Spanner in the rubber tree works


This is a true story. It’s about how Henry Ford, the pioneering industrialist, was defeated in one of his grand schemes — by a caterpillar.

In the 1920s, Ford’s automobile factories in Michigan were in dire need of rubber for tyres (and valves, hoses and gaskets). Like any sensible large-scale capitalist, Ford decided the best option was to secure his own source of rubber rather than being reliant on imports supplied by other companies.

He decided to buy a big swath of land in the Amazon jungle, where rubber trees come from, and set up a base there. In essence, he’d turn those 23-million hectares into a gigantic plantation, and he’d build an American-style town in the middle of it to house the workers who would run his plantation.

This combined plantation-town, founded in 1928, would be called Fordlandia, which for obscure linguistic or orthographic reasons gets a circumflex on the “a” when it’s given in Portuguese — Fordlândia.

Kappie or no, Fordlandia is now a ghost town, or very nearly so. Certainly, it didn’t solve Ford’s rubber-supply problems, and it didn’t become the little utopia Ford had dreamed it would be. He’d given in to the idea that, in the tabula rasa of the Amazon, he could create the perfect Midwestern town filled with suburban Americans and Americanised Brazilians; and he imposed his own odd ideas of what such a Midwestern-style utopia should offer.

Obviously, it had to have roads — because its inhabitants would be driving their Fords around it, just for the pure pleasure of it. Nearly 50km of Ford-worthy roads were constructed in and around Fordlandia. You could go around and around forever.

Ford (a cranky old anti-Semite, generally) also had dietary notions. He was opposed to cows being farmed for beef, thinking his employees should get used to soya. He also disapproved of alcohol, so he tried to enforce prohibition in Fordlandia. That, naturally, didn’t work; it led to absenteeism as workers left Fordlandia to go and get drunk, then got too drunk to get back timeously.

And, in 1930, as The New York Times wrote in a feature last year, “workers fed up with eating Ford’s diet of oatmeal, canned peaches and brown rice in a sweltering dining hall staged a full-scale riot. They smashed time clocks, cut electricity to the plantation and chanted: ‘Brazil for Brazilians; kill all the Americans’, forcing some of the managers to decamp into the jungle.”

What really killed off Fordlandia, though, was a caterpillar: the rubber-tree caterpillar, to be precise. That and leaf mould. Hevea brasiliensis, the rubber tree, had thrived in the Far East, where it had been transplanted and organised into rubber plantations. It thrived there partly because its natural predators, especially the rubber-tree caterpillar, had mostly been left behind in the jungle. Reimport rubber seeds to Brazil, though, and plant the trees close together, as Ford’s people did, and the caterpillar would have what you might call a field day. Or month. Or year. Or decade.

I believe they are feeding still. 

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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