Book Reviews

03 agosto, 2009

222) Fordlandia: uma experiencia frustrada

Dearborn-on-Amazon
By BEN MACINTYRE
The New York Times Review of Books, July 19, 2009

FORDLANDIA: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City
By Greg Grandin
Illustrated. 416 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $27.50

The Amazon has always proved fertile soil for extravagant utopian fantasy. Victorian explorers, American industrialists, ideologues and missionaries all projected their dreams and ideas onto this terra incognita, this untamed wilderness of exotic possibility.

For Europe and North America, the vastness of South America was a focus for romance, discovery and potential profit, and also a canvas on which to paint a new world according to individual belief. Elisabeth Nietzsche, the sister of the philosopher, plunged into the jungles of Paraguay in 1886 intent on creating her own vegetarian Aryan republic, spurred on by the anti-Semitic effusions of Richard Wagner. Theodore Roosevelt predicted the great river system could be harnessed to create “populous manufacturing communities.” Nelson Rockefeller thought the 4,000 miles of the Amazon might be cut into canals.

The British explorer Col. Percy Fawcett plunged into the jungle in 1925, convinced he would find an ancient city that had once flourished there, and was never seen again. Scores of would-be rescuers followed his trail and vanished too. The Amazon had a way of swallowing up dreams.

Elisabeth Nietzsche left her flyblown, half-starved New Germany to rot, and scurried home to distort her brother’s philosophical legacy. Roosevelt returned from his Amazon expedition of 1914 declaring the jungle to be “sinister and evil,” a place inimical to man. Alongside the myth of the Amazon’s boundless opportunities grew another: the jungle as impenetrable nature, immune to modernity, a world savage and primeval where each successive conquistador arrives puffed with pride, and is conquered.

With “Fordlandia,” Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University, tells a haunting story that falls squarely into this tradition: Henry Ford’s failed endeavor to export Main Street America to the jungles of Brazil. Fordlandia was a commercial enterprise, intended to extract raw material for the production of motor cars, but it was framed as a civilizing mission, an attempt to build the ideal American society within the Amazon. As described in this fascinating account, it was also the reflection of one man’s personality — arrogant, brilliant and very odd.

In 1927, Ford, the richest man in the world, needed rubber to make tires, hoses and other parts for his cars. Rubber does not grow in Michigan, and European producers enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the rubber trade because of their Asian colonies. So, typically, the car magnate decided to grow his own.

The site chosen for Ford’s new rubber plantation was an area of some 2.5 million acres on the banks of the Tapajós River, a tributary of the Amazon about 600 miles from the Atlantic. It took Ford’s agents approximately 18 hours to reach the place by riverboat from the nearest town.

Ford’s vision was a replica Midwestern town, with modern plumbing, hospitals, schools, sidewalks, tennis courts and even a golf course. There would be no drink or other forms of immorality, but gardening for all and chaste dances every week.

Fordlandia would not just make car production more efficient. By applying the principles of rational organization to turn out goods at an ever faster pace, Ford would also be improving the lives of those who worked in the new town, bringing health and wealth to American managers and Brazilian laborers alike. In Grandin’s words, this outpost of modern capitalism was to be “an example of his particular American dream, of how Ford-style capitalism — high wages, humane benefits and moral improvement — could bring prosperity to a benighted land.”

That blueprint may have worked in Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich. It most emphatically did not work in the jungle. Instead of a miniature but improved North American city, what Ford created was a broiling, pestilential hellhole of disease, vice and violence, closer to Dodge City than peaceable Dearborn.

The American overseers found it hard to retain employees, who tended to wander off after earning enough to satisfy their immediate wants. Those who stayed died in large numbers, from viper bites, malaria, yellow fever and numerous other tropical afflictions.

Prohibition was supposed to be rigorously upheld, but after a day spent hacking at the encircling jungle, the workers headed to the bars and bordellos that sprang up around the site. Knife fights erupted; venereal disease was rife. Along with prohibition, Ford’s other rules were also resented, particularly the imposed diet of brown rice, whole-wheat bread and tinned peaches. When a new cafeteria was introduced in place of waiter service, the men rioted, destroying the mess hall and wrecking every vehicle on the property.

Meanwhile, some of the Americans brought in to run the project went mad. One man hurled himself from a boat into a nest of crocodiles. The wife of one official recalled the flying bugs with “claws just like lobsters.”

Grandin paints a Conradian portrait of Einar Oxholm, the Norwegian ship’s captain appointed manager of Fordlandia. We see him sipping rum (in defiance of company policy) as the fledgling community disintegrated. Oxholm was honest, but otherwise entirely unsuited to his task, knowing nothing whatever about cultivating rubber or managing men on land. He would finally return to the United States, leaving behind the graves of four of his children.

Indeed, Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” resonates through every page of this book, as the white men struggle and succumb to the jungle. In 1929, two Ford employees, Johansen, a Scot, and Tolksdorf, a German, headed upriver with orders to collect rubber seeds. Instead, they went on an alcoholic bender, marooned their cook on a deserted island and ended up in the tiny town of Barra. There Johansen, the self-proclaimed “rubber seed king of the upper rivers,” bought some perfume from a trading post and was seen chasing goats, cows and chickens, attempting to anoint the animals with perfume and shouting: “Mr. Ford has lots of money; you might as well smell good too.” A drunken man spraying perfume into the jungle is an oddly fitting image for the entire enterprise.

The great carmaker himself witnessed none of this. He never set foot in the town that bore his name, yet his powerful, contradictory personality influenced every aspect of the project. The story of Fordland­ia is a biography of Ford in relief, the man who championed small-town America but did more to destroy it than any other, the pioneer who aimed to lift workers from drudgery but pioneered a method of soul-destroying mass production that rendered them mere cogs.

Ford was obsessed, among other things, by Thomas Edison, soybeans, antiques and order. He hated unions, cows, Wall Street, Franklin Roosevelt and Jews. He also, fatally, despised experts. Ford’s Amazon team had plenty of able men, but as Grandin observes, “what it didn’t have was a horticulturalist, agronomist, botanist, microbiologist, entomologist or any other person who might know something about jungle rubber and its enemies” — the lace bugs and leaf blight that laid siege to the rubber trees, the swarms of caterpillars that left areas of the plantation “as bare as bean poles.”

Given the obstacles, it is astonishing how much the creators of Fordlandia did achieve. During its brief heyday, Fordlandia boasted red fire hydrants on neat streets, running water, a sawmill, a water tower and weekly square dancing. But the intransigence of the jungle, changes in the world economy and war ensured its ignominious demise. The Ford Motor Company invested $20 million in Fordlandia. In 1945 it was sold to the Brazilian government for $244,200.

Ben Macintyre’s latest book is “Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal.”

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