From Fordlândia in the Rubber Cycle to Belterra’s Science Museum, a new future underway

Once a latex exploitation center, the city in the west of Pará still keeps American traditions alive

Elisa Vaz / O Liberal - Translated by Silvia Benchimol / UFPA

Similar wooden-made houses in white and green spread along several villages in Belterra, a municipality located in the west of Pará. The houses bear the name of the functions performed by the workers who lived there, almost a century ago. The flat streets in the city that played the role of a ‘factory dormitory’ embedded in the heart of the Amazon rainforest during the boom of the Rubber Cycle in Brazil are still full of references to the 1930s – when North Americans came to "Bela Terra" (as it was originally called) to create a large latex extraction project, a rising activity that promised to highly leverage the economy in the Amazon. The villages were the places where to those involved with the rubber production used to live; that is, the employees’ town houses designed to those who earned monthly wages; and the homes of Americans. All built with outstanding characteristics, which refer to that period.

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Around a century ago, in the late 1920s, Henry Ford, founder of Ford Vehicle Industries in the United States, decided to send employees to the Amazon region for what was considered to be a strategic mission: to build a city from scratch, where latex could be extracted for rubber production. The intended goal was to supply his tire factories in the North American continent. That was how Fordlândia was born, in 1928, on the banks of the Tapajós River as the first place chosen for this dream to come true. What Ford did not know is that the place was not suitable for growing rubber trees. This fact caused the initial project to be abandoned due to the difficulties with rubber production after everything was ready for the enterprise. Fordlândia was doomed to become a ghost town.


It was only then, that Belterra came to be noticed. In a second attempt to accomplish the experiment, the place was elected to be the new project headquarter. The new area with flat topography and fertile soil, was also designed in the American molds – from customs and traditions to architectural structure. Antônio Castro, pedagogue and professor, specialized in history gives details: after the frustrated start of the project in Fordlândia, it was Henry Ford's son, Edsel Ford, also an entrepreneur, who insisted that his father should pursue the dream.

“They mapped the region thoroughly. The one-million-hectare site  granted to them included part of Aveiro’s and Itaituba’s territories. Today, the area is entirely within Aveiro’s administrative area. In Belterra, initially, they got 281,500 hectares and managed to strategically exchange part of their area”, states the historian.

image (Tarso Sarraf / O Liberal)

Castro remembers that the city was fully planned: all the odd roads are on the East-West axis, whereas the even ones are on the North-South axis. Unlike Fordlândia, Belterra's features for the project were considered “perfect”. The committed team put in a great deal of effort to make the latex extraction succeed in the new city. By the end of 1944, a year before the project was definitely given up, the Americans had already planted around 3.0 million  hectares of rubber trees. Of that amount, two million were GMOs – genetically modified organisms.

"Emancipation came in 1995. It was hard work, but we made it. Belterra and I are almost the same age. I saw a lot being built around here. The city has grown a lot since then" - Chardival Pantoja, resident of Belterra.

“Henry Ford sent an American employee who was working in Southeast Asia to the Amazon. But they were not aware of these techniques. They didn't know about the fungus that attacked the plantation in Fordlândia. Many Europeans, however, already knew about it. And they were the ones who really joined efforts to accomplish the big planting in Southeast Asia”, highlights Castro. “The seeds were taken from the Amazon to England, where they began to produce the first plant seedlings and then taken to Asia. They genetically modified the seedlings because of this concern with the fungus. They did this work there. The plant adapted to the ground very well due to the soil and climate conditions”.

When the Ford company’s work began in Belterra, the botanist in charge of the project suggested trying to bring seedlings from the modified plant into the laboratory. “And then he, himself, made this one-month trip and returned with 1,046 seedlings, which were used for improvement here,” says the historian.

image (Tarso Sarraf / O Liberal)

Antônio Castro emphasizes that even with the success of the ongoing project, a year later it came to an end. And among the main causes for this rupture, in first place, was the death of Henry Ford's son, in 1943 – the most enthusiastic supporter of the project in Brazil had serious health problems. The growing production of synthetic rubber, which had already been discovered, although not yet produced on an industrial scale, also contributed to the project’s downfall.

The end of World War II was the third decisive factor. “At the height of the war, the Japanese took control of Southeast Asian plantations, and in order to hamper allied troops, they retracted the export. The rubber production from the Amazon was not enough to supply the international demand. When the war was showing signs of weakening, Amazon suffered an economic collapse. It stopped exporting, but not extracting”, says Castro. Thus, the project's concession contract, which was set for 50 years, lasted only 17 years.

A resident shares his testimony

The history of Belterra may be split into three main phases: one led by the North Americans; a second phase in which the Ministry of Agriculture controlled the land through the Delegacias de Polícia Federal [Federal Police Offices] in Pará for 50 years (from 1946 to 1995), and when the  governor created the municipality of Belterra; and a third phase involving the period that lasts until today.

Chardival Pantoja, 83-year-old resident, born and raised in Belterra, is one of those people who followed the nearly 87-year-historycal trajectory of Belterra since the arrival of Americans in the region in 1934. He is regarded as a local historian and poet, who has even composed the city's anthem. Pantoja was once the administrator of Belterra and Fordlândia, when the two municipalities still fought for political emancipation. He has also held the position of Environment and Tourism secretary.

image (Tarso Sarraf / O Liberal)

Due to the early death of his father when he was just two-years-old, Chardival was in charge of raising his three siblings. His mother did not have the financial means to support the family. This explains how two of the children – he and his younger sister – grew up in the daycare facility provided by Ford Industries. “I lived much more in the daycare center in the first years of life than at home. My mother’s lack of means left me no other choice. They offered the facilities to meet the needs of widowed women who could not support their families”, he says.

After finishing basic schooling, Chardival claimed his mother's “plate” – the identification of every employee in Ford industry. “Each worker had one white plate and four yellow ones. The white one was to identify the employee, and the yellow one represented the material he needed”.

image (Tarso Sarraf / O Liberal)

Chardival, himself, started working in 1957 at the Latex Processing Plant. He stopped for a year to serve in the army. After his return, he engaged again in studies and got a position as  a physical education teacher in a high school. Then, along with his wife and four children, he moved to Rondônia, where he spent three years. When he returned to Belterra, he was already over 50 years old. “When the project was over, we started to fight for emancipation”.

In leading the movement, encouraged by friends, he scheduled the first meeting with leaders and teachers – more than 30 people attended. The dilemma to be solved was hand over the land to Santarém or fight to be an emancipated municipality. Everyone voted for the second option. “I retired in 1990, but I have always been linked to these issues. Emancipation came in 1995. It was hard work, but we made it. Belterra and I are almost the same age. I saw a lot being built around here. The city has grown a lot since then”.

The Architectural Image of the American Dream Still Stands

One of the greatest attractions in Belterra is the architectural ensemble from the Ford’s era. It remains untouched, even after the end of the project and the city’s emancipation. Likewise, many customs brought by the Americans also remain the same. Some houses have gone through renovations, but the population tries their best to preserve the original features, even though materials from that time are hard to find nowadays. “House number 1” is a landmark in the city: the residence, built especially for the Ford family, maintains the same original colors. Interestingly, the owners never came to the Amazon. Today, the residence that once hosted Getúlio Vargas, for one night, is being restored.

image (Tarso Sarraf / O Liberal)

Another high spot is the city's first church in the central square. It still keeps its intact frontage and the original benches inside. Currently, however, it only works as a deposit. Services are held in a building next door.

Right at the entrance to the city, stands the famous water tower,  one of the most visited spots. Installed at Fords request, it supplies Belterra to this day. Another thing which attracts attention is the siren blare. The sound that was used to alert employees of their working hours in the rubber plantations still sounds today: it goes off at 6:00 am, time to wake up; at 7 am,  time to start work; at 11am, for lunch break; at 1pm, for the end of the break; and then at 4 pm, for the end of daily activities.

image (Tarso Sarraf / O Liberal)

Tourists also enjoy visiting Bosque das Seringueiras [Rubber Tree Grove], which has sheltered rubber trees ensuring their long-term survival since the extractive period and has an enchanting landscape (The Belterra Memory Center is located inside the grove), which contains a photo archive, videos and original documents.

Another charming destination is Praia do Pindobal [Pindobal beach]– contrary to what some believe, the site does not belong to Alter do Chão, but to Belterra. Floresta Nacional do Tapajós (Flona) [Tapajós National Forest] located within the municipality's boundaries is also an attraction for many visitors.

Investments must grow in Belterra

One of Chardival's daughters, the business administrator Zayra Pantoja, 47, runs a restaurant in Belterra with her husband. Albino Torres, known as Júnior Torres, 45. The company started with a barbecue-on-skewer sale by Júnior's mother, 36 years ago. Zayra says that customers are loyal but adds that the city does not intensify its touristic potential due to the lack of incentive. “The beaches of Belterra are Cajutuba, Porto Novo, Santa Cruz, Pindobal and several others. There is a lot to explore. People here like History, love the city, like to show what they have, but unfortunately this is not well publicized”.

Júnior’s opinion is that there is a lack of infrastructure for accommodation. According to him and apart from the summer houses, it is likely that there are only 15 to 20 rooms in the entire city considering hotels and inns. “There aren't many events either. People don't have money, and  so they don't invest because they have no expectations of feedback from tourists. It is not possible to sustain a large structure”. Today, Zayra and Junior sell more meals to Santarém: of the 250 to 300 meals produced every day (including breakfast, lunch and dinner), 70% go to Santarém.

image (Tarso Sarraf / O Liberal)

“Belterra has natural beauties galore”, the couple adds. Investments in beach structures, with shorelines and public restrooms, would be very welcome. The paving of the road from Alter do Chão to Praia do Pindobal, the most famous in the region, would also help considerably. If that happens, says Júnior, the number of visitors could triple.

The municipal secretary of Tourism of Santarém, Alaércio Cardoso, agrees. For this reason, the department has been studying, together with Ministério do Turismo [Ministry of Tourism] and Secretaria de Estado de Turismo (Setur) [Secretary of State for Tourism], how these investments should be made. The roads are among the investment plans for 2022, aimed at providing access to the beaches of Santarém and Belterra.

image (Tarso Sarraf / O Liberal)

“We want to integrate Santarém with the neighboring municipalities of Mojuí dos Campos and Belterra. The latter is soon inaugurating an important Museum for the region. The greatest potential in the area is the ecological tourism and historical value . It is a new city , but it has a very beautiful story. This circuit would greatly enhance the region. For Santarém, it is also important that Belterra gets stronger”. Regarding the region's Floresta Nacional [National Forest] the secretary also refers to a project meant to strengthen community-based ecological tourism, involving dozens of communities and thousands of people.

The project for Museu de Ciências de Belterra [Belterra Science Museum], already underway, will operate in the former Henry Ford Hospital – destroyed by a fire in the mid-2000s, and located inside the Bosque das Seringueiras – will certainly contribute to attracting people from outside. As many do not know the history of Belterra, the initial focus will be on archeological research into ancient indigenous civilizations. Some people, on their own, have been doing excavation work and have already found many archeological pieces. The administration of this collection will be in charge of  Universidade Federal do Oeste do Pará (Ufopa) [Federal University of Oeste do Pará].

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