31 January 2017

When living in São Paulo in 2013, we heard rumours about Fordlândia: an American town established in 1928 by Henry Ford in the Amazon rainforest. As designers, we have always been drawn to crossovers and mix-ups. Fordlândia promised to be the ultimate incongruence.

In August, we travelled to Brazil. We were there to research wild rubber, the harvesting of which has not changed for thousands of years. Despite the invention of synthetic rubbers in the early-20th century, natural rubber is unsurpassed for elasticity and grip. As global demand increases, more primary forests in Asia are being cleared for industrial plantations.

Fordlândia’s contemporary rubber tappers, by contrast, extract latex from wild trees. They begin work at 4am and walk forest trails for six hours, making cuts in the bark of more than 100 trees. After lunch, they repeat this trek, collecting the raw latex that has flowed out. This process is essential to the health of Hevea brasiliensis, the rubber tree native to the Amazon.

Fordlândia’s history reveals the difficulties of producing rubber on an industrial scale. Ford cleared more than 8,000sqkm for his plantation, and built rows of Cape Cod-style bungalows for workers, as well as a school, hospital, golf course and dance hall. Yet the project was beset with blight and disease. After several failed seasons, Fordlândia was sold to the Brazilian government in 1945.

What’s left today is a time capsule: around 1,500 residents inhabit the old workers’ houses. Living in the shadow of deserted warehouses and the factory with its rows of tools still shelved and labelled, they fish the Tapajós river and grow produce in the fertile soil.

This is a ghost of small-town American utopia. Ford’s vision for merging industry and agriculture – now overgrown and melancholy – has important lessons for the future of the Amazon, an ecosystem that faces constant pressure to yield economic value.