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?”