Yesterday, I finished reading Fordlandia, about Ford's unsuccessful effort to cultivate rubber in the Amazon basin. Well-written but at times frustratingly non-linear, it offers a fascinating look at one of the automaker's most far-reaching efforts.
Spoiler: it didn't work. Which is odd at first sight: rubber trees are from the Amazon. At the time Ford started the attempt, most commercial latex was sourced in Southeast Asia, by British and European growers and they were talking cartel. Tire-maker Harvey Firestone set up a plantation in Liberia. Henry Ford went right to the source.
Why not? ...Because everything that ate rubber trees lived there, is why; while the wild rubber tree could outwit most most pests and outwait most seasonal changes by being widely separated and enmeshed in the rain forest, when you cleared the land and planted them in nice, neat rows, things didn't work out nicely or neatly. Over time, Ford's crews learned a lot of ways to not plant rubber trees and, eventually, one way that pretty well worked, just in time for synthetic rubber to come along.
There was another lesson to be learned: Ford tried to set up the kind of self-sufficient little mill town they'd done in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It turned out that square dances, Prohibition and healthy whole-grain meals in the company commissary didn't work out so well. Even the local equivalent of Ford's "five dollar day" isn't so great when there's no place to spend it, when dinner comes from the garden, goat-pen, hen house and jungle; snug little bungalows that work well in an Upper Midwest winter are miserable ovens in the Brazilian rainforest.
The final version, downriver at Belterra, made some concession to local ways and local conditions and -- how about that! -- succeeded; but it was too little, too late.
Y'know, the locals in the rain forest, early Colonial Massachusetts or downstate Illinois have probably been living there a long time; they may've managed to work out a few things. Maybe they're a buncha savages, barefoot and armed to the teeth, plantin' dead fish with the corn, but it might behoove the Civilized Elite to pay 'em a little heed -- and learn a thing or two. Ya think?
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