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Riding a technicolor boat to traverse through floating farmland teeming with organic produce sounded like an activity fit for Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. But there was nothing particularly psychedelic about how I spent my morning in Xochimilco, 17 miles south of Mexico City. Growing produce using chinampas, (a form of agriculture that results in floating farmland), is actually an age-old approach that dates back to Aztec times and is now key to the sustainability of Mexico City’s food and heritage.
Xochimilco’s network of canals and artificial islands are one of a few reminders of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire that was built on an island in Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. The conquering Spaniards destroyed the city when they drained the lake and built the capital of New Spain, Mexico City, over the ruins of the pre-Hispanic city.
According to UNESCO, the urban sprawl of contemporary Mexico City’s metropolitan area has extended beyond the original capital and now fills nearly the whole valley, with very little remaining of the original canal infrastructure or chinampas except for what’s left in Xochimilco, originally a separate city. This is one reason UNESCO named the area a World Heritage Site in 1987; another is that the chinampas exemplify the pre-Hispanic population’s ability to thrive in a harsh environment by creating one of the world’s most productive and sustainable agricultural systems.
Though the chinampas continue to be threatened by new agricultural technology, groundwater extraction and more, food distributor and tour company De La Chinampa is part of a movement to bring awareness to the ecological reserve portion of Xochimilco. Currently, Xochimilco is split into three areas. The most popular is crowded with tourists and locals who congregate for boat rides, mariachi music, drinking and picnics. Then there’s a field that produces flowers using harmful conventional methods; and, finally, there’s the ecological reserve of Cuemenco, where I found myself one quiet morning.
We met Ricardo Rodriguez, owner of De La Chinampa, for a leisurely three-hour ride on a trajinera (colorful wooden boat) through the Parque Ecologico de Xochimilco canals. On these Mexican-style gondolas, Rodriguez told us his story over one of my favorite meals in Mexico City: a very simple assortment of cafe de olla (traditional Mexican coffee served in earthen clay pots), Oaxacan-style tamales, salad using the gorgeous produce from the chinampas, handmade tortilla chips, guacamole and cheese.
While feeding each other hulking pieces of bright lettuce, we learned that Rodriguez’s wife, a biologist, came to Xochimilco to study the Axolotl salamander, a critically endangered species that we would later get to see. Rodriguez began to befriend the local farmers and acted as a middleman, connecting farmers to consumers who were interested in better produce. This method of farming, as well as the associated distribution costs, are still more expensive than that of conventional farming, so chefs, some of the city’s best restaurants (such as Contramar, Anatol and Pujol) and wealthy, health-conscious locals became Rodriguez’s top customers.
In 2007, he also began to offer tours, which he leads about five times per month. The tours not only spread awareness about this part of Xochimilco, but also directly benefit the local community.
“Many families are involved,” Rodriguez said. “One makes the tamales, one grows the lettuce and tomatoes, one family owns the boat that we rent and the family producer we visit gets some money from our visit.”
Rodriguez estimates that there are about 1,000 farmers in Xochimilco, but that only a small amount of the available land is being used for farming.
“It’s important to rescue this area,” Rodriguez said. “If 5 percent of the land was used, Mexico City could be fed for 30 years.”
One thing’s for sure: The produce resulting from this ancient system thrives. We stopped the boat and toured one local farmer’s vibrant-green chinampa, which he told us follows the same methodology used by pre-Hispanic farmers. He showed us how mud is extracted from the bottom of the canals, laid to dry and then placed in small cubes with one crop’s seed. Once seedlings begin to sprout, they are planted in high-quality soil. No pesticides or chemicals are needed.
The chinampas also absorb Mexico City’s rainwater, helping with flooding. But protecting the chinampas is also a matter of identity.
“The people of the city don’t know Xochimilco,” Rodriguez said. “But it is part of our culture.”