The Xochimilco Chinampas: Floating Farms in Mexico City

| March 20, 2012

In a previous article, I wrote about Xochimilco and the chinampa system that was developed by the civilizations living around the lakes in the Anahuac Valley, where modern Mexico City sits now. This system consisted on creating floating islands for agriculture using mud from the bottom of the lake and decaying vegetation. The system is highly efficient and productive (with up to seven crops a year), not to mention sustainable, ecological and local.

Last week, Lesley Tellez put together a trip to the ecological reserve of Xochimilco, in the area of Cuemanco, to meet some of the people who are trying to make a difference in the production of food in Mexico City. Aboard of a trajinera (boat) that had been beautifully decorated with a delicious salad made with local produce, chicharron, guacamole, and locally produced cheese, Ricardo Rodriguez, owner of De La Chinampa , explained to us what the project is all about:

“We’re trying to connect producers with consumers. What we do is bring the food from the soil to the table. Always making sure the small and local producers benefit from this trade and keeping in mind where the food comes from and its history. Our main goal is the ecological restoration of the zone through the commercialization of the local products.”

As mentioned in my previous post about Xochimilco, this area of the valley was the main food producer for the Aztec empire using the milpa, a system that consists of growing different crops in the same space at the same time. Very few producers in the Cuemanco chinampas still use this agricultural system. However, they still use the resources available to them in and around the canals for their production.

After an hour long ride on the boat, we landed on one of the chinampas where señor Nicolas, a local farmer, showed us how the process works.

Mud is scooped out from the bottom of the canals and laid down on the ground in a layer of about 4 inches to dry up. Then it is slashed in small cubes and seeds of a single crop are sowed manually in every single cube, known as almacingo. When the crops start to sprout, they are planted in the ground that has been fertilized with decaying vegetation and animal manure.  After the crops have been harvested, the ground will be readied again with fertilizer for a new layer of almancingo. Every new crop uses a new layer of mud.

This method is beneficial for the canals in several ways. Scooping mud from the bottom of the canal keeps them deep avoiding stagnation. The water used for the crops returns to the canal filtered by the chinampa itself. By using decaying vegetation and manure, farmers avoid the use of artificial fertilizers, and the soil is so rich that the crops grow rapidly. No more than 25 days pass to have a fully grown lettuce, avoiding the use of herbicides and pesticides.

“I don’t use any chemicals in my chinampa”, senor Nicolas tells us. “I’m an enemy of chemicals because I love my land.”

Senor Nicolas’s chinampa was beautiful in many ways. Not only it had rows of delicious and healthy looking greens, but it was also guarded by beautiful flowers, and a large green field surrounded a log cabin. We learned that it is possible to rent the chinampa as a camping ground or for events such as weddings.

It was hard to believe we were still inside Mexico City, the outer belt highway buzzing loudly with motorized vehicles just a couple of miles to the north. Xochimilco canals are truly a paradise in the middle of the chaotic city.

Ricardo explained to us that there are three Xochimilcos. The touristic Xochimilco that most people know of in the area of Nativitas, full of colorful boats filled with musicians, food vendors and tourists. The productive Xochimilco, in the area of San Gregorio, where people plant the flowers that fill the isles of most markets in Mexico City. Unfortunately, the production there has been industrialized and artificial fertilizers and pesticides are used. And lastly, the ecological reserve in the area of Cuemanco, where our tour took place. Because this is a federal ecological reserve, no chemicals are allowed in the chinampas.

This area has about 184 km of canals and 26,000 hectares of land available for agriculture. If only 5% of this land were restored for ecological agriculture, it could feed the city, roughly 25 million people, for 30 years.

The chinampas are in danger. They were created by humans, old civilizations that needed to feed their populations, and only humans can keep them alive. Ricardo explained to us that only by working the chimampas Xochimilco can be saved. If the chinampas are neglected, the mud that has been packed into them for cultivation for hundreds of years will erode into the canals, making then shallower and eventually drying them up. If that happens, the city would face an ecological disaster. A lot of the water for the city still comes from Xochimilco. The forests that feed from the canals would die, making the area a bowl of dirt (this has happened before in the city after the original lake where the city sat was drained) and killing one of the most important lungs of this city, which streets are filled with millions of CO2 producing machines.

On our way back, eating quesadillas that had been made by local Xochimilcas with local ingredients and seeing the sun set over the peaceful and beautiful canals, I realized there was hope for our city. With the hard work of people like Ricardo, señor Nicolas and the restaurateurs and families who are buying their products, our Xochimilco can be saved. I took the decision right there to support this cause, starting with consuming local food as much as possible.

De La Chinampa is also seeking donations to build a community center that would offer training on local agriculture, seeds for local farmers and help for women who are victims of violence in Xochimilo.  To support this initiative, please visit their Fondeadora page (Lesley says that it’s like Kickstarter in Mexico).

To see more pictures of this trip, please visit here.

¡Buen provecho!

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Category: Featured, Featured Articles: Travel & Culture, Mexico, Lat & South America, Travel & Culture

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Comments (10)

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  1. Liz says:

    Thanks for bringing awareness to this problem…I’ve never heard of chinampas…but I hope they can be saved.

  2. Belinda says:

    This is an amazing piece, Ben. It’s one of the best written articles I’ve come across. It’s so wonderful – and disturbing – how we think “organic” is this new thing when really, it’s the way things have been done forever, but we somehow came in and messed it all up. These photos are stunning, and you got me sold. Local!!

  3. Kat says:

    Terrific piece Ben! I want to see this with my own eyes now. I will support!

  4. Lena says:

    How interesting. I would love to do an eating tour in df and visit these canals.

  5. Ariel says:

    Wonderful and very informative piece! I want to see them for myself!

  6. Gera says:

    Incredible Ben, I’m not privy to those floating islands to produce organic products! My only references are the people that live on the water at Bolivia on the Titicaca lake, and perhaps they produce in the same way.

    Cheers,

    Gera

  7. Ramon says:

    The Chinampa system is fascinating. I first came across it whilst doing some research for Mexico City’s History (http://www.mexicocityvibes.com/mexico-city-history.html ). They were fundamental for both agriculture and residence.

  8. Allison Simpson says:

    I have been enlightened! I never pictured Mexico and expecially Mexico City as being anything else but polluted with filthy air and unpotable water. I saw this wonderful environment on a cooking show on PBS and I have absolutely entranced.