The Opposite of Innovation - an Experiment that Failed

Posted by Connie French on Jun 27, 2009 8:26:10 AM

In the recently published "Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City", NYU history professor Greg Grandin tells the story of Henry Ford's failed attempt to transform the Amazon rainforest into a rubber plantation.

In the late 1920s, demand for Henry Ford's automobiles was booming.  He had control of every natural resource needed to make a car except rubber, which was controlled by a small cartel of rubber tree plantation owners in Asia.  In 1927 Ford purchased a large parcel of land along the Amazon river, determined to create his own rubber plantation and, at the same time, overlay his vision of the perfect American town on the people of Brazil.  He had the forest cleared and sent in American managers who built Cape Cod style shingled houses, wide streets, golf courses, tennis courts and churches, along with the production facilities needed to harvest a rubber crop.  He proudly called his town "Fordlandia".

Once the town was built, managers and workers set about planting rubber trees, mass-production style, in tight rows, not understanding that rubber trees need much more space in order to grow.  In doing this, he created the perfect conditions for the explosive growth of bugs and blight that feed off rubber.

The integration of Brazilian workers was even less successful.  The clash between Henry Ford's puritan ideology and the Brazilian workers was epic.  He provided only American style food and "wholesome" entertainment, including square dances and poetry readings.  He tried to enforce prohibition, which was not the law in Brazil.  Workers rebelled - knife fights were common, and bars and brothels sprouted on the outskirts of town.  The situation finally ended in a standoff between the Brazilian workers and the American managers, who only escaped by fleeing into the river in lifeboats and waiting for the Brazilian military to arrive.

Why did the experiment fail?  Ford's vision for his new enterprise was conceived with a strictly American perspective.  He never considered the cultural differences between American and Brazilian workers.  He didn't consult with botanists to determine the colony's agricultural viability.  He installed American managers who knew nothing about growing rubber or about social engineering.  In the 17 years that Fordlandia struggled to survive, he never once visited the site.  All of which resulted in a multi-million dollar investment that did not yield one drop of rubber.  The project was scrapped in 1945.

The ruins of Fordlandia are now a stop on the Amazon rain forest tour - and a graphic reminder of an epic experiment that was doomed from the start.

Topics: Innovation Insights

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