Floating Farm to Table

 Whitney Eulich

MEXICO CITY — CITYWIDE water outages. An air quality warning system that bans cars from the road. Traffic that chokes multilevel highways. If these are the things that make Mexico's capital a quintessential megacity, then here's one that sets it apart: more than 6,000 acres of United Nations-protected ancient farm land on the southern edge of the city.

While countries around the world struggle to "green" their urban jungles in the face of sprawl, Mexico's ancient system of floating islands, known as Chinampas, are increasingly portrayed as an at-risk asset vital for the city's future.

There's environmental value in the tree-covered Chinampas, which spread over more than seven times the area of New York City's Central Park. The waters and green space offer easy contact with nature, an antidote to greenhouse gases and perennial flooding and access to locally grown food. But they're increasingly under threat by illegal development, pollution and the city's growing population.

"Without the Chinampas, there's no Mexico City," says Alberto González Pozo, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and leading expert on the floating islands.

Ensuring the sustainability of Chinampas is something that will take collaboration with government, the private sector and the public. But for now dozens of locals are doing their part by teaming up with a nongovernmental organization working to preserve this endangered environmental asset one ancient farm at a time.

Restoring Mexico's Breadbasket

On a recent morning Noé Coquis Zaldivar, a fourth-generation farmer, steers a green wooden boat outfitted with two long benches through the glassy waterways of Xochimilco, one of the more well-known Chinampas zones.

Growing up, Coquis, 27, remembers using ancient farming techniques, like taking mud from the bottom of the canals to create small cubes of dirt to grow seedlings, a process known as el chapin. But his family introduced agrochemicals, and were essentially practicing monoculture because selling in bulk is what paid the bills.

"The reality is that locals lost interest," Coquis says of farming the land. For some, it's a belief that life is better working jobs indoors. Others have lost the ability to farm. Small canals dried up as the aquifer here was drained, making irrigating crops more challenging. The land is often abandoned, or rented out to soccer teams or as event space.

It wasn't always so. The Chinampas once served as Mexico City's breadbasket. An intricate series of canals and man-made islands connected farmland with the present-day city center long before the Aztecs and Spanish colonizers expanded the system.

But as urbanization kicked up in the mid-1900s, canals were drained to build roads and neighborhoods. The aquifer that feeds this southern part of the city has been overdrawn to quench the thirst of greater Mexico City, whose population of more than 21 million makes it the largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere. In the process, small canals that made farming a reality for thousands of years have been desiccated. The waters are polluted, and despite U.N. protection, regulations that ban the construction of dwellings on the Chinampas aren't strictly enforced. Nearly 17 percent of the islands in Xochimilco are now semi-urbanized, says Pozo.

Back to the Roots

In 2010, when Coquis first learned of Yolcan, an NGO focused on preserving the Chinampas and ancient farming practices, he was skeptical of their ability to make a change. But by 2012 he was helping co-founders Lucio Usobiaga and Antonio Murad with their efforts to encourage organic farming techniques and link small-scale farmers with a stable customer base in Mexico City. The group sells to top chefs and individuals subscribing to weekly boxes of fresh produce, and organizes upscale farm-to-table lunches on the lush Chinampas themselves.

The food grown by Yolcan farmers ends up on the tables of some of the swankiest restaurants in Mexico City – an increasingly hot spot for foodies.

"Forget about the very important produce part of it," says star chef Eduardo Garcia, who travels to the Chinampas at dawn regularly to pick out fresh ingredients for his menu that day, such as fennel, kale or pods of fava beans. "(Yolcan) is sharing a story of people working on sacred land. Teaching them they shouldn't live on it – they shouldn't pollute it. And that they should use it for what it was historically used for, which is farming."

Yolcan emphasizes crop diversity and rotation, and farmers are given free trainings on organic practices like creating natural concoctions to deter pests. The group believes farming the Chinampas will ensure that the land isn't abandoned, which can lead to informal communities and housing. And the more people working the land sustainably, the more advocates will call for clean water and environmental protection in the area.

"For us, the best way to preserve the Chinampas is to have people farming on them, and farming in such a way that doesn't harm the environment," Usobiaga says.

This perspective is in line with the growing academic field of agroecology, which can draw on indigenous farming traditions and crop rotation to encourage a healthier environment.

Farming can encourage land conservation when it moves away from single-crop production and a reliance on chemicals, says Ann Thrupp, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. "When a diversity of crops is integrated into an (ecosystem), the land is better balanced, sustainable and more resilient to climate change and other economic and environmental factors," she says.

Despite Yolcan's work to protect and promote the Chinampas, their efforts alone are just a small ripple of change. Out of thousands of acres of Chinampas, their work covers just 17.

Fortunately, several other groups are working to save the Chinampas as well, Pozo says. There are efforts to preserve the endangered axolotl salamander swimming in the canals, an artist collective that carries wooden boats down paved streets to draw attention to the consequences of draining and covering historic waterways, and other groups who work with local farmers, albeit with more of a tourism focus.

But "they all work in isolation," says Pozo. There's a need "to multiply this consciousnesses" – including in the minds of government officials.

In 2012, the Mexico City government created an office focused on cataloging the Chinampas in order to better protect them. But the government didn't prioritize the program, and the mapping has been put on hold.

Still, there's reason to be hopeful, Pozo says. In early July, Mexico City elected a mayor with a background in environmental engineering. Some believe her leadership could breathe fresh air into efforts, including protecting the floating islands.

Back on the Chinampas, Coquis is giving a small group of visitors a crash course in making chapines for seedlings. He's standing in front of a small rectangle where sprouts burst through the dirt in bright shades of maroon and green. Soon, they will be moved to the plant beds and cultivated.

"Now we have visitors … coming to learn from us and understand our history," Coquis says. "It makes me proud to be born in this beautiful place and to know we are working to make sure it doesn't go away."

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