MEXICO CITY – The canals of the Mexico City borough of Xochimilco and its chinampas (floating gardens), a legacy of the pre-Columbian era, exude a nostalgic serenity that reflects local authorities’ lack of support for this ancient form of agriculture.
“Ten years ago at this time (9 am), you’d see a lot of laborers working. Now it’s like a ghost town,” farmer Alfonso Sanchez said in an interview with EFE late last month while touring Xochimilco’s chinampas zone.
The 28-year-old Sanchez acknowledged that the chinampa farmer’s work is very traditional, requires effort and dedication and that “many area inhabitants are no longer interested in growing crops.”
Chinampas – small artificial islands made by driving wooden stakes into a lake bed and fastening them together with reeds – were used for centuries in Mesoamerica as rectangular plots for growing crops such as corn and squash.
The farming technique consists of dredging up lake-bottom mud and vegetation and using it to form a thin, highly fertile layer on top of a raised bed made of grass and other organic material.
That mud is then sliced into squares in which seeds are sown.
Francisco Bonilla Sevilla, a professor at the central state of Mexico’s University of the Environment, said the chinampas were “a true experiment in bioengineering carried out by the Aztecs and represented an important system of agriculture that fed a million people in the pre-Columbian era.”
Sanchez, who has followed in his grandparents’ footsteps in devoting himself to this farming technique, said the chinampas were highly productive and could be a viable business.
But he lamented that chinampa farmers receive little assistance from the government of Xochimilco, one of the 16 boroughs into which Mexico’s capital is divided.
He said many of Xochimilco’s delegates to the Mexico City government had never been seen in that borough.
“They aren’t farmers and haven’t worked there. They don’t know the needs of the community,” Sanchez added
Although civic associations support projects such as purchasing materials for cultivating vegetables and contacting restaurant owners to promote the sale of the chinampa farmers’ products, this form of agriculture is gradually fading into oblivion, he said.
“Some owners have already died; others are now elderly and no longer sow crops. And their children are dedicated to other activities,” Sanchez said.
Of the 20,000 existing chinampas, only 3,000 are still active, most of which are used for cattle grazing or recreational activities or as greenhouses.