Several weeks ago, we visited the ecological reserve of Xochimilco to meet some of the people who are trying to make a difference in food production in Mexico City. Aboard a colorful trajinera, or boat, we enjoyed a delicious salad made with local produce, as well as chicharrón, guacamole and locally produced cheese while 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.”
The chinampa system was developed by the civilizations living around the lakes in the Anahuac Valley, where modern Mexico City sits now. This system consisted of floating islands for agriculture using mud from the bottom of the lake and decaying vegetation. The chinampas were essential in the construction and flourishing of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. The system is highly efficient and productive, yielding up to seven crops a year, not to mention sustainable, ecological and local.
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 4-inch layer to dry up. Then it is slashed into small cubes and seeds of a single crop are sowed manually in every cube – this is known as almacingo. When the seedlings 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 to avoid stagnation. The water used for the crops returns to the canal and is filtered by the chinampa itself. By using decaying vegetation and manure, farmers avoid the use of artificial fertilizers. The soil is so rich that the crops grow rapidly: Lettuce is ready for harvesting after just 25 days, all without the use of herbicides and pesticides. “I don’t use any chemicals in my chinampa,” Señor Nicolas tells us. “I’m an enemy of chemicals because I love my land.”
Señor Nicolas’s chinampa was an idyll. The rows of vibrant greens were protected by resplendent flowers, and a large verdant field surrounded a log cabin (the chinampa can be rented for camping or for events such as weddings). It was hard to believe we were still inside Mexico City, with 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. There is the touristic Xochimilco that most people know of in the area of Nativitas, full of colorful boats filled with musicians, food vendors and tourists. Then there’s the productive Xochimilco, in the area of San Gregorio, where people plant the flowers that fill the aisles of most markets in Mexico City. Unfortunately, the production there has been industrialized and artificial fertilizers and pesticides are used.
The third Xochimilco is the ecological reserve in 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 percent of this land were restored for ecological agriculture, it could feed the city, roughly 25 million people, for 30 years, Ricardo told us.
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 chinampas can 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 happened, 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 – an occurrence that has take place before in the city, after the original lake where the city sat was drained – and killing one of the most important lungs of this Mexico City.
Our second stop was a touristic chinampa, a beautiful island where food and drinks were available. Ricardo explained to us that this chinampa was very important as well because tourism is another way to save the canals. While touring the beautiful canals and chinampas, visitors also learn about the importance of this area and how consuming locally grown, chemical-free produce can help save the remaining canals.
On our way back, we stopped for quesadillas that had been made by local Xochimilcas with local ingredients and caught the sun setting over the peaceful and beautiful canals. Mexico City may be an overpopulated and ecologically unsound metropolis, but for a moment there we were transported back to an earlier time. We realized that, at least in this little corner of Xochimilco, there was hope for our city.