Henry Ford’s biggest mistake

Deserted building in Fordlandia. Image by Méduse, licensed under GNU Free Documentation License

Deserted building in Fordlandia. Image by Méduse, licensed under GNU Free Documentation License

Henry Ford, the iconic car-maker, had a number of very successful ideas. He revolutionised the manufacturing industry, introducing the production line where each component and each operation was in theory identical to the ones before and after.

He also had some unsuccessful ideas, as well as some outright wacky ones (which I won’t discuss here). But without a doubt, his most resounding failure was his attempt to produce rubber in the Amazon basin for the American car market.

You wouldn’t think that would be so hard: after all, the southern Amazon basin is the home of Hevea brasiliensis, the species of rubber tree that provides the most elastic and pure latex. In 1928, when Ford started his grand plan, the market was dominated by rubber produced from the British, French, and Dutch plantations in southeast Asia, based on rubber seedlings smuggled out of Brazil.

What could go wrong? Henry Ford could go wrong, and badly. Ford, while he may have been a good engineer and a canny businessman, knew nothing of biology. And therein lay the greatest problem, for his first attempt, known as Fordlândia, and his second, at Belterra, both failed as a result.

Ford insisted on treating the most complex ecosystem on the planet as an engineering problem – none of his managers knew anything about tropical agriculture, botany, or ecosystems. So a crowd of engineers attempted to set up and run a rubber plantation with no knowledge of soil chemistry, local conditions, local pests and diseases, or indeed anything about plantation agriculture or the tropics at all.

Firstly, the land: he’d purchased land which belonged to the same man he’d employed to choose a suitable site. Not an auspicious start. It was hilly, rocky, and infertile, and rapidly shed any remaining topsoil under rain, so many of the seedlings simply died. Those that survived then succumbed to leaf blight, which the site managers, being engineers, didn’t know how to combat.

Then, the plantation density. The plantations in southeast Asia were able to pack the trees closely together, as there were no native pests to attack the imported plants. Brazil, however, is the home of Hevea brasiliensis, and a host of diseases and insects had evolved to attack them. In the jungle, the density is only about 7 wild trees per acre, which limited the spread of pests. In the Ford plantations, the trees were crammed in at about 200 per acre.

The result? A veritable banquet for the leaf blight, sauva ants, lace bugs, red spiders, and leaf caterpillars that feed on rubber trees. The lack of biodiversity and the closeness of the trees meant that any species that fed on rubber trees could gorge themselves and reproduce with wild abandon on an almost infinite food supply.

The plantation at Belterra fared slightly better than Fordlandia, being flatter and damper, and using trees imported from the Asian plantations which were more resistant to the leaf blight. But still, all the other issues remained, and both produced only minimal amounts of rubber: Belterra a peak of 750 tons, and Fordlandia none at all.

What makes this more interesting is that Harvey Firestone started a plantation in Liberia at around the same time. But where Ford used engineers and factory managers, Firestone used botanists, scientists, and plantation managers. Firestone’s plantation has been, and continues to be, very successful, while Ford’s was a total failure.

The lesson here? An ecosystem is not a machine. We can’t expect to treat natural ecologies the way we would a production line, simply replacing one component with another and shaving parts down to fit. A complex ecosystem like that which once existed on the site (and still exists in diminishing areas of the Amazon) does not take kindly to wholesale rearrangement. In short, biodiversity is fragile and crucial.

And it’s always a good idea to listen to experts – don’t merely assume, as Henry Ford did, that you know best.

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4 Responses to Henry Ford’s biggest mistake

  1. herr doktor bimler says:

    Imagine my delight when I read that rubber trees are a Euphorbia — basically an overgrown Pointsettia.
    And teak trees belong to the Lamiaceae, i.e. they’re a kind of mint. Trees are weird.

  2. Alison Jobling says:

    I’m trying hard to imagine your delight, Herr Doktor, but it’s eluding me. I keep getting the feeling that the mint and basil in my sister’s garden is going to suddenly shoot up and turn into teak trees. Then probably into triffids.

    But the weirdness is not in the trees, it’s in the family tree. Which is a fascinating type of tree in itself, for a maths geek like myself.

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