancient warehouse dressed in broken windows, at 4 in the morning. My fellow passengers and my boat disappeared quickly like ghosts in the dark and all I could see was a brightly lit church atop a hill. With the first light the town took shape. Behind the church massive skeletons of factories and nearby a dominating water tower were instantly recognisable. A few small houses and dirt roads. Far to the north and up another hill there are neat rows of wooden houses with gardens and porches with the promised picket fences by now losing their whiteness. An old petrol station. To the south a long building that turned out to be the old college and the convent.

But Fordlândia is far from deserted. Before sunrise I shared a cigarette with Medreira, he is from Maranhão and has lived here for years. At least a dozen children on their way to school exchanged shy goodmornings with me. Shops opened their doors, motorbikes sped by. At the butcher's I found out there must be at least a few hundred residents, mostly farmers. And a curious 10-year old girl on her way back from the beach wanted to learn where I'm from. She's been here for 5 years maybe and she's bored, "there's not much to do" she says. As for the ruins, her mother told her that some Americans built them long time ago.

Fordlândia today is no ghost town but then again is no Disneyland either. It's isolated but not unreachable, it's surprising and contradictory. It becomes what you want it to be but has its own truth. I found it an organic evolution of an imposed grand scheme, of a capitalist Utopia that reached hubris. It was not what I expected but certainly not less.
Btw, further reading here and this is the book .
And if you are interested, this is a slide-show of the complete story.