Felipe, las chinampas and policies for agroecology in Mexico City

Felipe is passionate about cleaning the water around his ‘chinampa’, his small plot of land surrounded by canals, as a first step to recovering life in the agroecosystem. The chinampas were floating beds made like a basket of reeds in which organic material was collected to generate soil and produce food in the middle of a lake. The ingenious pre-hispanic cropping system of the Chinampas in Xochimilco, south of Mexico City is under threat today. Now the beds no longer float, but are now plots of land separated by contaminated canals and are used for weekend parties and industrial flower production.  Mexico City is long overdue for agroecological policies that protect its agro-gems.   

To read this article in Spanish, click here.

Mexico is a country with enormous agrobiodiversity stemming from its varied ecosystems, diverse indigenous and peasant cultures that remain rooted in the land, and a rich culinary tradition equalled by few places in the world. It is the sheer wealth of agroecological knowledge and creative practices that keep the agriculture alive. Yet, agribusiness is powerful in Mexico which is embroiled in free trade agreements and rewarded for its capitalist trajectory by rising GDP over the past decade. Despite a paucity of policies supporting agroecology historically, the current government shows signs of investing in the health of its people and its land. In 2020 a national  law was passed that required labelling on industrial food to alert consumers of high fat or sugar content, and a residential decree was released that prohibits the planting of GM crops, and furthermore proclaimed a phasing out of glyphosate. The national government is making an effort to recognize and support agroecological initiatives through, for example, supporting farmers’ markets, and providing training to improve ecological production techniques. Measures and policies such as these have been, and continue to be, fought for by social movements around the country that have long taken action to cradle its agro-gems– Mexico´s unique agrobiodiversity, practices and traditions– and recover what has been lost, as well as pushing for policies and practices that keep social values at the centre of the wheel. Furthermore, these movements are now propelled by a growing number of young people demanding different ways of relating with each other that (re)connects them to their land and their food. 

MEET FELIPE AND THE CHINAMPAS TODAY

Felipe is a ‘chinampero’, a farmer of a chinampa, the name for the pre-hispanic system of cultivation in the lake that once surrounded Mexico City, in an area to the south of the metropolis called Xochimilco. Mexico City was built on top of an Aztec city situated on islands in the middle of the lake because of the protection that the water provided from invaders. The name ‘chinampa’ comes from the náhuatl word ‘chinampan’ which means a ‘basket of reeds’. The scarce soil in the volcanic landscape and the food needs of the population prompted prehispanic farmers, probably in the times of the Toltecs, to devise a way to build soil and make beds to plant on in the middle of the lake, where there was nothing but water. They wove  quick-growing reeds and other aquatic plants together into a sort of basket –hence the name–  into which organic matter accumulated. As many layers of this organic matter decomposed, the three sisters – corn, beans and squash – were planted into the beds. These beds, which were initially floating,  were constantly renovated by mud that would accumulate beneath them. Farmers would take the mud from below and add it to the top of the beds as new soil substrate, nutrients, and as a way to keep the water flowing beneath the beds to keep the roots of plants always in reach of sufficient water. 

Felipe on his chinampa

Today these beds no longer float– they are now plots of land separated by canals. The only way to access them is by boat. A competitive market and industrial agriculture have rendered the traditional cropping system a relic of the past, now attractive as a tourist attraction.  Despite being eaten away by urbanisation, Xochimilco remains the lungs of the city and the reason that Mexico City has a relatively mild year-round climate. However, salinization of the soil from the overuse of chemical fertilisers and water contamination due to the dumping of urban wastes from nearby industries into the canals is what is left of the flourishing, ingenious agricultural system that fed the city of Mexico for thousands of years.    

An iconic tourist boat called a ‘trajinera’ used to access Xochimilco. They were originally decorated with fresh flowers for festivities.
The landscape of Xochimilco and its canals today with the Trajinera in the background.

Today, most of the Chinampas are used as getaways from the bustling city– rented out for private parties. The few that are still used for agricultural purposes are industrially farmed to produce flowers for the Day of the Dead and Christmas, and even for some livestock production.  The runoff from pesticides, herbicides, fertiliser and excess manure from the unsustainable agricultural practices in the chinampas flows directly into the canals further aggravating the already contaminated water. The mud used traditionally to replenish the soil fertility is therefore also contaminated. 

Felipe and some other ‘chinamperos’ have returned to the chinampas to revive them.  Felipe had grown up on his family’s chinampa, but never learned how to plant in the traditional way from his grandparents. When, as an adult, he decided to return to his family land that had by then been intensively cultivated under a greenhouse by an uncle, he started by trying farming practices he had learned in other parts of Mexico. He then encountered old ‘chinamperos’ who could share with him how they managed the soil, water and pests. Felipe and some of his neighbours are now working to recover traditional varieties such as beans that climb trees, perennial cherry tomatoes, mini-cobs of purple maize and a diversity of pumpkins, as well as a local variety of marigolds.   

Felipe showing his marigold seeds
Miguel del Valle, a chinampero neighbour

WATER AS CENTRAL 

Unsurprisingly, one of his greatest concerns was the quality of the water.  Surrounded by water, only accessible by boat, the health of his soil and the food he produces depended on the quality of the water.  But strikingly, what he was most concerned about was the way in which the water was the centre of the ecosystem. If the water was healthy, the insects and aquatic micro-fauna would also return, balancing the food sources available for larger animals and amphibians such as the ajolote, an endemic species still only found in Xochimilco, a turtle endemic to the neighbourhood, and the migratory birds that welcomed a resting place on their long journey south, and then again on their way north.

But how can you clean the water that drains from a network of canals used for dumping wastes from one of the largest cities in the world?  Felipe was not intimidated. He started small by blocking off one of his secondary canals (apantle)  at both ends with volcanic rock to prevent exotic invasive fish from entering the habitat. He then dredged the canal by hand, digging out all the accumulation of mud and muck, and  planted species for water filtration  in different parts of the canal.  Today, in his 80 metres of secondary canal, he has achieved a water quality that brought a diversity of life back to his mini-ecosystem and is the envy of  the rest of the Xochimilco.    

Can you truly measure the value of a lettuce produced with a set of practices that brings the flora and fauna back into balance after a century of exploitation and abuse in monetary terms?  No, you can’t.  It is priceless. Pressures of urbanisation that result in changing land use place what is left of the ancient traditions in the chinampas at risk. Beyond the human losses that this would entail, many animal and plant species also depend on the respite of water and green spaces, and Xochimilco plays an important role in regulating the temperature for Mexico City. Losing it may mean that the temperature would rise in the valley and cause unpredictable consequences.

EDUCATION, AWARENESS RAISING AND DIRECT CONTACT

Relatively solitary in a colossal battle against the times, one of the strategies that these ‘chinamperos’ are using is to spread the word about the immense value of the natural and cultural heritage they are nursing back to health by providing space for exchange and learning. Felipe and his neighbours receive visitors to their chinampa who they teach about the innovative, pre-hispanic system of soil and water renovation. In doing so, they are raising awareness, especially among children, youth and university students, about how the city depends on the small area of Xochimilco for regulating temperature and rainfall. This also helps to convey important messages about eco-dependency in a city so large that it is all-too easy to live disconnected from the natural landscape around it. Little by little this educational approach teaches people about the importance of the Chinampa area for Mexico City, but this is not enough. 

Miguel del Valle, chinampero neighbour, teaching about the formation of the chinampas and their cropping system

Putting consumers in direct relationship with the producers on the Chinampas who are producing in an agroecological way can help support the continuation of these practices on the chinampas. Local government facilitated a space for a farmer’s market for products from xochimilco in the tourist area. There are other initiatives that attempt to bring produce from the chinampas to people’s dinner tables through online platforms, and markets such as El Mercado de las Cosas Verdes “Tianquiskilitl” (the market for all green things) but policies that facilitate the amplification of agroecology are well overdue in México.  

Vegetable production on the chinampas

POLICIES FOR AGROECOLOGY IN MEXICO CITY

In recent years, institutions such as FAO and some national governments, such as the previous government in Brazil and now Mexico, speak of agroecology. However, these discourses often focus only on the technical facet of agroecology, leaving social justice out. What is interesting is that Mexico’s new policies are grappling with just this – how to incorporate the social and political facets of agroecology into policy and new programs. New programs and actions designed to strengthen the agroecology movement entails not only training producers in production techniques but also the technicians needed to support them; developing learning communities to build networks and cooperatives; increasing opportunities for formal education in topics associated with agriculture and sustainability, as well as agroecology in rural schools and universities; investing in food sovereignty research; and, finally, designing and constructing a museum to honour maize as an important part of Mexican history and culture. While primarily focusing on agricultural production and ecology of cropping systems, these new programs are an important jumpstart to what could be a promising direction for Mexico.  It will be a challenge to incorporate the social justice components of agroecology into governmental policies and actions for agroecology so that agroecology represents a way of producing and eating that contributes to the social and environmental well-being of humans and non-humans – not simply becoming the new ‘organic’. Agroecology as a way of life is close to home for Mexican farmers, therefore hopefully practice can shape policy in practice. It remains to be seen how these policies will fare over time, and if they can form a  permanent fixture of the Mexican political landscape, unthreatened by changes in government.      

Returning to  Xochimilco, a number of challenges remain. The management of urban growth, water contamination, and the value the public gives to the priceless ecosystem and cultural heritage are among them. However, chinamperos like Felipe provide a beacon of light to lead the way, starting with the one that shines from the sparkle in his eyes when he talks about all the bugs and beasts that have moved back into the 80 metres of clean water next to his chinampa. 

Felipe proud of his clean canal 

This article was written by Jessica Milgroom, Associate Professor at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University in the UK and Eduardo Quintanar, Professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the Iberoamerican University in Mexico.

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