The Jari project is one of the most embarrassing large-scale engineering
failures of the late 20th century. In 1967, eccentric shipbuilding
mogul and billionaire Daniel K. Ludwig
purchased approximately 4 million acres at the mouth of the Amazon River
, near the River Jari
. For some sense of scale, that's between the sizes of Connecticut and Massachusetts -- a pretty big size for a company worksite. His plan was to clear-cut this section of forest
and use the region for tree farming
, paper mills, rice
production, and cattle
farming. Ludwig figured that his project
would be desparately needed by a growing world bound to suffer from shortages
of food and paper in the coming decades. His fast-growing, renewable
forest would provide these to the world at a very healthy profit
The early days of the project were spent establishing the site's infrastructure. Enormous construction vehicles cleared away jungle as far as the eye could see. 2,600 miles of road and 45 miles of railroad track were laid. A gigantic, $269 million pulp mill, with its very own power plant, was shipped all the way from Japan and anchored in the River Jari. A town of 35,000 workers appeared virtually overnight on the site. A quarter of a million acres of gmelina, pine, and eucalyptus trees were planted, all fast growers instrumental to Ludwig's plan. Meanwhile, the company tentatively discussed ways to exploit Amazonia's immense desposits of tin, manganese, kaolin, bauxite, and gold without falling prey to the infamous "Amazon factor," the rainforest's uncanny ability to resist any moneymaking attempt with its diseases, infestations, and climate.
But it was not to be. The Amazon factor soon took hold. By the late 1970s, Ludwig's Indonesian gmelina trees had completely failed in the Brazilian soil, and the entire operation was overrun by ants and termites, munching away at crops and supplies. Meanwhile, the immense workforce was being decimated by malaria and meningitis. Jari was losing $180,000 a day. In addition to the stubborn Amazon, some decidedly human factors were also coming into play. Ludwig, ever the recluse, refused to talk to the press, fired top employees for no apparent reason, and ignored the Brazilian government's complaints. Meanwhile, the scientific community universally condemned the scale of the project, which had the potential to destroy the entire ecosystem of that section of the Amazon, in the name of creating substandard paper and termite-infested wood. On top of all this, Ludwig was in poor health and couldn't dedicate enough of his time to his failing Brazilian enterprise.
In 1982, Ludwig sold the Jari project to a consortium of 27 Brazilian corporations, for a loss of nearly $1 billion. During the mid-70s, Ludwig had held the title of World's Richest Man, but by the 80s most of those who knew him had their own special titles for him -- like 'nuts' and 'senile'. As Ludwig went into a seclusion which would last until his death in 1992, the Brazilian investors reduced the scale of the project by more than a factor of ten, and now run about 150,000 acres of plantations containing genetically improved eucalyptus, pine, and even gmelina. Now that the Jari project is being carried out on a managable scale, it's finally achieving some measure of success. The trees are thriving, numerous steps have been taken to minimize's Jari's effect on the surrounding environment, and rumor has it people are even making money! While the dreams of Daniel Ludwig have long since faded into the realm of fantasy, the shriveled remains of his failed project are beginning to find new life at the mouth of the Amazon.