In Mexico City, Aztec-Era Floating Gardens Offer a Path to Sustainable Eating

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In the southern reaches of Mexico City, densely populated neighborhoods give way to the intricate canal system of Xochimilco Ecological Park, a 165-hectare reserve with patches of farmland that appear to float in the water. Remnants of the Aztec civilization that once occupied this region, these “floating gardens” are known as chinampas.

“They were trying to create new land, fertile land,” explains Francisco “Paco” Juarez, while we row through the canals of Xochimilco in his kayak. The chinampas, he says, allowed the Aztecs to reclaim arable earth from what was once a vast lake unconducive to farming. As we float along, Juarez gestures to a migratory great egret swooping overhead, and points out different types of vegetation: bamboo, stalks of corn, and beds of lettuce sitting in the shade of sturdy ahuejuete trees, a perennial willow species native to Mexico. Juarez calls out to a few chinamperos, who are tilling soil and watering plants in the midday sun. They grin and wave as we row past. 

As a visitor, it’s easy to fall into pace with the wetlands’ slow, bucolic rhythms and breathe in the wild scent of fresh herbs and lush flora—so at odds with the frenetic city center just a short journey away. But the chinampas serve a very practical purpose, one that people like Juarez are working to protect.

Juarez is an environmental educator, studying Xochimilco’s ecology and working with local organization Humedalia to conserve and restore the park’s wetlands. He explains that in the 15th century, the Aztecs built these artificial islands using reeds and stakes to create underwater fences in the shallow lakes, before piling in soil and mud until the dirt was visible above the water’s surface. On these squares of earth, the Aztecs successfully grew crops like maize and amaranth to feed their growing empire.

Over the years, countless chinampas have fallen out of use in many parts of the city due to urbanization. Xochimilco is one of the few spots, along with the municipality of Tláhuac, where remaining chinampas are still actively maintained. It was amid the pandemic, though, when COVID-related food shortages sparked a renewed interest in the ancient agricultural tradition.

Most of the chinampas farmers are from Xochimilco and inherited their chinampas from ancestors, though some became proprietors after moving from other parts of the country and working on the land for years. Today, many earn their livelihood by selling crops to organic restaurants and food markets throughout Mexico City, with only a small fraction of sales coming from individual buyers. But, when the start of the pandemic forced many food sellers to close their doors, the chinamperos lost a great deal of their regular customers. As the pandemic wore on, however, widespread food shortages began to reveal the true efficaciousness of the age-old chinampas system.

With pandemic-related interruptions blocking traffic routes, shuttering warehouses, and closing markets, families in Mexico City were struggling to obtain fresh food. Individuals who may never have bought chinampas produce before began turning to the farmers for locally grown crops, connecting through social media, e-commerce platforms, and word of mouth. The chinampas farmers provided not only a food source, but also options for home delivery and outdoor pick-up, allowing customers to minimize their risk of exposure. In turn, the widening of direct-to-consumer sales channels helped many chinamperos stay afloat during the pandemic.

“Farming production increased here in Mexico City, trying to fulfill the food demand,” says Raúl Mondragón, co-founder of Colectivo Ahuejote. According to Mondragón, farmers who work with the collective saw business grow by as much as 120 percent during the pandemic, thanks to this increase in direct-to-consumer business. (Overall in Mexico, the pandemic shrank the national economy by 8.5 percent in 2020.)

Now, the chinampas just might become a regular component of how these new-found customers obtain their food, even after the region’s agricultural systems resume normal operations.

“I think people are getting closer to their pre-Hispanic roots—they are discovering that the chinampas are a national treasure,” says Juarez, who insists the soil is so nutrient-rich that most if not all crops can thrive in it. He mentions certain endemic edible weeds, known as quelites, are hard to find elsewhere, yet flourish in the chinampas.

For the chinamperos, the soil’s fertility is no secret—and many who inherited the land from prior generations feel an obligation to preserve it for posterity. “My parents told me to continue to take care of this place and save this heritage,” says a 73-year-old chinampero, who chose not to share his name. “That’s why I work the land.”

As the pandemic reinvigorates the role of chinampas in Mexico City’s food system, the farmers and those working with them hope more locals and travelers alike will realize the value of this ancient agricultural technique. After all, for consumers, the system’s natural sustainable features mean availability of year-round fresh produce at affordable prices, and at low cost to the environment.

Trees such as ahuejote help to anchor the chinampas in place. The surrounding water provides constant irrigation. Crops are also grown in specific arrangements to maximize their symbiosis, as an ancient farming method called milpa: beans deposit nitrogen throughout the soil, corn offers a pole for the beans to climb, squash provides shade that keeps the soil moist, and chilis protect the crops from animal damage. “Each one of the [plants] gives this certain protection to the other ones, so it’s like this little friendly ecosystem,” explains Colectivo Ahuejote co-founder David Flores, who helps the chinamperos coordinate sales and distribution of their produce.

Conservation efforts to preserve the chinampas’ cultural heritage and promote their potential for sustainable farming have revived many previously neglected chimampas in recent years. But risks to their productiveness—such as soil degradation, industrial development, and environmental contaminants caused by a modernizing Mexico—still remain. 

Another threat could be the very thing that may increase as more people discover, or rediscover, the chinampas: tourism.

Many travelers to Mexico City pay a visit to Xochimilco Ecological Park, enticed by the relaxing image of floating down the canals aboard trajineras. In the past, the barges were primarily used for transporting merchandise; today, they’re painted in bright colors and come equipped with tables and chairs for tourists to enjoy lake-top picnics. It’s become common for visitors to throw loud parties on the barges—and this type of trajinera tourism could be hurting efforts to preserve the Xochimilco wetlands.

“It has a detrimental effect on the chinampas because of sound pollution, because of the pollution of everything that [passengers] throw in the water,” says Francesca Verschoor, communications coordinator for Colectivo Ahuejote, an organization founded in 2017 that supports the chinampas farmers in developing their production and distribution.

Juarez, too, knows the havoc that trajinera tourism can wreak on Xochimilco’s environment; he pointed out that even the boats’ paint can leach into the water and pollute the habitat. During the pandemic, however, Juarez began to notice a change: “The ecosystem recovered a little bit—because there were no party boats, there were no motor boats.”

Among the people most familiar with the chinampas, the pandemic has reinforced their awareness of the need for more eco-conscious travel going forward. For example, instead of throwing parties on trajineras, tourists can volunteer with organizations like Colectivo Ahuejote, helping to sow seeds and transplant seedlings in the chinampas. Or, travelers can take guided ecological tours, like the ones Juarez offers through Airbnb Experiences, in which he takes guests on a kayak ride through the canals to learn more about chinampa agriculture and the area’s biodiversity. “I think [ecotourism] can be beneficial because it raises awareness,” says Verschoor, explaining that both tours and volunteer work can give visitors deeper insight into why this living heritage must be preserved, and “where food is actually coming from, how it’s being grown, who is growing it for them–and all of this happening in a respectful way, both for the farmers and for the visitors.”

At the end of my visit to the Xochimilco wetlands, Juarez whipped up a salad and tlacoyo (thick masa patties) topped with cotija cheese, serving them alongside a tray of amaranth cookies. The simple but delicious spread, made with ingredients harvested from the chinampas, is one he serves to all his tour guests before sending them off. There’s ultimately no better way to understand the chinampas’ potential, he believes, than to taste the foods that grow there. “It’s so fresh, and it’s organic,” says Jaurez. “And we are just using the elements that we have in the wetlands.”

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