12-U1D2 - Reflect on some of the areas where you feel you are using your own cultural boundaries appropriately and some areas where you would like to make improvements

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Dempsey, M. A. (1996). Henry Ford's Amazonian suburbia. Americas , 48 (2), 44.


The lazy towns of Belterra and Forlandia are all that

remain of this auto tycoon's Brazilian venture

in rubber production

Belterra sits like a Great Lakes resort, perched above a stretch of sandy beach overlooked by

white wooden cottages with green shutters. Wicker chairs rest on verandas, flowers burst

from the tidy lawns, and magnificent pines lend aromatic shade. Six decades ago, people

here square danced at parties and listened to the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But

Belterra, built to look like the Great Lakes towns loved by auto pioneer Henry Ford, sits

smack in the Brazilian Amazon.

Long gone are the outdoor movie screens that, half a century ago, brought scratchy

Hollywood films to workers slashing rubber trees 150 miles south of the equator. Fire

hydrants stamped by a Michigan manufacturer still dot the concrete sidewalks. Residents of

the sleepy town no longer remember where the library sat, but they point to a weedchoked

field as the former nine-hole golf course. More than half a century ago, Model T Fords rolled

down these streets and, on a rare occasion, the hospital dispatched its ambulance. Today

Volkswagens sit in carports. Belterra and its sister city, Fordlandia, so deep in the rainforest that it is accessible only by

boat, are all that is left of Ford's dream of becoming a robber baron.

In the early 1900s, Brazilian robber was used in Model T Ford tires, but the quality was

uneven. Better latex came from Asia, where plantations started with Brazilian seeds

flourished because they had no natural pests. Some historians say Ford turned to Brazil to

break a British-Dutch cartel that held prices high. Others say he simply bristled at importing

rubber from halfway around the globe when it thrived in the Americas.

As early as 1923, the U.S. government began surveying Venezuela, Brazil, and spots in

Central America to evaluate their potential as rubber sources. A government report by Carl

LaRue, a University of Michigan botanist, gave high marks to a plot of land in Brazil near

where the Tapajos River dumps its clear waters into the chocolate Amazon. The report ended

up in Ford's hands.

Brazilian authorities, hopeful that the auto pioneer could spark another rubber boom like the

one that fueled the massive country's economy in the 1800s, granted him 2.5 million acres

deep in the Amazon, police protection, and duty-free entry of all Ford equipment and

supplies. In exchange for the free land, Ford promised to return 9 percent of the plantation's

profits to the local and national governments after twelve years. The 1927 pact marked the

first plantation attempt in Brazil, where previously only wild rubber had been tapped, and

opened the way for what Ford envisioned as an agro-industrial utopia of workers with "one

foot in industry and one foot on the land."

In August 1928 the steamer Lake Ormoc pulling the barge Lake LaFarge--and carrying the

infrastructure of a small city--left Dearborn, Michigan, the U.S. headquarters then and now for

Ford's auto operations. Four months Later, it docked ninety miles upstream from Santarem,

Brazil, where hundreds of people working shifts around the clock cleared a patch on a murky,

malarial shore of the Tapajos.

Ford officials lived on the Lake Ormoc while workers unloaded motor boats, a steam shovel, a

pile driver, tractors, stump pullers, a locomotive, ice-making machines, and crates of food,

along with prefabricated buildings, the components of a powerhouse, and a disassembled

sawmill. With the equipment, Ford's new firm, the Companhia Industrial do Brasil, was born.

The hilly riverbank once dubbed Boa Vista, or good view was rechristened Fordlandia

Fenced in by jungle, Fordlandia epitomized modern U.S. suburbia, with rows of snug

bungalows fed by power lines running to a diesel generator. Ford rubber workers received

double the local hourly wage plus free housing, medical care, and food. Their main street was

paved, and they collected well water from spigots. in front of their homes. The U.S. staff and

white-collar Brazilian workers had running water in their houses.

On weekends, the North Americans at Fordlandia splashed in one outdoor swimming pool;

Brazilians escaped the sun by sliding into another. The "Villa Brasileira" area boasted tailors,

shops, restaurants, and shoemakers. The aroma of fresh bread wafted from a bakery, and the butcher shop offered beef, pork, and chicken at subsidized prices. It sounded like a

dream--but only on paper.

Fordlandia's uneven terrain eroded, making it costly and slow to operate tractors. Stagnant

water collected in low spots, breeding malaria-carrying mosquitoes. During the dry season,

from July to November, the Tapajos dropped as much as forty feet, leaving the dock too low

for boats to approach. Humid temperatures pushing the mercury Into the nineties were

intolerable for the transplanted Michigan managers. Ants, moths, mites, and leaf disease

attacked the trees.

The initial years at Fordlandia were also marked by labor problems and cost overruns. The

plantation manager job changed hands four times from 1928 to 1930. Some researchers

claim the plantation failed because horticulturists were eschewed in favor of factory-trained

supervisors, who planted trees in orderly rows rather than clumps as they grew in the wild,

robbing them of protection from the hard rains and baking sun. Even when 1.4 million trees

were planted in symmetrical rows, 340 workers appeared on the regular payroll, and students

were enrolled at three schools, Fordlandia was a flop.

But the auto manufacturer refused to give up. In 1934, the Companhia Industrial do Brasil

swapped part of the concession for 703,750 acres fifty miles further north along the Tapajos

and the second Ford plantation complex, Belterra, was added to the jungle map. Although

Fordlandia continued operating with a reduced staff, Ford officials designed Belterra to

correct the blunders of its predecessor. Yet problems persisted.

"It was not a money-making enterprise. . . . Rubber production didn't even begin to satisfy

their needs," says Steven Alexander, owner of Santarem's Amazon Turismo travel agency

and a history buff who has spent extensive tune interviewing local residents about Fordlandia

and Belterra. "When Ford started looking at Brazil in 1927, he was already producing one

million cars a year."

"LaRue picked the wrong place," says Emerick Szilagyi, a now-retired U.S. surgeon who ran

the plantation hospital at Belterra, which he describes as "the Mayo Clinic of the Amazon,"

from 1942 to 1945. Szilagyi shared a spacious bungalow with three other bachelors in the

North American section of Belterra, near the homes of Brazilian engineers but uphill from the

men's dormitories and small family homes of the rubber workers. The enchanting view from

that house even today belies the problems that plagued the plantations.

Szilagyi, one of the few Belterra officials still living, had been awaiting wartime orders when

superiors at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan, asked him to replace Dr. Kenneth

Waddell at the Brazilian plantations. Waddell was assigned to manage an Amazon sanitation

project jointly nm by the U.S. military and the Brazilian government to boost the health of

rubber workers and, in turn, rubber output in the Amazon.

"It was unquestionably the most interesting time of my life," says Szilagyi, a multilingual native

of Hungary who became a pioneer in cardiovascular surgery after he returned to the United States. When the thirty-year-old Szllagyi first reached Belterra, he found a fully equipped

medical facility and rubber workers who had never seen a doctor before.

During the 1930s and 1940s, boats and a horse trail were the only links between Belterra and

the ten thou-sand-resident Amazon port of Santarem, nearly forty miles away. Today the

plantation is reached after a two-hour truck ride over rutted roads that pass palm huts with dirt

floors and patchy fields of black pepper, as barefoot children play by the road. At Belterra, the

scenery changes dramatically: Sidewalks line the streets and power lines hang from poles.

Paint peels from vacant industrial buildings, but the evenly spaced bungalows are well-kept

and line the dusty main street with a symmetry foreign to the Amazon.

Windows still sport screens, just one of the northern customs transported to Fordlandia and

Belterra. The first U.S. doctor at the Fordlandia medical center attempted to eradicate malaria

and hookworm among Brazilian seringueiros, or rubber gatherers, by distributing quinine and

shoes. The quinine was accepted, but the seringueiros refused to trade their sandals for

shoes. The jungle dwellers also found Fordlandia's two-family homes hopelessly hot and ugly

and the idea of indoor bathrooms repulsive.

At the same time, Ford's 6 A.M. to 3 P.M. work schedule was unpopular with seringueiros

accustomed to slashing trees several hours before dawn then resuming the work at sunset.

But the promise of free housing and food, health care for the workers and their families, and a

salary of thirty-seven cents a day--double the regular wage--lured workers.

In fact, there had never been so many new opportunities for paying jobs in the Amazon,

prompting large-scale jungle migration from Brazil's north and northeastern provinces. But

even the job-hungry workers had a breaking point.

"I'm a worker, not a waiter!" a Fordlandia employee reportedly yelled in the food line one day,

sparking the plantation's most notorious riot. Other workers armed with machetes joined the

protest against self-service U.S. cuisine in a country where food traditionally was served at

the table. The seringueiros demolished the cafeteria, while North American officials

scrambled to the dock, jumped into boats, and waited in the middle of the river for Brazilian

troops to quell the melee.

Violence erupted again over workers brought from Barbados. The seringueiros complained

that the islanders not only took their jobs but were also paid higher wages. One payday

uprising started with the injury of three West Indies workers and ended with Ford's agreement

to ban Barbadians from the concession. Many of the West Indians chose to remain in Brazil,

however, and their descendants live in cities along the Amazon.

Ford, who envisioned a birth-to-death company town, produced booklets with photographs of

the Fordlandia hospital staff at the "baby clinic," where working mothers could leave their

children during the day. Funerals were paid for by the company and, today, the last

U.S.-made coffin gathers dust on a wooden shelf in the yard outside a workshop. Weathered

wooden crosses, many askew or fallen, dot the old, weed-covered cemetery. Despite Ford's apparent generosities, Brazilians were accustomed to a more personalized

patrao system, in which their plantation owner served as godfather to their children. Henry

Ford, however, not only never visited the plantations, but he never even visited Brazil.

So the company-imposed routine faced hit-and-miss compliance. More than a thousand

children of the plantation workers studied at five schools, including three named after Ford's

grandsons--Henry II, Benson, and Edsel. Belterra schoolgirls dressed in white blouses and

dark skirts; the boys wore military-style shorts, shirts, and caps. Classes were conducted in

Portuguese with Brazilian teachers, and night courses offered English. Despite opposition

from workers, who understandably preferred their own customs, poetry readings, square

dances, and English sing-a-longs were the scheduled weekend activities. "Even today, there

are people who still know some of the traditional American songs," says Alexander of

Amazon Turismo.

In 1941, the North American customs caught the attention of visiting writer Charles Morrow

Wilson: "A workman's mess hall was set up, but native workers did not like the wholesome

Detroit-style cooking and complained bitterly of indigestion. North American fare in the jungle

no more pleases the customers than a quick change to Amazon fare would please you or

me," Wilson wrote in a Harpers magazine article titled "Mr. Ford in the Jungle." "Furthermore,

the natives did not choose to square dance on the village green or to sing the quaint folk

songs of Merrie England or to treasure Longfellow."

Workers responded favorably to suggestions they grow their own vegetables but ignored

Ford's no-liquor rule and, on payday, boats filled with potent cachaca pulled up at the dock.

One Belterra manager boosted morale when he deferred to local customs about meals and

made square dancing optional. Protestant Ford, who had even balked at building a Catholic

church at Fordlandia, quickly erected one in Belterra. Szilagyi, too, had to make concessions

at the hospital, a now long-closed facility that once boasted separate wards for men and

women, thirty nurses, a dentist, three physicians, and a pharmacist who doubled as an


The doctor's biggest battle came when he opposed the local midwife and imposed a policy

requiring pregnant women to report to the hospital for prenatal check-ups and births or forfeit

their company allotment of powdered milk. "There was so much resistance that half the

people didn't obey it," Szilagyi says. "So I lifted the rule and made it voluntary. But there was

some ill feeling for a time."

The Belterra hospital served as a major medical facility in the Amazon, serving a population

of seven thousand at its peak and drawing young Brazilian physicians who served their

internships under the tutelage of U.S. doctors. Machete wounds were sewn, pneumonia was

treated, babies were delivered, and intestinal parasites were battled at the eighty-bed facility.

Doctors received the latest medical journals from a horseback rider who daily trot- ted to

Santarem to meet a mail boat. Szilagyi recalls several dramatic moments. Once he was radioed about a boat near

Fordlandia carrying a teenager with a life-threatening nose bleed. He jumped aboard another

motor boat and headed off to find the patient. "I stopped the bleeding in the middle of the

river, and I took the boy back to Belterra," he says. "We had blood transfusion equipment at

Belterra, but there was none at Fordlandia."

The plantation workers, squatters who settled on the concession, and missionaries received

free treatment at the hospital. Others who sought medical care were charged nominal fees for

procedures, which ranged from filling dental cavities to surgery for cataracts which, like other

blinding eye conditions, were brought on by the harsh jungle sun.

"We distributed cheap, dark glasses and some people used them, but most did not," says

Szilagyi, who also served as the local veterinarian. "The result is that I learned how to do eye


There was never a rubber harvest at Fordlandia. In 1942 Belterra--where chemicals were

used against leaf blight--produced 750 tons of latex from disease-resistant Asian tree grafts,

but that fell far below the 38,000-ton annual yield the automaker sought for his US$7 million

tire plant in Michigan. Eucalyptus, teak, balsa, and other tropical woods were also among the

3.6 million trees on the Belterra concession; some wood made its way into Ford Lincolns, for

trim, but wholesale lumbering was curbed by Brazil's ban on most wood exports. Belterra's

cinnamon, ginger, coffee, tea, and cacao crops never produced significant income.

During World War II, Belterra-bound ships were hindered by German submarines plying the

Brazilian coast, leaving the plantations to live off infrequent hydroplane shipments from Belem

and a six-month food stockpile. At the time, the U.S. government was looking into a plan to

establish a military base in the region as a way to head off any Nazi attempts to sabotage the

Panama Canal.

"In 1943 we cleared an area and preparations were made to establish an airfield," Szilagyi

recalls. The plan was scrapped when Brazil joined the Allies. A few years later, Belterra and

Fordlandia would also be abandoned, victims of competition from synthetic rubber.

"Our war experience has taught us that synthetic rubber is superior to natural rubber for

certain of our products," Ford Motor Company officials said in December 1945 while

explaining they would return the concession to Brazil for a token US$250,000. The auto

company described the rubber plantations as a $20 million project, but company documents

later put the investment at $25 million, and some historians say as much as $30 million was

pumped into the plantations.

Today, there is talk of paving the rough roadway that passes Belterra en route to Santarem to

ease the way for farmers taking black pepper, grains, and soybeans to the port. Belterra and

Fordlandia's solidly built workshops, roads, and electrical lines are enticing, but their remote

locations render them hard to utilize. "It's a white elephant," says Alexander. He further explains that the Brazilian government

assumed the Companhia Industrial do Brasil payroll and paid workers to maintain the

buildings, while it lobbied Santarem local authorities to take over the complex. In a plebiscite

in late 1995, residents voted to form a new municipality incorporating Belterra.

Rubber groves at both complexes fall under the authority of Brazil's Ministry of Agriculture,

but trees no longer are tapped. Although the villages are officially closed to outsiders,

squatters at Belterra have erected huts with mud-daubed walls near the older, sturdier

Michigan-inspired buildings, and old, nonproductive trees are being felled and burned.

A Belterra building once used to coagulate rubber operates as a surgical glove factory and

negotiations are under way to expand it to produce condoms. Rubber for the facility, a worker

explains, comes from a plantation a few miles up the river.

"Fordlandia is the more problematic," Alexander says, noting that the facility--once home to

fifteen thousand workers and now occupied by a few hundred families--is only accessible via

a twelve-hour boat ride from Santarem. "But Belterra, perhaps, can be rescued and


Szilagyi had planned to say the same thing at a 1945 luncheon with Ford's grandson, Henry

Ford II. But the scheduled chat about Fordlandia and Belterra was canceled and, shortly

afterward, Ford closed the plantations.

"For Belterra, if I had had a chance, I would have told him to keep going," Szilagyi says.

"They shouldn't have given it up."

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): The promise of free housing, health care, and higher salaries

hired those machete-wielding workers to Fordlandia to tap rubber trees, top.

PHOTO (COLOR): Belterra's clapboard houses surrounded by flowers and shade trees

opposite, resemble summer cottages along the U.S. Great Lakes

PHOTOS (COLOR): Dense jungle such as this remained a formidable obstacle to

communications and travel from Belterra to Fordlandia throughout the Ford plantation era

PHOTO (COLOR): At this eighty-bed hospital facility in Belterra, patients were treated for

malaria pneumonia intestinal parasites, and machete wounds. Serving a population of seven

thousand at its peak, the hospital also provided training for young Brazilian physicians who

interned under U.S. doctors

PHOTOS (COLOR): The Catholic church in Belterra, top faced onto the plaza where

weekend square dances were held. The Fordlandia sawmill middle, like other buildings, was

transported from Michigan in pieces and reassembled in the Brazilian jungle. Fire hydrants

stamped by a Michigan manufacturer are found throughout what remains of Belterra PHOTOS (COLOR): Today, hopes for reviving Belterra, above, lie with its proximity to the

port of Santarem, opposite, where farmers find outlets for their produce, such as soybeans

and black pepper, left. Plans include paving the nearly forty-mile stretch of road between still-

isolated Belterra and the port


By Mary A. Dempsey

Mary A. Dempsey, who lives in Detroit, Michigan is a freelance journalist who writes about

Latin America for publications in the U.S. and Europe. She is a previous contributor to


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