“We could solve the subsistence problem ourselves without asking anything of the government...” says an owner of 12 chinampas. “If things continue like this the chinampa economy will have disappeared completely in 20 years.”
As twilight hits the southern edge of Mexico City, campesinos (peasant farmers) glide through narrow canals between pastures as they make their way over the water to deliver crates of produce. It’s January, the middle of the dry season, and through the slopes of the surrounding hills and volcanoes, desiccated lettuce and spinach fill the fields amid the lagoons of Xochimilco.
San Gregorio Atlapulco, in Mexico City’s Xochimilco municipality, is the last bastion of the once great chinampa economy. During Aztec times, it functioned as the motor for the sustenance of up to 1.5 million people in the Valley of Mexico. Tenochtitlan, the island capital of the Aztecs, is where the Mexica built their pyramids in the Lake of Texcoco. It was intimately integrated with a vast system of agricultural fields, called chinampas. These made up the aggro-industrial complex of what remains one of the world’s largest cities.
“We basically keep the fields producing all year. How [much we] harvest depends on what crops we put in,” says José Alfredo Camacho, a farmer from San Gregorio. “Spinach will take a month and half, radishes one month,” he adds, standing in a field with his brothers. “It depends on the crop rotation we decide on.”
Jaime Fernandez, stevedore in charge of loading produce from the boats onto a truck, has three days off per year: Christmas, Mexican Independence Day, and Day of the Dead. All year long, 80 tons of produce arrive daily to the four trucks waiting on the bank of the Pixcalli canal as if growing season never ends. “Chinampas can be a good business if you work at it,” José says.
San Gregorio is just 30 minutes away from the Central de Abastos, Mexico City’s giant wholesale market, making the freshness of its crops unbeatable. The chinamperos also try to schedule their harvests so that they will also be a little bit before the normal harvest season for whatever particular crop they are growing, thereby obtaining better prices. The typically 15-by-90-yard fields are exceedingly fertile and intensive agriculture has high yields. But profits are meager. According to Gustavo Camacho, owner of 12 chinampas, one normal size chinampa will yield a 32,000 peso ($1,700) annual profit.
Canals are used for transport and irrigation, so the fields are often only reachable by boat. The canals are constantly dredged and—along with the mud—chilacastle, similar to watercress, are dumped on to the fields. The chinampas are almost a closed-cycle ecosystem, held in place underwater by files of huejotes or Bondpland willows.
“The huejote is the only tree which can resist this much moisture,” says Gustavo, owner of 12 chinampas. “The roots keep the banks of the canals firm. To make a chinampa you first have to make an enclosure of branches and plant willow trees in the water. Then you fill the enclosure with mud and water lilies.” But, he adds, “nobody makes chinampas anymore.”
San Gregorio and neighboring San Luis Tlaxialtemalco are the last among the municipality’s 14 villages still maintaining an agricultural economy based on the chinampa technique. The land subsidence caused by exploitation of the aquifers by the megalopolis has tilted the plane of the wetland, causing the lower lying chinampas to flood and the canals in the higher areas to dry out. When the canals dry out the fields then rapidly become urbanized by the encroaching city.
“We could solve the subsistence problem ourselves without asking anything of the government by making a system of cascading dikes like the rice paddies of China, but that would require a communal effort which is difficult to organize,” says Gustavo. “Such a system of would cut some people off from their fields, which is why they disagree. But if things continue like this the chinampa economy will have disappeared completely in 20 years.”