Ford's Amazon Rubber Town Dreams of a Brighter Future
BELTERRA, Brazil Deep in the Amazon rainforest lies what looks a small U.S. Midwestern town, with neat white clapboard bungalows, trim gardens and spacious streets.
A closer look at the main street reveals the paint is peeling and the roads have potholes. Instead of cars, there are bicycles and instead of bustle, there is silence.
It's pretty much all that remains of American auto pioneer Henry Ford's dream to produce rubber for his U.S. car plants and break Asia's grip on the world market.
Ford spent more than $20 million in the 1920s and 1930s creating huge plantations in Belterra and Fordlandia to resurrect the Brazil's rubber industry, so prosperous at one time that rubber barons built a grand opera house in the middle of the rainforest and sent their laundry to Europe to be done.
But leaf blight ravaged the trees, little rubber was produced and Ford retreated in 1945, abandoning the plantations to the jungle, and to time.
"Only old people tap rubber here. The trees are ancient and yield little," said Otmar dos Santos, 66, setting off on a bicycle for an arduous daily rubber round armed with a long hooked knife.
About 20,000 people, mostly farming families, live in Belterra, which means "beautiful land," now. Lying on a plateau overlooking the Tapajos River, it's 10 hours downstream from Fordlandia and a 90-minute drive southwest of the Amazon port of Santarem.
A cluster of aged, scarred rubber trees near Belterra's library stands as a memorial to Ford's hopes of rubber riches.
Sticky white latex drips into cups to be gathered by Santos and a handful of other veteran seringeiros (rubber tappers).
"Prices are too low to make a living," said Santos, shielded from the sun by a straw hat and latex-stained shirt.
Santos, who arrived in the 1960s, said he received only 1.50 reais (60 cents) per kilo of latex. Last month he earned 132 reais from rubber. He makes ends meet by gathering fruit and by growing rice and beans.
Raimundo Miranda Lopes, 82, is one of the few survivors from Ford's days.
"I started here in 1939 as a rubber tapper but I had to lie about my age because I was too young," said Lopes. "Life was good with regular hours, regular pay and comfortable housing," he said, adding that it was still safe to sleep with the door and windows open.
RUBBER BARONS NO MORE
Ford never visited his Amazon rubber plantations but he believed he could revive the boom of the late 19th century, when Brazil ruled the rubber world.
Brazil's rubber barons amassed fantastic fortunes that in 1896 financed the Teatro Amazonas opera house with gold leaf ceilings and marble tiled floors, in the Amazon capital of Manaus. They lived in ornate European-style mansions and their wives sent clothes to Paris to be laundered.
But the boom was brief. An English naturalist smuggled seeds out of the country to Malaysia where there was no leaf blight and dense planting slashed production costs.
By 1910 Brazil's rubber industry, supplied by wild trees scattered across the Amazon, was on the rocks.
It is unlikely to bounce back in Belterra. Output long ago moved south from the rainforest to Sao Paulo state. Brazil now imports nearly two thirds of its needs, producing only some 100,000 tons annually, or about 1 percent of world output.
Some hope tourism could be the key to reviving Belterra's fortunes.
"There's immense tourism potential," said Irismar Nobre Mendonca, legal adviser to the Belterra town council, which occupies the rubber tappers' old headquarters.
In the single-story timber building, Mendonca pointed to a poster showing white sandy beaches on the dark Tapajos river, a tributary of the Amazon, which offers swimming, fishing and pink dolphin sightings.
Bicycles outnumber cars on Belterra's long straight main street and the Tapajos national forest, rich in wildlife, is nearby.
But so far the numbers are few.
"We first need paved access roads and hotels for tourists. But where's the money?" Mendonca added.
People take care of their homes, hoping that the federal government, which took over Belterra plantation after Ford left, will give them ownership, said Ruth Moreira dos Santos, 65, retired primary school head teacher and librarian.
Many others have left in search of work and a better life. Ruth Santos, whose father worked for Ford, was the only one among 14 children to stay in Belterra.
"Things got better after Belterra became a municipality in 1997 and water, light and other services improved," she said. "People are returning."