The Enduring Chinampas of Xochimilco

Learning from the Megalopolis
“The farmers of this land carry the earth on their hands and faces the earth that created us and that we have struggled for and loved…, the earth which gives us our daily food, water, air, recreation, equilibrium and sovereignty, in short all that keeps us alive.”
-Anonymous Xochimilca farmer at a public gathering

Clumsily, I pole our rustic wooden canoe down a canal whose banks burst with tangled root mass of the Ahuejote tree. Herons burst into flight as our raft glides past the rectilinear forest. Leathery middle-aged farmers quietly steer their harvest of lettuce, spinach and flowers through thick stands of cattail, bulrush and hyacinth. The sulfuric stench of rotten egg bubbles up from a toxic brew of sewage, agricultural and industrial effluent. The half dozen Xochimilca farmers in our boat laugh and crack jokes about the clumsy maneuverings of the gringo. The farmers, some wearing cowboy hats, others Oakland Raiders baseball caps, precariously juggle their traditional way of life and the constant forces of colony, industry and urbanity. These are the famed Chinampas, the last vestiges of a massive wetland farm system that Mexico City is built on and is sinking into. For over two hundred generations, the Xochimilcas have been farming these so called “floating gardens”. This system, arguably the most fecund agriculture this planet has seen, fed Tenochtitlan, capitol of the Aztec empire. When Hernan Cortez conquered this ancient city he was awestruck by its size of up to a million inhabitants, ranking it as the worlds largest urban agglomeration 500 plus years ago. Slashing and piling mounds of vegetation into an irregular grid across Lake Xochimilco gave form to the chinampas. Nutrient rich mud was scooped from the lake bottom and slathered on top of the mounds. Ahuejote trees, a kind of willow, planted in rows along the perimeter held the floating mud-piles together. Eventually years of accumulated mud and plant matter would force the mound to the lake bottom whereby it effectively became an island. Hundreds of heirloom varieties of crops and trees grew abundantly in this rich, moist soil. Fallowing, mandatory in most agriculture, was not necessary due to the constant application of nutrient rich slurry decomposing on the bottom of the canals. Like its modern cousin, hydroponics, irrigation needs of chinampas were minimal because enough moisture seeps up through the mud to nourish the plants. Dozens of species of fish, frogs, crustaceans, salamanders, water bugs and fowl thrived in the canals between the chinampas, and the people thrived on them. A fleet of

no one wants to hear this news. a practice strictly forbidden in Aztec times. One university investigator measured 200 times the safe level of lead in some vegetable crops of the area. Several times a year heavy rains wash the pollution off the streets. This agri-culture supported a dense urban population within a matrix of outstandingly diverse ecosystems. First agriculture. These wells extract double the amount of underground water than flows in naturally. the city has sunk 18 inches. The plant. and thus the people. and lead abound in these waters. then urbanization wreaked havoc on this ancient agricultural ecosystem. discharges the toxic broth into the canals and thousands of fish.200. “If I publish this. into the sewers then overwhelm the water treatment plant. in part to avoid periodic flooding but also to assert their dominion over the landscape. Amongst other harmful substances. and the chinampas themselves to sink and flood. or subsides as geologists say. and for the government a public . In some years. Like a sponge left to dry.” At stake for the chinamperos is the collapse of their families’ livelihoods.820 wells puncture the Mexico City’s ancient aquifers to meet 70% of Mexico City’s water needs. As food was no longer harvested from the remaining canals. Amongst other problems the now very unstable soil intensifies earthquake destruction. unable to treat the excess water. I will get fired and lynched. The study’s principal investigator says. Today. they became filled with sewage and garbage. 4. People have died falling into sinkholes whose covering spontaneously collapsed on street corners. So the canals were filled in and massive tunnels pierced the valley’s basin to begin the draining of the lakes.000 canoes carried the abundant harvest to the heart of the city. Millions of gallons of quasi-treated and untreated wastewater are regularly discharged into the canals. speckle the waterways. floating belly-up. a symbiosis industrial societies have not yet grasped. Yet most people are unaware of the extent of contamination because the study has not been disseminated. Deforestation and illegal mining of topsoil in the surrounding mountains further compounds the problem as it causes the rain to run off instead of being absorbed and slowly percolating into the aquifer. Explosive population growth in Mexico City in the second half of the 20th century continued to place undue burdens on Xochimilco as massive infrastructure projects were built to meet the city’s growing water needs. In the early 17th century the Spanish began destroying this magnificent system. causes water and drain lines to snap. arsenic. Wheel-barrowing in truckloads of soil to keep the chinampas above water has become an annual ritual for the farmers that can afford it. the soil shrinks and compacts. The Spaniards needed wide open fields to plant their wheat and graze their cattle. mercury.

or unwillingness. from the San Luis Tlaxialtemalco neighborhood lamented. then abandoned.” and with a proud. they have trained hundreds of producers. yet one could still spend weeks floating through miles of tree-lined canals. Many chinamperos are still hooked on chemical farming. but some have realized the wisdom of their ancient ways and are trading in the chemical fertilizers and pesticides for compost and garlic spray. Europe and the United States. often rendering them infertile. Some have even succeeded in reviving the fertility of their salt-crusted soils using worm compost and salt absorbing plants. Others have created inexpensive systems for removing the roots of the . Salt and sodium also pervade in these discharged waters. He spots me stumbling around some chinampas and waves me over to his canoe loaded with several huge bundles of spinach. “Nikolas look how big and beautiful my spinach are. while the most toxic food stayed in Mexican markets. products in Mexico City. now we buy processed food at the store.. Eventually. frogs. Moises Gonzalez a chinampero. a thoughtful and friendly 29 year old. As the farmers irrigate their crops the salt accumulates in their plots.. beaming smile says. sold to developers and consumed by urban sprawl. ancient tradition and the modern condition collide head on. Eventually the land is squatted on. …. the government hired them to create the first organic certification program by Mexicans.. Jorge Ramirez. they did’nt need money to buy stuff and they were more resistant to disease….” Jorge took part in an ecological agriculture-training course sponsored by the city government.S. At the Xochimilco campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico a group of agronomy students noticed that traditional agriculture was being overrun by modern chemical agriculture. Though their task is formidable. is one of the increasingly rarer young Xochimilcos that has chosen to keep farming the family chinampa instead of looking for more lucrative work or migrating to the U. written their own organic standard and helped open the first cooperative of affordable. Only five percent of the original chinampas remain unpaved. “These canals used to be full of carp. “and they’re organic. The big difference with todays youth is that we are not prepared for tommorow. and our grandparents lived off them. we live day to day” Here in the nation’s capital. salamanders. why? Because here there is nothing left. Another university researcher was promptly fired after publishing a story about dangerous levels of metals in local dairy products. yet the people keep marching amongst the wreckage.revelation of their inability. for Mexicans. They also realized that the bulk of high quality organic food grown in Mexico was being exported to Japan. organic. shrimp and minnows…. to clean up the mess..

an entrepreneurial local woman. When those dried up they found the Cutzamala watershed.aquatic plants that accumulate heavy metals. who planned on turning it into . First the waters of Lake Chiconauhuapan and the hundreds of springs that fed it were pumped to the city from a neighboring valley. These were the glitzy wow-em’ projects that won votes. Its ecological deficit is unquantifiable. An anthropologist named Beatriz Azarcoya. started fabricating composting toilets and has sold hundreds to people whose sewage discharges directly into the canals.” Several local universities have found that constructing artificial mini-wetlands and filtering the polluted water through them can do wonders toward purifying the contaminated waters. Biologists from local universities have started breeding programs for some of the most endangered animals. The composted fecal matter is then returned to the soil as was the tradition in Aztec times.200 gallons of water a second over a 2. 75 miles of tunnels. pipes and six power plants were built to pump 4. Josefina Mena. With the support of the neighborhood council. (insert quote?) Agriculture in the midst of an industrial megalopolis is a complex affair. environmental health and economics of the entire area. a chinampero trying to grow organically comments.600 foot high mountain pass to the thirsty Capitol. In the mid 1980’s there was a nefarious political scheme to sell the whole chinampa area to a wealthy theme park developer. As Anselmo Gonzalez. inspired by California’s mega-projects that have received funding to address the water woes of Mexico City. and the plagues that come with it. aqueducts. is really our biggest problem. uses a participatory community methodology in her work to preserve the herbal medicine traditions amongst Xochimilca women. including the ajolote an amphibious salamander that was prized by the Aztecs for its medicinal properties. And like in California. “the water. There are plans to build the first of several mini wetlands for various chinampas. Historically it has been the massive water diversion programs. full of the resilience and innovation of the Mexican people. In one study. Now the city’s annual deficit for water services is a billion dollars. If the farmers take a liking to them. yet not immune to the political chicanery ubiquitous in modern democracies. crops gave considerably higher yields when irrigated with the wetland treated water instead of the canal water. and using the rest for animal feed. and all the key players come together. Mexico’s grandiose engineering schemes have destroyed plenty of far away eco-systems. these biological filters could transform the ecology. Trying to grow organically in the middle of a cesspool is no easy task.

whose work will. it is the area’s immense beauty that rouses undesirable growth. Dire circumstances now dictate a different kind of strategy. when I asked one young biologist who worked on “cleaning” the canals for the local government for his view of the problems he sheepishly responded. To avoid the complete extinction of this urban farming culture. There is talk of watershed management and programs are being implemented to swap water-guzzling toilets for low flush varieties. “they’re really not that drastic. and are not ready to relinquish it to the pages of history books. Non-profit and university folk also tend to be critical of government handlings. . and reconcile this clash of cultures. all too often people with the right bribe for the right official. the government and some serious financial support. In spite of the profuse signage condemning illegal construction. Nevertheless most people are eager for change. Ironically. Yet they march on. Many realize what a gift to humanity this ingenious farming system is. The city’s average rainfall of thirty inches a year. most which is quickly pumped out of the valley for want of storage. although better policing of industrial effluent would be a prerequisite. Necessity is the mother of invention. these merchants of change. Needless to say the people tend to be very suspicious of the government. must.” Meanwhile. Of the people who live and work in this battlefield. most speak of their work with an air of wry fatalism. yet people who have been working on these issues for over thirty years are frequently ignored. may be put to use to recharge the shrinking aquifer. who runs an organization that helps farmers convert to organic techniques. someday. they see what they are up against.a sort of Disneyland. sullen looks and emotional rants. Martha Zarate. points out “the problems in xochimilco are very big. end up building their dream home on top of some waterfront chinampa. hydrologists and conservation biologists will need to come together with the community. There are hopes to build a water treatment plant where treated wastewater is recycled for potable use. The meetings I attended between the “authorities” and the farmers were full of crossed arms. during my last visit.” As for the chinamperos. bioremediation technicians. and take root far beyond the mountains of the Valley of Mexico. and in Xochimilco her children are many. blossom into an era of eco-industrial enlightenment. a large group of them had occupied the entrance to a local government office with a flaming barricade in protest of their constant dodging of issues.

” -Moises Gonzalez .“What the hell do we know about numbers? Nothing! We just happened to be born in this time and space and we have to try and survive.

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