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a failed attempt to bring main street to the Amazon…
In the early 20th century, a cartel of Dutch and English rubber barons had a stranglehold on the vast majority of the world’s supply of rubber. At that time the sole source of rubber was the South American tree Hevea brasiliensis, whose sap is natural latex. In the 1870s a gaggle of entrepreneurial smugglers had secreted a stash of wild rubber tree seeds out of the Amazon rain forest, which they used to establish sprawling plantations in East Asia. These smothered the output of Brazil, causing their owners to eventually enjoy the majority of the world’s rubber business. But by the late 1920s, the infamous automobile tycoon Henry Ford set out to break the back of this rubbery monopoly. His hundreds of thousands of new cars needed millions of tires, which were very expensive to produce when buying raw materials from the established rubber lords. To that end, he established Fordlândia, a tiny piece of America which was transplanted into the Amazon rain forest for a single purpose: to create the largest rubber plantation on the planet. Though enormously ambitious, the project was ultimately a fantastic failure. In the year 1929, Ford hired a native Brazilian named Villares to survey the Amazon for a suitable location to host the massive undertaking. Brazil seemed the ideal choice considering that the trees in question were native to the region, and the rubber harvest could be shipped to the tire factories in the US by land rather than by sea.
On Villares’ advice, Ford purchased a 25,000 square kilometer tract of land along the Amazon river, and immediately began to develop the area. A barge-toting steamer arrived with earth-moving equipment, a pile driver, tractors, stump pullers, a locomotive, ice-making machines, and prefabricated buildings. Workers began erecting a rubber processing plant as the surrounding area was razed of vegetation. Scores of Ford employees were relocated to the site, and over the first few months an American-as-apple-pie community sprung up from what was once a jungle wilderness. It included a power plant, a modern hospital, a library, a golf course, a hotel, and rows of white clapboard houses with wicker patio furniture. As the town’s population grew, all manner of businesses followed, including tailors, shops, bakeries, butcher shops, restaurants, and shoemakers. It grew into a thriving community with Model T Fords frequenting the neatly paved streets. Outside of the residential area, long rows of freshly-planted saplings soon dotted the landscape. Ford chose not to employ any botanists in the development of Fordlândia’s rubber tree fields, instead relying on the cleverness of company engineers. Having no prior knowledge of rubber-raising, the engineers made their best guess, and planted about two hundred trees per acre despite the fact that there were only about seven wild rubber trees per acre in the Amazon jungle. The plantations of East Asia were packed with flourishing trees, so it seemed reasonable to assume that the trees’ native land would be just as accommodating.
four times the size of Rhode Island…
Henry Ford’s miniature America in the jungle attracted a slew of workers. Local laborers were offered a wage of thirty-seven cents a day to work on the fields of Fordlândia, which was about double the normal rate for that line of work. But Ford’s effort to transplant America– what he called “the healthy lifestyle”– was not limited to American buildings, but also included mandatory “American” lifestyle and values. The plantation’s cafeterias were self-serve, which was not the local custom, and they provided only American fare such as hamburgers. Workers had to live in American-style houses, and they were each assigned a number which they had to wear on a badge– the cost of which was deducted from their first paycheck. Brazilian laborers were also required to attend squeaky-clean American festivities on weekends, such as poetry readings, square-dancing, and English-language sing-alongs. One of the more jarring cultural differences was Henry Ford’s mini-prohibition. Alcohol was strictly forbidden inside Fordlândia, even within the workers’ homes, on pain of immediate termination. This led some industrious locals to establish businesses-of-ill-repute beyond the outskirts of town, allowing workers to exchange their generous pay for the comforts of rum and women.
workers clearing the jungle, 1934…
While the community struggled along month-to-month with its disgruntled workforce, it was also faced with a rubber dilemma. The tiny saplings weren’t growing at all. The hilly terrain hemorrhaged all of its topsoil, leaving infertile, rocky soil behind. Those trees which were able to survive into arbor adolescence were soon stricken with a leaf blight that ate away the leaves and left the trees stunted and useless. Ford’s managers battled the fungus heroically, but they were not armed with the necessary knowledge of horticulture, and their efforts proved futile. Workers’ discontent grew as the unproductive months passed. Brazilian workers– accustomed to working before sunrise and after sunset to avoid the heat of the day– were forced to work proper “American” nine-to-five shifts under the hot Amazon sun, using Ford’s assembly-line philosophies. And malaria became a serious problem due to the hilly terrain’s tendency to pool water, providing the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. In December of 1930, after about a year of working in a harsh environment with a strict and disagreeable “healthy lifestyle”, the laborers’ agitation reached a critical mass in the workers’ cafeteria. Having suffered one too many episodes of indigestion and degradation, a Brazilian man stood and shouted that he would no longer tolerate the conditions.
the dance hall…
A chorus of voices joined his, and the cacophony was soon joined by an orchestra of banging cups and shattering dishes. Members of Fordlândia’s American management fled swiftly to their homes or into the woods, some of them chased by machete-wielding workers. A group of managers scrambled to the docks and boarded the boats there, which they moved to the center of the river and out of reach of the escalating riots. By the time the Brazilian military arrived three days later, the rioters had spent most of their anger. Windows were broken and trucks were overturned, but Fordlândia survived. Work resumed shortly, though the rubber situation had not improved. A British journalist writing for the Indian Rubber Journal visited in 1931, and wrote, “In a long history of tropical agriculture, never has such a vast scheme been entered in such a lavish manner, and with so little to show for the money. Mr. Ford’s scheme is doomed to failure.” The intervening months offered little evidence to counter the journalist’s grim depiction. In 1933, after three years with no appreciable quantity of rubber to show for the investment, Henry Ford finally hired a botanist to assess the situation. The botanist tried to coax some fertile rubber trees from the pitiful soil, but he was ultimately forced to conclude that the land was simply unequal to the task.
a Lincoln Zephyr stuck in Fordlândia mud…
The damp, hilly terrain was terrible for the trees, but excellent for the blight. Unfortunately no one had paid attention to the fact that the land’s previous owner was a man named Villares– the same man Henry Ford had hired to choose the plantation’s site. Henry Ford had been sold a lame portion of land, and Fordlândia was an unadulterated failure. Never one to surrender to circumstance, Ford purchased a new tract of land fifty miles downstream, establishing the town of Belterra. It was more flat and less damp, making it much more suitable for the finicky rubber trees. He also imported some grafts from the East Asian plantations, where the trees had been bred for resistance to the leaf blight. Starting from scratch, the new enterprise showed more promise than its predecessor, but progress was slow. For ten years Ford’s workers labored to transform soil into rubber, yielding a peak output of 750 tons of latex in 1942– far short of that year’s goal of 38,000 tons. Be that as it may, Ford’s perseverance might have eventually paid off if it were not for the fact that scientists developed economical synthetic rubber just as Belterra was establishing itself. In 1945, Ford retired from the rubbering trade, having lost over $20 million in Brazil without ever having set foot there.
A company press release announced the abandonment of Belterra with a bland epitaph: “Our war experience has taught us that synthetic rubber is superior to natural rubber for certain of our products.” The Ford Motor Company sold the land back to the Brazilian government for $250,000– a token sum. The solid structures of Fordlândia and Belterra were left largely empty for the decades following the towns’ demise. Teams of Brazilian workers were tasked with maintaining the areas to preserve the buildings, but their remote locations left the Brazilian government wondering how it could possibly take advantage of the modern facilities. Until recently the resources have gone largely untapped; today the plantation towns are being marketed as stops on Amazon tours. At Belterra, a building once used to coagulate rubber was briefly reanimated for the purposes of producing surgical gloves and condoms, but it was a short-lived enterprise. Much of the plantation land is now used for local agriculture, producing crops such as beans, rice, and corn. Many of the towns’ residents today are squatters. Henry Ford’s losses in Fordlândia and Belterra are equivalent to $200 million in modern dollars. Certainly he was unable to buy his way into rubber royalty, and his efforts to spread his American “healthy lifestyle” were met with resentment and hostility… but history has repeatedly shown that obscene wealth gives one the privilege– perhaps even the obligation– to make bizarre and astonishing mistakes on a grand scale. From that perspective, Fordlândia could not have been more successful.
winner of the 2011 TED Prize…
It’s not common for important philanthropic prizes to go to people whose work involves criminal trespass and who make statements like the following: “You never know who’s part of the police and who’s not.”
But the TED conference, the California lecture series named for its roots in technology, entertainment and design, said on Tuesday that it planned to give its annual $100,000 prize for 2011 — awarded in the past to figures like Bill Clinton, Bono and the biologist E. O. Wilson — to the Parisian street artist known as J R, a shadowy figure who has made a name for himself by plastering colossal photographs in downtrodden neighborhoods around the world. The images usually extol local residents, to whom he has become a Robin Hood-like hero.
For most recipients, the value of the six-year-old award has less to do with the money than with the opportunity it grants the winner to make a “wish”: to devote the funds to a humanitarian project that will almost inevitably draw donations and other help from the organization’s corporate partners and influential supporters. The chef Jamie Oliver, the 2010 prize winner, recently proposed setting up an international effort to further his campaign against obesity; Mr. Clinton’s wish has channeled significant resources toward the creation of a rural health system in Rwanda.
Reached by telephone on Wednesday morning on a bus in Shanghai, where he was headed to work on a largely unauthorized photo-pasting project to draw attention to the city’s demolition of historic neighborhoods, J R said that he had learned of the prize only two weeks ago and that he had not yet had time to think of a wish.
But he said that it would undoubtedly involve his kind of guerrilla art, which he has been creating with the help of volunteers in slums in Brazil, Cambodia and Kenya — where the outsize photographs, printed on waterproof vinyl, doubled as new roofs for ramshackle houses. “I’m kind of stunned,” he said of the prize. “I’ve never applied for an award in my life and didn’t know that somebody had nominated me for this.”
At a time when street art is being embraced not only by the art world but also by branding interests, J R, who dislikes being called a street artist, preferring the term “photograffeur” (graffeur is French for graffiti artist) has become known for rejecting corporate sponsorship offers and other outside help. He said that he reinvested most of the money he makes by selling his art in galleries and at auction — one piece went for more than $35,000 at Sotheby’s in 2009 — into creating more ambitious projects, and that he would use the TED prize money for the same purpose.
“If there’s one thing I’ve always taken care of with my work, it’s that it’s never an advertisement for anything other than the work itself and for the people it’s about — no ‘Coca-Cola presents,’ ” he said, speaking in English. “I think the TED people knew that that was one of my main concerns, and I feel pretty sure that we can come up with a project that works that way.”
many more incredible projects at JR’s website…
in Rondônia, Brazil lives the one guy still not on Facebook…
Kinski is not the most isolated man…
The most isolated man on the planet will spend tonight inside a leafy palm-thatch hut in the Brazilian Amazon. As always, insects will darn the air. Spider monkeys will patrol the treetops. Wild pigs will root in the undergrowth. And the man will remain a quietly anonymous fixture of the landscape, camouflaged to the point of near invisibility.
That description relies on a few unknowable assumptions, obviously, but they’re relatively safe. The man’s isolation has been so well-established—and is so mind-bendingly extreme—that portraying him silently enduring another moment of utter solitude is a practical guarantee of reportorial accuracy.
He’s an Indian, and Brazilian officials have concluded that he’s the last survivor of an uncontacted tribe. They first became aware of his existence nearly 15 years ago and for a decade launched numerous expeditions to track him, to ensure his safety, and to try to establish peaceful contact with him. In 2007, with ranching and logging closing in quickly on all sides, government officials declared a 31-square-mile area around him off-limits to trespassing and development. It’s meant to be a safe zone. He’s still in there. Alone.
History offers few examples of people who can rival his solitude in terms of duration and degree. The one that comes closest is the “Lone Woman of San Nicolas“—an Indian woman first spotted by an otter hunter in 1853, completely alone on an island off the coast of California. Catholic priests who sent a boat to fetch her determined that she had been alone for as long as 18 years, the last survivor of her tribe. But the details of her survival were never really fleshed out. She died just weeks after being “rescued.”
Certainly other last tribesmen and women have succumbed unobserved throughout history, the world unaware of their passing. But what makes the man in Brazil unique is not merely the extent of his solitude or the fact that the government is aware of his existence. It’s the way they’ve responded to it.
Advanced societies invariably have subsumed whatever indigenous populations they’ve encountered, determining those tribes’ fates for them. But Brazil is in the middle of an experiment. If peaceful contact is established with the lone Indian, they want it to be his choice. They’ve dubbed this the “Policy of No Contact.” After years of often-tragic attempts to assimilate into modern life the people who still inhabit the few remaining wild places on the planet, the policy is a step in a totally different direction. The case of the lone Indian represents its most challenging test.
A few Brazilians first heard of the lone Indian in 1996, when loggers in the western state of Rondônia began spreading a rumor: A wild man was in the forest, and he seemed to be alone. Government field agents specializing in isolated tribes soon found one of his huts—a tiny shelter of palm thatch, with a mysterious hole dug in the center of the floor. As they continued to search for whoever had built that hut, they discovered that the man was on the run, moving from shelter to shelter, abandoning each hut as soon as loggers—or the agents—got close. No other tribes in the region were known to live like he did, digging holes inside of huts—more than five feet deep, rectangular, serving no apparent purpose. He didn’t seem to be a stray castaway from a documented tribe.
Eventually, the agents found the man. He was unclothed, appeared to be in his mid-30s (he’s now in his late 40s, give or take a few years), and always armed with a bow-and-arrow. Their encounters fell into a well-worn pattern: tense standoffs, ending in frustration or tragedy. On one occasion, the Indian delivered a clear message to one agent who pushed the attempts at contact too far: an arrow to the chest.
Peaceful contact proved elusive, but those encounters helped the agents stitch together a profile of a man with a calamitous past. In one jungle clearing they found the bulldozed ruins of several huts, each featuring the exact same kind of hole—14 in all—that the lone Indian customarily dug inside his dwellings. They concluded that it had been the site of his village, and that it had been destroyed by land-hungry settlers in early 1996.
Those kinds of clashes aren’t unheard of: Brazil’s 1988 Constitution gave Indians the legal right to the land they have traditionally occupied, which created a powerful incentive for settlers to chase uncontacted tribes off of any properties they might be eyeing for development. Just months before the agents began tracking the lone Indian, they made peaceful first contact with two other tribes that lived in the same region. One tribe, the Akuntsu, had been reduced to just six members. The rest of the tribe, explained the chief, had been killed during a raid by men with guns and chainsaws.
If you go to Rondônia today, none of the local landowners will claim any knowledge of these anecdotal massacres. But most aren’t afraid to loudly voice their disdain over the creation of reserves for such small tribes. They will say that it’s absurd to save 31 square miles of land for the benefit of just one man, when a productive ranch potentially could provide food for thousands.
That argument wilts under scrutiny, in part because thousands of square miles of already-cleared forest throughout the Amazon remain barren wastelands, undeveloped. The only economic model in which increased production absolutely depends on increased clearing is a strictly local one. The question of who’d benefit from clearing the land versus preserving it boils down to two people: the individual developer and the lone Indian. The government agents know this, which is why they view the protection of the lone tribesman as a question human rights, not economics.
He eats mostly wild game, which he either hunts with his bow-and-arrow or traps in spiked-bottom pitfalls. He grows a few crops around his huts, including corn and manioc, and often collects honey from hives that stingless bees construct in the hollows of tree trunks. Some of the markings he makes on trees have suggested to indigenous experts that he maintains a spiritual life, which they’ve speculated might help him survive the psychological toil of being, to a certain extent, the last man standing in a world of one.
Some Brazilians believe that the rapid spread of technology itself might protect his solitude, not threaten it. The agents who have worked on the lone Indian’s case since 1996 believe that the wider the story of the man’s isolation spreads—something that’s easier than ever now—the safer he’ll be from the sort of stealthy, anonymous raids by local land-grabbers that have decimated tribes in the past. Technologies like Google Earth and other mapping programs can assist in monitoring the boundaries of his territory. Instead of launching intrusive expeditions into the tribal territories to verify the Indians’ safety, Brazilian officials have announced they will experiment with heat-seeking sensors that can be attached to airplanes flying high enough to cause no disruption on the ground.
I first heard of the lone Indian a little more than five years ago, when I was the South America correspondent for the Washington Post and was interviewing a man who headed the federal department responsible for protecting isolated tribes in the Amazon. He mentioned the man as an aside, giving me a rundown of the latest attempt to force contact with him—the expedition that ended with an agent getting shot in the chest with an arrow.