Ford’s Rubber Plantations in the Amazon

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Belterra should only be six kilometers from our camping spot along the Tapajós River but we take the minor roads and end up meandering through agricultural fields. Corn, beans and soya have all been harvested and the fields are bare.

So what are those workers doing in the field then, with those big bags standing at random places? Are they planting for a new season? By hand? From the smoothness of the field I would say agriculture is no longer done manually but with machines.

I ask around. Yes, the fields have been harvested with machines indeed. But in the process, a lot of beans (fesjão, which is Brazil’s staple food) fall on the ground so locals now walk the fields gathering all those beans to either eat or sell them.

Those (manually made) cuts is where the latex flows down the rubber tree.

Brazil’s Rubber Boom History in a Nutshell

We turn one more corner and see wooden buildings that are definitely not Brazilian architecture. This must be Belterra, founded and designed by the Ford Company in the 1930s.

The years around 1900 marked Brazil’s rubber boom in the Amazon, bringing economic wealth and turning Manaus, Porto Velho and Belém into important cities. However, in 1876 the Brit Henry Wickham stole (as he claimed, although there was no Brazilian law prohibiting the stealing of rubber seeds) 70,000 seeds from the Hevea brasiliensis and shipped them to the Royal Botanic Gardens in London. The British took the seeds to Malaysia, started rubber plantations and broke the Brazilian monopoly.

First half of 20th century this was a house for the plantation’s managers; today it houses a government office.

The Ford Motor Company’s Rubber Plantations in the Amazon

Meanwhile Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company in Detroit and began the large-scale manufacture of cars. Obviously, he needed a lot of rubber for all these tires, a commodity of which the British held the monopoly. He thought he could do better than that. He bought a terrain in the Amazon, called it Fordlândia and started his own rubber plantation where he planted 1,5 million rubber trees. On the grounds he built an American village with houses, a hospital, school, theatre and water distribution system.

Remnant of American presence: a fire hydrant from the 1930s

Fordlândia lasted 5 years:

  • The plantation and village were constructed too close to the river so although alcohol was prohibited, it was too easily available from merchant riverboats.
  • The Tapajós River’s water level drops so much during the dry season that the cargo boats couldn’t reach Fordlândia for months on end, causing transportation to be interrupted for too long.
  • The plantation was situated in the hills, causing lots of irrigation problems.
  • The rubber trees suffered from mal das folhas, a fungus disease that ruined the plantation.

Ford, a true entrepreneur, didn’t give up. He made a new deal with Brazil and swapped his 1 million hectares of Fordlândia for 600,00 hectares in Belterra. By the time he gave up Belterra, after WWII, he had accumulated more than 1 million hectares once more because he kept buying land from indigenous people. He sold everything back to Brazil for a symbolic price.

From Fordlândia to Belterra

Belterra was farther from the river (alcohol unavailable), on flat terrain (irrigation possible), was farther downriver (where the Tapajós River was deep enough all year round) and the trees planted came from fungus-resistant clones.

For some ten years, all was well. After WWI, however, synthetic rubber was on the rise and ruined the Belterra plantation – together with the fungus disease, which couldn’t be beaten with the clones.

In the Centro de Memoria de Belterra Jeff shares stories about the Ford’s rubber plantation projects in Brazil.

The first plantation, Fordlândia, was left to rot in the jungle. There is nothing left to see. Belterra, by contrast, is a modern town like any other Brazilian town except for the old village of Belterra that still remains. In the middle of these picturesque white-painted wooden houses with dark green shutters and windowpanes and red brick roof tiles, one block is left with rubber trees. It’s part of the Centro de Memoria de Belterra.

Jeff’s Story About Belterra

The building houses a government office, and we meet Jeff who enjoys sharing the Belterra story with visitors. He explains how the plantation was divided into blocks. On each block lived a tapper with his family who was responsible for maintaining the trees on that particular block. His pay depended on the amount of latex he brought in. He was responsible for building his own house (hut, most likely). The rubber trees on this Centro de Memoria still show the lines that were carved into the tree to extract the latex.

Belterra had the best hospital in Brazil, Jeff tells us. Rich people from all over Brazil came here for surgery, such as cataracts. Unfortunately, the building that once housed the hospital burned down a couple of years ago, but in an aircon room of the Centro de Memoria they still keep a lot of archives, instruments and other materials that once belonged to the hospital.

The larger buildings around the Memorial Center, which once housed the management, are now government buildings. There are also quite a number of semi-detached houses left, once inhabited by lower-paid employees, which now belong to residents of Belterra. Unfortunately, these buildings don’t fall under any protection plan and we see large differences in houses that are maintained beautifully (in between we see one house of stone in exactly the same style and colors; maybe the owner’s wooden version burned down) and others that are about to collapse.

When Ford left, no rubber was cultivated here until Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture took over in the 1950s.

For some 25 more years the rubber trees flourished, then the good old days were definitely over. The only rubber business you’ll now find in the region are small-scale individual rubber tappers who work independently.

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