Sunday, June 07, 2009


From the NPR photo gallery
I had learned long ago of Henry Ford's misadventures in the Amazon, but I did not realize the extent of his folly. In this extended radio story, author Greg Grandin discusses the story and his new book, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City. Ford is one of many people who endeavored to bring their own understandings of order and progress to the rain forest. Like the others, the results were disastrous in terms of his own project and desctructive of the local environment. Grandin describes the social disconnect quite well, and points out that not one drop of latex from Fordlandia was ever used in a car.

The lesson about unbridled capitalism and misplaced confidence in technology was not learned, however. Daniel Ludwig repeated many of Ford's errors a couple generations later, with results that were at least as disastrous. A 1978 Time magazine story brims with optimism, but a more recent retrospective in Philanthropy provides a good overview of what was lost (aside from $1,000,000,000) in Ludwig's folly.

My own experience in the region began with my dissertation on urbanization and deforestation in the western Amazon state of Rondonia, which experienced extremely high rates of both processes in the 1970s and 1980s. I fell in love with the place, however, and began to think very critically about the contrasts between how it was viewed by residents and how it was viewed from outside. This led me to my work with a Brazilian colleague on Olhares Sobre a Amazonia, which examines perceptions and misperceptions of the region over the past century or so. We are currently working on a second edition. My contribution to that book and my other writings on the Amazon are included on my Rondonia Web, along with some of my photographs and links to more recent work elsewhere in Brazil.

After his service as president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt visited an area just to the east of where I did my work, on the border between Rondonia and Mato Grosso (a state whose name means "big jungle.") The River of Doubt is a recent book that tells the story of his journey in a compelling, exciting, and also critical manner. Shorter articles about his exploration include a description from PBS, and a 1914 article from the New York Times.

Although the area of the Amazon that Roosevelt and I both visited is now home to almost two million people, I have a map on my wall from closer to his time that has one word written across an otherwise blank space: UNEXPLORED. Of course it was not unknown to the indigenous people who lived there, but from the point of view of outsiders, only the places immediately adjacent to major rivers was known in any way.

1 comment:

  1. I had the privilege to work with Greg Grandin on this project, just like I had the luck to meet Joe Jackson who wrote The Thief at the end Of the World. Both amazing Amazon history books!!


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