Brazil (Amazon)
Fordlãndia and Balterra
Fordlândia and Belterra are the fruits of an attempt by Henry Ford to revive the Amazon rubber trade in the first half of this century. Ford’s intention was to establish a Brazilian plantation to challenge the growing power of the British- and Dutch-controlled rubber cartels, based in the Far East. He was sold a vast concession on the banks of the lower Rio Tapajós by a local man named Villares. What no one seemed to notice at the time was that Villares also organized the Amazon survey, which ended up visiting only his piece of land. Though it was vast – almost 25,000 square kilometres in all – the tract of land he sold had marginal potential for a plantation of any kind. It depended on seasonal rather than regular rains, it was hilly and therefore awkward to mechanize, the soil was sandy and over-leached and it was beyond the reach of ocean-going vessels for several months every year.
Nevertheless, Henry Ford went ahead with a massive investment, and the construction of FORDLÂNDIA, 100km south of Santarém, began in 1928. Cinemas, hospitals and shops were built to complement the processing plants, docks and neat rows of American staff homes; there was even an independent power supply, designed in Detroit. Nothing like it existed within a thousand kilometres in any direction. Unfortunately the rubber planting proceeded at a much slower rate. Difficulties were encountered in trying to clear the valuable timbers which covered the land, and even when it was cleared there was a shortage of rubber-tree seeds. After five years only about ten square kilometres a year were being cleared and planted, at which rate the process would still have been only half completed in the year 3000.

In the 1930s a new site for the plantation was established at BELTERRA, and high-yield rubber seeds were imported back from Asia. Belterra is a plain, around 150m above sea level, about 20km from Santarém on the east bank of the Tapajós, at a point where the river is navigable all year round. Even here, though, Ford never looked likely to recover his money, and poor labour relations combined with poor growth to ensure that he didn’t. Although the plantations are still operative, they have always suffered from loss of topsoil and from South American Leaf Blight fungus, and have never made a significant contribution to the world’s rubber supply. By the late 1930s Ford himself had lost interest and in 1945 he sold out to the Brazilian government for $250,000, having already invested well in excess of $20 million.

If you do visit, these are pretty bizarre places. They mimic small-town America exactly, with whitewashed wooden houses, immaculate gardens, fire hydrants, churches and spacious tree-lined streets. The only jarring note is the potholed roads. Belterra is built on a bluff overlooking the Tapajós, with spectacular views down to the river. Fordlândia, with its water towers and the ruined hulk of the rubber-processing factory, is actually on the river and more easily accessible by boat. All boats to Itaituba stop at Fordlândia, the journey taking six to twelve hours depending on the time of year. There’s no accommodation but you can probably string your hammock up in the school; bring your own food as there isn’t a restaurant. A daily bus runs to Belterra from the Mercado Modelo, but the road is difficult during the rains. There is one bus a day back, but in the morning – and there’s no accommodation – so it’s not a practical proposition unless you have a car, or can get on an excursion organized by a travel agent in Santarém.