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Day 8: Fordlândia, Rio Tapajós

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The Itaituba ferry heads into the night.
Michael Palin - BrazilDuring the night we transferred to the Aruă, a smaller riverboat, and took our time to travel down the Tapajós so that we could approach our destination in daylight. A storm hit in the middle of the night, with wind and torrential rain lashing the boat. This morning the last shreds of the rain clouds are disappearing, but it's grey and cool. The riverbank is an endless wall of tangled, intertwined greenery, from which the occasional screeching bird darts out, dips, swings and vanishes again. There's a disappointing lack of colourful wildlife. A flash of blue in the reed beds is more likely to be a plastic bag or chip off a water tank. The forest cover is broken every now and then by a modest caboclo cabin sitting in a clearing, with maybe a horse or a couple of cows grazing, a white egret patrolling the shore and, always, a dog stretched out across the threshold fast asleep.

It's mid-morning when there's the first unmistakable sign that we are in sight of our goal. Rising above the trees like some great bird is an elegant grey pod perched on top of tall triangular stilts. It's a 1930s water tower, and if it looks as if it should be in some industrial plant outside Detroit, that's exactly the intention. Fordlândia was Henry Ford's industrial dream town in the middle of the Amazon jungle.

In the mid-1920s, thanks to the huge success of the Model T, the world's first mass-produced car, Henry Ford's company had sixty percent of the truck and automobile market in Brazil. Hearing rumours of Ford's interest, various Brazilian entrepreneurs approached Ford with offers of cheap land for rubber production in the Amazon. Ford liked the idea. It appealed on more than merely commercial grounds. He had his own, highly individual way of running a business and was becoming frustrated by what he saw as interference at home. As Greg Grandin writes in his book Fordlandia, the Amazon adventure offered a fresh start for Ford in a place 'uncorrupted by unions, politicians, Jews, lawyers, militarists and New York bankers'.
He acquired a million-hectare site beside the Tapajós River and in the late 1920s the company began to impose his dream of orderly, industrial efficiency on the untidy, disorderly profusion of a rainforest. After a disastrous start everything began to work rather well, with the single exception of the sole reason they were out there in the first place – to grow rubber.

Due to a combination of ineptitude, impatience and the ravages of South American Leaf Blight, the rubber plantation failed. Ford belatedly employed agronomists as well as business managers, on whose advice he moved the plantation to nearby Belterra, whilst still keeping Fordlândia as a company base for research and development. But disease, difficulty in training and keeping a workforce, and import and export restrictions gradually took their toll and in 1945 the company moved out altogether. The Brazilian government briefly tried to operate what was left, but that fell through and Fordlândia, as an industrial enterprise, was abandoned in the 1950s. The ghost town that was left behind is what we see now as the Aruă rounds the bend of the river.

It's clear that people still live in Fordlândia. There is a church a little way up the hill, houses along the bank and a ferryboat at the jetty. But it's the buildings that have been abandoned that dominate the town. Beside the jetty rises the Turbine Hall, some twenty-five metres high and one hundred and fifty metres long, and on the brow of the hill behind it are two more enormous industrial sheds. Walking ashore past the cramped little shack that serves as a ferry-port shop and into the empty, glass-walled space of the Turbine Hall you begin to get a sense of what Ford meant when he said 'The man who builds a factory builds a temple. The man who works there, worships there.' It's not that fanciful to feel that you're in an industrial cathedral.
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Fordlândia at first light. 1930s water tower rises above the trees. The Turbine Hall at left of the jetty.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 8: Fordlândia, Rio Tapajós
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Fordlândia
  • Book page no: 44

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