Lost city of the Amazon

In every book I ever read
Of travels on the Equator
A plague mysterious and dread
Imperils the narrator

– Hillaire Belloc


I DIDN'T KNOW quite what to expect of Santarem, but its waterfront emblazoned its unique history better than any book. Firestone, Goodyear and Dunlop were totem poles lining its shore. Each took turns to zap mosquitoes with a sizzling tzing. Tube upon tube of the Michelin man glowed with such energy that all the rolls of neon fat around his stomach seemed an indictment of his electrical diet.

The captain of Leao IV pointed the prow towards the blue cathedral, manoeuvring his vessel to the mouth of the harbour with the same agility he showed moving a cigarette between his teeth. Passengers aboard awoke according to their needs. The elderly sprang up to breathe fresh air; teenagers scowled at parents and refused to budge from their hammocks. The journey had taken a full day since leaving the port of Manaus. I stood at the railing that morning and rubbed sleep from my eyes.

These global brands on the shore of the middle Amazon are now soulless corporations underpinning capitalism. Yet it was not long ago that these overbearing names so prevalent in light industrial areas had very human features. Two centuries ago, Harvey Firestone, Charles Goodyear, John Dunlop and brothers Andre and Edmund Michelin were young men whose ambitions challenged nature and whose inventions changed the world.

In 1839, Charles Goodyear invented vulcanisation, the process that gave elasticity to natural rubber (to avoid deformity in warm temperatures or fragility in cold). By 1888, John Dunlop had developed the pneumatic tyre; later the Michelins created the first detachable tyre which was used successfully in the 1895 Paris to Bordeaux rally. Along with Henry Ford, these industrial pioneers transformed everyday life. Gone were the horse and buggies clip-clopping down Caballococha's streets that I imagined upriver. But who could have guessed that the tracks of the automotive industry originated in the Amazon jungle?

Rubber was extracted from the Brazilian weeping tree, hevea brasiliensis, just as Amazonian Indians had scratched the bark to ‘weep' latex into a bowl. The trees' resilience in resisting termites and other insects made this possible. When the milky white resin hardened in the sun, its durability meant rubber could not only carry vehicles over asphalt, but continue to outfit the wheels revolving on space shuttles.

Yet the neon totems on the Santarem waterfront signal victory over nature and nation as well. It was, after all, in Santarem that the first act of bio-piracy occurred. Henry Wickham arrived in 1874, a plucky twenty-eight-year-old who gained the confidence of Indian traders, then promptly stole seventy thousand seeds and hid them in banana leaves before sending them to London's Kew Gardens. Within decades, British and Dutch colonies in Malaya began to outstrip Brazil with rubber trees that grew faster, produced higher yields, and had easier access to markets. More importantly, the dreaded South American leaf blight hadn't made it to Asia.

By 1912, the value of Amazonian rubber had fallen so dramatically that rubber barons no longer served their horses French champagne chilled in buckets, let alone themselves. That wedding cake building highlighting the nexus of money to culture – the Amazon Opera House – was left to rot in Manaus, the perfect symbol of the collapse of the ‘white gold' revered by the white man. It's little wonder that Brazilian history books depict Henry Wickham as a criminal. Lord Elgin of the Amazon, no less.


THE HOTEL BRASIL is without doubt the most charming building on the block. Polished wooden floors, high ceilings, lights strung overhead and shutters that open outwards to allow the view of the Tapajós River inside. The morning light emboldens the curlicue spirals on the walls with tiled mosaics; weeds emerge through cracks and mirror the design of the tiles. The nineteenth century buildings might be dilapidated but their presence provides an old-world ambience preferable to the parallel construction of high-rise hotels. Santarem has a living history. Fortunately for me, it was taking its time to die.

After a breakfast of cupuaçu, bread, a soggy banana and coffee sweetened with a thousand sugars, I set off. Local guide Gil Seringue was said to know all there was to know about the jungle. He could be located holding court at Carol's Bar. At her makeshift trailer parked on a median strip, Carol herself dispensed alcohol with a grudge. She yawned and seemed oblivious to the buses that careered past, adding their noxious fumes to every drink she served. Gil's withdrawn face across the counter gave him the appearance of a tropical Bon Scott, though his gaunt figure was deceptive; his voice possessed a high-pitched shriek that could amplify tenfold. Each time he laughed, Carol's trailer rocked as though resisting a tremor; its interior became an echo chamber. Perhaps that's why Carol winced with every drink he ordered.

Gil is a curious soul. Santarem's most informative guide preferred ‘hock & holl' to ‘heggae' and dressed in black; he also took an unusual delight in birdwatching. The sight of a macaw flying by made him point with unrestrained wonder. His loud shrieks turned heads, including those of the macaws. He had the privilege of guiding many famous faces in the Tapajós. His clients included U2 as well as the late Kirsty McCall, and he had even starred in a Michael Jackson video clip.

Without doubt, the arrival of English royalty – the ‘King of Pain', Gordon Sumner, a.k.a. ‘Sting' – who flew into Santarem in February 1989 to great fanfare, left the biggest impression on him. ‘He was at the peak of his fame. We were amazed,' Gil declared. So was the rest of the world. Sting remembered entering ‘the womb of the forest', having passed over ‘the obscene geometry' of cleared land. It was the destruction of the Amazon, which Sting had heard about from activists in Rio de Janeiro in 1987, that compelled him to investigate. Only one year earlier, the World Bank had approved US$500 million in loans for dams in the Amazon basin.

The most hotly debated project was the proposed construction of six hydro-electric dams along the Xingu River. If built, these dams would have cut a swathe across indigenous land. Amazonian Indians banded together to protest at the Transamazonia highway in Altamira with numerous tribes – Kayapo, Arara, Asurini, Parakana and Xavante Indians – gathered alongside ecologists, trade unionists, human rights defenders, indigenous activists, more than a hundred reporters and, if he wasn't having me on, Gil Seringue. The protest coincided with the Kayapo's maize festival, Baridjumoko, so a big turnout was assured with Chief Raoni of the Mentuktire and Floyd ‘Red Crow' Westerman presiding. The Dakota-Sioux Indians of North America were in total solidarity with their South American brethren to resist incursions upon indigenous land. They were protected by the Brazilian army on the orders of the Defence Minister, who feared an incident could lead to the internationalisation of the forest and loosen Brazil's claim on the Amazon, a constant Brazilian fear verging on paranoia.

The Golden King of Pain may not have bathed himself in resin from a sacred lake like El Dorado, but Sting's long blond locks and luminous tan startled everyone. A god of sorts had descended from a helicopter, having journeyed all the way from Newcastle. He spoke like most gods would, with a Geordie accent.

Gil Seringue retrieved a photo album from behind the counter that showed a younger version of himself (already wearing black) standing beside his idol. What took my eye were the colours blazing on bodies, feathers, spears, headpieces and lip discs. The photos made an interesting contrast – they captured a meeting of modernity and the Stone Age. One figure was covered in tribal paint with a bow and arrow slung across his shoulder; another sported jeans and brandished a rifle. Chief Raoni was known to love his Levis and enjoy shooting. Sting meanwhile got to act out his inner warrior.

Sting's involvement in the protection of the Amazon rainforest has since become legendary. By raising international awareness, and thus pressuring the Brazilian government, he helped create triangular boundaries protecting Kayapo territory along the Xingu River; a hundred and thirty-three thousand square kilometres, or ‘an area larger than England', was granted incorporating Raoni's territory, the Menkragnoti reserve. Its existence acted as an essential buffer to repel developers, ranching, mines and lumber mills, although the proposal has since been revived. Sting did what Che Guevara and Jorge Luis Borges could not – unite art with politics. To this day, Gil informed me, vinyl copies of Dream of the Blue Turtles are handed around, and ‘Eshtingue' is as fondly remembered in Santarem – unlike the villan Wickham.


SO, WHERE DO you want to go?' the best guide in Santarem inquired with a yawn. Armstrong's words rang in my ears. ‘Esphela del Lua. Do you know of the place?'

‘Yeah, Mirror of the Moon Lake. But it's nothing special.' He'd travelled there years ago and remembered how bored he was. There was no birdlife and little fishing. It was a long trek upriver to do nothing.

‘I wouldn't bother,' Gil continued, finishing his beer. But Esphela del Lua is the seat of the Amazon legend. The site where women warriors put conquistadors in plumed helmets to the sword. Surely it had something to offer? Gil suggested alternatives. Why not take the botanical route Henry Bates took? The plants were divine. The birdlife amazing. I didn't find that appealing. Birds of that sort weren't my interest. I threw down the card I was holding back.

‘What about the BR 163?' This road mesmerised me. It was often in the news, although usually for the wrong reasons: a link road uniting crops with a processing plant that funnelled great volumes down ramps into European freighters. It was a road that unrolled into the forest, then suddenly turned into ‘a river of mud' where the asphalt stopped. That was the BR 163 in a nutshell. I was hooked.

‘No, forget it!'

‘But why?'

‘Trust me, amigo. You don't want to go anywhere near there.'

Gil's phone rang constantly. He arranged tour schedules on his coaster. He wanted to refer me to colleagues, but they were busy. Was there anything to do then by myself? He thought it over, glancing at Carol who rarely returned his intoxicated stares.

‘You interested in cars?' His remark threw me. I said my cousin Paul built a Model T from an abandoned chassis in his Padstow backyard. But what had that to do with the jungle?

‘Great!' His eyes lit up as though hitting the jackpot.

‘Pack your stuff. You're heading to Fordlandia.'


SANTAREM IS THE place where the Tapajós and Amazon Rivers meet and entwine like a braid of hair. The two rivers and a third flow – the spilt cachaçà from drunken boats – crisscross each other at Santarem's meeting of waters. In the bustling harbour, the Dorado, Karolina da Norte and Solidario were moored side by side as if stationed in a parking lot. The sight of houseboats refuelling at a Shell gas station floating in the middle of the river was nothing strange. In the Amazon basin, the river is the authentic highway.

Workers pushed loaded trolleys up wobbling planks transporting cargo. Running over a foot elicited no expression. Amazonian men are as resilient as the region's mythic female warriors. Somehow I had to get to the Mirror of the Moon Lake, but that would have to wait. For now I was going to a place deemed ‘a tropical ghost town'. When Seringue bought my ticket, a local asked why in the world I wanted to visit such a forlorn place as Fordlandia?

‘All they do is fish, drink and live on government handouts!' he snorted. I had no idea, but the irony appealed to me. You could only get to Fordlandia by boat.

A three hundred kilometre journey southwest of Santarem would take approximately twelve hours.

‘Slightly longer' Gil shouted portside, ‘if it sinks.' He drove away towards wealthy tourists disgorging from a cruise ship that had docked overnight. The motor's rapping underscored a cacophony of shouts, orders, beeps and horns. Parents were scolding their children while grandparents scolded the parents. The majority of those on the Sao Tome were heading to Itaituba. If this equatorial Klondike's chief export was gold, then its chief import was prostitution. Girls as young as thirteen were selling themselves to itinerant miners. Once the girls got bored, which was quickly enough, they ended up in Santarem prowling the docks at night.

On the boat I meet Bruno, a research student at an Amazonian Institute on his way to Itaituba to research the impact of mining. The most catastrophic effects, he said, came from the mercury poisoning leached into the river, which had a toxic life of centuries. Not only did it contaminate vegetation but it caused eyesight problems for the mysterious boto.

When I mentioned Fordlandia, Bruno didn't find the notion of a car production plant in the middle of the jungle surreal. ‘Volkswagon and Xerox have done the same. They've bought huge tracts of land. I mean huge!'

I quickly learnt that international investors were lured into the Amazon, aided by subsidised loans, tax credits and writeoffs.

‘But they're unlikely to turn a profit. It's the Brazilian way,' he said with a wink.

Profit may not be the Brazilian way, but it is the American way. Henry Ford put into reality what Theodore Roosevelt had only dreamt of in 1911. The former president had visions of a jungle criss-crossed with railroad tracks which would service the settlers in towns who communicated by telegraph. To bulldoze an idea into being was a singular American passion. When Confederates fled the United States in 1867, they moved to Santarem believing the Amazon could be transformed into ‘a second Mississippi' – one they could harness for their material benefit. Pretty soon, these exiles were defeated by heat, humidity and jaguars prowling the streets at night. The cobblers who arrived made the biggest mistake. In these parts, no one wore shoes.


THE MORNING MIST scattered to reveal Fordlandia as I disembarked on to a long wooden pier. A group of dark gauchos shaded by cowboy hats stood idly by and muttered among themselves. Tourism was up. My arrival had doubled the year's intake.

I took out my camera and began to focus. A gigantic water tower soared in the near distance as though stuck in an aborted lift-off. Most buildings had broken windows. No one bothered to smash those still intact; the dust that accrued over the years repelled even the hardest stones. Processing ramps criss-crossed at useless angles. I zoomed closer. Even snails had given up on them midway. Tufts of grass tumbled out of the hoods of skeletal Fords lying in fields whilst hydrants ‘made in Michigan' poked their red heads above weeds starved of fire.

I grabbed a coffee at the dockside canteen and was directed to the Ford production plant behind the schoolyard. Not a sound emerged from the classroom, but a local on his way to fish insisted school was in. At the end of a gravel driveway, a gate was tightly wound with heavy chains and clamped with an enormous lock. I managed to crawl beneath the honeycomb fencing and scramble over barbed wire that blocked the path to the main entrance. I felt as though I was trespassing on Stonehenge. If this were a museum I would have it all to myself.

The doors were barred. I entered the main building through a broken window. The interior was vast and practically empty. From what I could tell from holes drilled in the floor, machines had been unbolted and sold as scrap iron. What remained were large green turbines next to electricity meters with dangling wires. I swiped a layer of dust off the metal casing and sneezed over the words ‘Wesson of Chicago'. Dials and switchboards with burnt fuses in squeaky boxes were the last vestiges of a lost world. A hoist in a corner was surely where the chassis were once welded. In another corner, bric-a-brac piled together: a wheelchair, a pram, a filing cabinet. The Ford factory was a resting home for aged metal. The air too seemed as heavy as the machinery, like weights were holding down my lungs whenever I breathed. The tin roof amplified the drizzle to a thunderous rattle yet it didn't awaken a cat sleeping beside a lathe. I noticed the graffiti scratched into the pylons supporting a leaking roof; it must have been authentic. A figure in overalls poked his tongue out to a suited boss. Plus ca change.

An iron plaque inscribed Fordlandia's origins. It had been inaugurated in 1928 with equipment shipped from Detroit, where the Ford Motor Car Company created an alliance with Harvey Firestone (Ford produced the carriage, Firestone the tyres). Fordlandia was an ambitious plan to construct sawmills, a hospital, a radio station, employee housing and even an eighteen-hole golf course. A workforce of single men, mainly from Brazil's north-east, was lured there with the prospect of good jobs – not unlike what was happening in Itaituba downriver.

Fordlandia was conceived in the interwar years and designed to break the Anglo-Dutch rubber cartel. By growing his own rubber, Ford was pursuing a long-term strategy conceived in the offices of American planners. The United States was vying for global supremacy; therefore it had to control not only the means of production but also the source. To do so, ‘vertical integration' became the ruling zeitgeist.

A car can be broken up into constituent parts: iron for the chassis, electricity for internal wiring, rubber for tyres, petrol and oil for energy, aluminium for wipers, chrome for fenders, glass for mirrors and windows. And so Ford bought up big in Brazil: ships, ports, railways, steel mills, hydroelectric plants, iron and coal mines, even the river for water supply and to discharge refuse. But with overheads like this, how was Henry Ford ever going to turn a profit? He was a capitalist – living on a government handout was anathema to his entrepreneurial spirit. Where did it all go wrong?

For one, Amazon ecology proved resistant. Trees poorly planted allowed for overhanging canopies to spread the dreaded leaf blight microcyclos. Workers resisted too; the graffiti was evidence of that. They rebelled at the level of segregation in barracks, hygiene rules, eleven-hour shifts, wearing shoes, even the food they were forced to eat in the canteen (‘death to spinach' was a rallying cry that fostered solidarity). A strike in 1930 was the beginning of the end. When workers united for better conditions (access to docks, quashing the prohibition on alcohol, unfair dismissals), the Brazilian military was called in to quell the uprising, arresting leaders and gaoling malcontents.

Fordlandia was an experiment that tried to modify human nature by replacing nature: workers were woken by bells and whistles instead of birdsong. They read clocks instead of the sun. The punched card at the entrance signalled the siesta they had lost. It seems inevitable that by 1935 Fordlandia had collapsed and by 1946 Ford had ceased operations in Brazil altogether, twenty million dollars out of pocket.

Henry Ford was surely of his time.

In the early days of the automotive industry, numerous competitors sought market dominance and Ford was not the corporate monolith of today. In 1925, the Moon Roadstar 6-40 took the public's fancy – much to Henry Ford's displeasure. It might still be around today were it not for the Great Depression, which effectively wiped out smaller automotive firms.

But those in the contemporary corporate sphere would undoubtedly shake their collective heads at Ford's lost opportunities. Today's CEO would shun the heavy assets Ford accrued and make a virtue of streamlining: sell off the land to developers, move manufacturing to a developing nation, import parts from China, create a layer of middle management, and casualise labour on short-term contracts. They'd surely rebrand and advertise heavily whilst seeking to maximise dividends for shareholders, and themselves. They would give PowerPoint presentations to allay fears at the annual general meeting. Fordlandia was once a thriving industrial town. Now it's an abandoned antique warehouse no one bothers to visit.


TO AVOID THE midday humidity, I take refuge in a small bar run by sixteen-year-old Benny Wesley. Fiddling with the dial of his radio, he is surprised to have a customer. The bar is actually the converted balcony to his house. What's on the menu? Benny shrugs then shouts indoors. His wife yells out the day's specials (which never change): ‘fish and potatoes'. I want to ask whether he knows there is an age restriction on entering a bar (let alone running one) but I don't bother. In Brazil, there are few restrictions regarding marriage. But a month out from the birth of his child, Benny looks as bored and indifferent as any teenager stuck in a one-horizon town.

‘My children will be happy here,' Benny says while serving me a slice of cake his wife baked last week. She shows her face through beads in the doorway and looks me over. She is nineteen and his cousin. I admire their tenacity. Industrial progress has failed here, but they are optimistic about the future, whatever that is going to be.

Fordlandia is not unique. On this dreary morning I realised Fordlandia was not alone. Development along this path has become a Brazilian fixation, acquired from the thinking of its masters. Whether it is roads (the Transamazonia highway), dams (the proposed Belo Monte), cities (Brasilia) or industry (Fordlandia), the zeal to construct is conceived in the Brazilian mind well before it is etched into the landscape. All it takes is a whisper in the ear from America or Europe.

But what could Benny's children ever find here, I wonder, to make them happy? The landscape contains only derelict buildings, ramshackle bungalows and few – if any – social services. The golf course and attendant clubhouse offer little for the young. I suspect nothing much changes. Archival photos circa 1940 display a Ford car unable to grip the road, stranded in mud then left to decay. And the cars are still decaying in front of me. A Volkswagon passes in the street, easily overtaking the clapped-out dinosaurs. It seems that, in Fordlandia, Aesop's tale of an ungainly tortoise overtaking the swift hare has upgraded to the Iron Age. Benny turns up the volume and begins singing. I say goodbye, knowing his hope for the future is pure wish-fulfilment. No one here stays willingly. In this dead-end town, all the ghosts have fled, even if their Fords couldn't.

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