The chinampería is so fertile that chinamperos are able to plant and harvest vegetables four or five times a year. Here, Eric Serralde and his son, Eric Jr., harvest lettuce. “I want my son to study,” said Eric, “to have a career so he does not have to work here.” All photos by the author.

Can the Chinampas Survive?

Mexico City’s Endangered ‘Floating Gardens’

Marino Gonzalez Galicia stands at the edge of a small concrete loading dock, looking down at the dry, trash-filled canal. He starts speaking as I pass by, half to me, half to himself. “What a shame,” he says, slowly shaking his head and waving his hand toward the canal. “This used to be so beautiful. Now it is filled with trash. We used to be able to travel more than a hundred meters on this canal.”

We are in San Gregorio Atlapulco, one of the pueblos that make up Xochimilco, Mexico City’s southernmost borough. The canal Marino is looking at is part of the chinampería, an ancient agricultural system that consists of manmade islands, called chinampas, built in the shallow lakes of the Basin of Mexico. There is archeological evidence that some of these chinampas were in use five thousand years ago. The ones that are still farmed here are between twelve hundred and two thousand years old and were most likely built by the Xochimilcas.

But the chinampería’s continued existence is threatened by pollution, the over-extraction of water, and Mexico City’s chaotic, unchecked growth. Its loss would be devastating. In addition to providing food for the city and work for hundreds of people, it contains 2 percent of the world’s—and 11 percent of Mexico’s—biodiversity. Several species of migratory birds spend their winters here, and the area’s vegetation absorbs huge amounts of carbon. Were the chinampería to disappear, it’s estimated that Mexico City’s temperature would rise by 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Although they’re often referred to as “floating gardens,” the chinampas don’t, in fact, float, but are firmly attached to the lake bottom. They’re built by first sinking ahuejote (a species of willow) branches into the lake bottom. These are arranged to form enclosed rectangular spaces which are filled in with mud and vegetation. Canals between the chinampas allow for easy access by canoe. In the tourist areas of Xochimilco, colorful boats called trajineras take people on tours. “People know Xochimilco and the trajineras,” says Paola Casas Gonzalez, one of a handful of women working in the chinampería, “but they don’t know this pueblo or these chinampas that produce tons of food for the country. There are people living in the city who only know the trajineras.”

The rest of San Gregorio is urban, but just a short walk from Belisario Domínguez, one of the pueblo’s main streets, is the chinampería, where rows of produce and flowers stretch far in all directions. Here, the sound of a siren is the only sign that a city is close by.

The people who work here, called chinamperos, use farming techniques that are as old as the chinampas themselves. Martín Venagas Paéz confidently balances himself in his canoe, using a long pole with a net at the end to dredge up mud from the bottom of the canal, dumping it in the boat’s bottom. The water’s stench is almost overpowering. “This water used to be clean, clean, clean,” he says. Not anymore. Now sewage is discharged into the canals, whose surface is littered with discarded plastic bottles and other trash. Venagas Paéz swirls his bare hands in the muck, picking out debris. Behind him a set of stairs leads from a house down to the canal. So much water has been extracted from this area that the bottom step now hangs several feet above the water’s surface.

It takes Venagas Paéz well over an hour to carry buckets filled with mud up a small incline to where a shallow rectangle has been dug in the ground. It’s strenuous work, but he rarely pauses to rest. He pours the mud into the rectangle and waits a day for it to dry. Then he cuts the dried mud into small squares called chapines, which will be used to plant seeds. Venagas Paéz blesses himself before starting this work. “I ask for a blessing that the work not be too hard today,” he says. Venagas Paéz places a small cloth on the ground beside the chapines. Kneeling on it, he licks his fingertip so that he can pick up a seed from a small tin before placing it firmly in the chapine. The work is slow and methodical.

Once the plants are large enough, they’re transferred to the chinampa. The land is so fertile here that there are four or five harvests a year. Juan Serralde’s hands move assuredly as he harvests his lettuce, using a small knife to cut the plants at their base, then trimming off dead leaves before he places the lettuce in crates. Like most chinamperos, Juan and his brother Eric farm land that has been in their family for many years. “My great-grandfather, grandfather, and father all planted this land,” Juan says. He’s worked here his entire life and has seen many changes, few of them good. He indicates a canal a short distance away. “That is a dead canal,” he says. “Thirty years ago, it was young. We could use canals to deliver our produce. Now, we have to carry it on our backs to the loading dock.” His brother agrees that the chinampa is in trouble. “The chinampa is almost done,” says Eric. “It is very tired. Thirty years ago, the water level was over my head, like two meters. Now, it’s only about one meter. Thirty years ago, we could drink the water in the chinampa, there were many fish. Now, there are no fish . . . nothing.” He knows that the two biggest threats to the chinampería are the city’s continued expansion and its extraction of water. When he talks about these things, he sounds more resigned than angry. “That,” he says, pointing in the distance, “is the city. This is the pueblo. All the water is going to the city. If there is no water, how will we eat?”

 

Chinamperos still use ancient farming techniques to grow food. Martín Venagas Paéz is pouring mud he’s extracted from the bottom of a canal into a rectangular area he constructed. Once the mud has dried, he’ll cut it into small squares called chapines into which seeds will be placed.

The chinampería is shrinking. It originally covered between 22,000 and 24,000 acres. “Now there are only about 3,000 hectares [6,600 acres] remaining,” says Miguel Ángel Elizalde, an attorney who has represented chinamperos for eighteen years. As Mexico City has expanded, its population has grown from about 5 million people in 1960 to almost 22 million today. This has led to an ever-increasing, unsustainable extraction of water from the areas that surround the city.

The drying out of the Basin of Mexico isn’t a new problem; it has been going on for at least five hundred years. The Aztecs built Tenochtitlan, their capital, and what is now Mexico City, in the middle of Lake Texcoco in 1325. Their god, Huitzilopochtli, is said to have instructed them to build where they saw an eagle with a snake in its beak perched on a nopal (prickly-pear cactus). For better or worse, they found it in that lake. After conquering the local tribes, the Aztecs used their chinampa technique to build their city. Then came the Spanish Conquest. Once Hernán Cortés had conquered the Aztecs, he decided to build his capital in the same location as theirs. Ignoring centuries of water management, he drained the lake. Canals became streets; rivers became sewers. This pattern of draining the lake for more land to build on continued for hundreds of years. By the early twentieth century, Mexico City’s water problems had become acute. In 1905, President Porfirio Díaz ordered the construction of a twenty-mile-long aqueduct that would bring water from Xochimilco into the city’s center. This had a devastating effect on the chinampería and surrounding areas, causing many springs that fed it to go dry. Water levels in the canals have dropped precipitously, and there are neighborhoods in the outlying areas of San Gregorio that have no running water. Their streets are lined with large barrels that are periodically (but not dependably) filled by water trucks. Large parts of the metropolis and its environs are sinking because the Mexico City Aquifer has been emptied. This likely exacerbated the devastating earthquake that shook the city in September 2017.

The chinampas on which Juan Cervantes Fernandez grows his crops have been in his family for four generations. He has worked there his whole life—six days a week, ten or twelve hours a day—earning only 20,000 pesos (a little over $1,000) a year. “It is only enough to survive,” he says. “Only to eat, buy clothes and shoes.” This is how it is for all chinamperos: long days, little money, not enough water. And still they choose to stay. “The chinampas are land we got from our ancestors and have used for thousands of years,” says Casas Gonzalez. “We are dedicated to this land. My great-grandparents had this land. As parents, if our children do not know why they are here and where they come from, we will lose this. Our primary responsibility is to give this to the next generation, to give them information.” But not many in the next generation want to work on the chinampas. “My son is twenty-two years old,” says Daniél Lopez. “He does not want to work as a chinampero. He studies computer technology. I will pass the land to my daughters and if they do not want it, they will sell it.”

In 1987, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the chinampería as a World Heritage Site, calling it “the only reminder of traditional ground occupation in the lagoons of the Mexico City basin before the Spanish conquest.” In 2004 the chinampería was also designated as a Ramsar site (a wetland of international importance). Mexican politicians have often promised to rescue the chinampería, but, as Elizalde notes, “There is a contradiction between what politicians say and what they do. Yes, the conversations are pretty but in reality, they do nothing.”

 

Juan Cervantes Fernandez is collecting lirio, the common water hyacinth, which will be used to make compost.

There is another section of the chinampería that is far wilder than the one in San Gregorio. Leonardo Medina Jiménez agrees to take me there by canoe. As we get farther from Xochimilco’s urban center, the houses thin out and eventually disappear. Egrets and other birds stand on the banks or fly overhead. My guide points to the water. “It is much cleaner here,” he says. The air smells fresh. There’s no trace of the stench that comes off the water in San Gregorio.

On his land, Medina Jimenez raises axolotls (also called “ajolotes,” or Mexican salamanders). They used to be abundant in the canals but are now listed as critically endangered; it’s estimated there are between 700 and 1,200 left in the wild. According to an Aztec legend, a god named Xolotl transformed himself into an axolotl to avoid being sacrificed. “Axolotls are part of our culture,” says Medina Jimenez as he stands by several large barrels containing adults. Nearby is a barrel filled with egg sacs. He scoops up a handful to show me the larvae inside. Once they’re grown, he’ll place them in a large pool he’s built. He will also release some of them into the canals, but he’s cautious about this; he knows they face more than one threat there. As clean as the water may look and smell, there’s already evidence of pollution, and it’s likely to get worse soon. Then there are the non-native carp and tilapia that were introduced in the late 1990s; these feed on young axolotl and other native species in the canal.

Gisela Landázuri, a professor at the Metropolitan Autonomous University Xochimilco, has been studying the chinampería in San Gregorio for more than ten years. “Less land is being cultivated,” she says. “Technically, it could be possible to save the chinampería, but there are too many factors involved: the water extraction, the state of the land, the water pollution, urbanization. You have to start with cleaning the water.” Enrique Villanueva, the president of Patronato, a union of chinamperos, says that cleaning the water is at least theoretically possible. “First, we need to stop pumping waste into the canals. Then we need treatment plants. There are treatment plants that can clean the water. We just need the political will.” But that may be hard to come by, given the expense of such a project.

Very few women work in the chinampería. Angelina Gomez Muñoz, who’s seventy-seven years old, still does on occasion. She’s holding radishes she harvested. “Not everyone likes working in the chinampa, but I do.”

“We are the last generation to know how beautiful Xochimilco was,” says Sergio dos Santos, “that it was clean, that the environment was good.” All the chinamperos I speak with doubt that the chinampería can survive. “Ten years, maybe twenty, there won’t be any chinampería,” Elizalde tells me. Eric Serralde says that if the government doesn’t help, “in ten years, we will all die of hunger. We will not even be able to afford shoes.” What seems certain is that if nothing is done to change the current trend, people like Serralde will not be able to earn a living working on the chinampas.

For now at least, the future of the chinampería depends mostly on a few local individuals and organizations. Casas Gonzalez is a member of Hortalizas la Chicuarota, an organic farming cooperative. Fernando Coqui uses a water-purification system he developed himself, one that filters out heavy metals and other pollutants. He also grows his produce organically because, he says, “Our house is not where we live. Our house is everything around us.” A cooperative called Yolcan, which was co-founded by Lucio Usobiaga, has a community-supported agriculture program whose aim is not only to provide organic produce, but also to make urban residents familiar with the chinampería. The cooperatives are doing important work, but they won’t be able to save the area without help from the government. The forces arrayed against the chinampería are just too overwhelming to be met only with local efforts. The chinamperos did not get themselves into this trouble, and they won’t be able to get themselves out of it without help.

But that doesn’t mean they’re giving up. They still plant and harvest and hold the land dear. They’ll hang on as long as they can. As Elizalde explains what the area means to the people who live and work there, he says, “El terreno es parte de su carne, el agua es parte de su sangre.” The land is part of their flesh, the water is part of their blood.

Published in the September 2019 issue: 

Joseph Sorrentino is a freelance journalist and photographer currently based in Mexico City.

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