Feature The Planet

Charting A Greener Future For Mexico’s Aztec Floating Gardens

Preserving the ecological and cultural treasures of Mexico City’s otherworldly Xochimilco canals. by Kimberlee Cordova

March 16, 2018

We arrive at Yolcan’s Chef Semillas restaurant floating on a shimmering canal rowing a humble trajinera, a flat-bottomed boat with improvised oars typical of Xochimilco’s marshy canals. Crunching into the abundance of Brazilian water lilies, we skitter onto the chinampa, a traditional “floating island” built by pre-Colombian civilizations who terraformed a home on the sprawling system of mountain lakes that would later transform into the Mexico City megalopolis.

Under the thatched palm roofs typical of palapas, a team led by chef Joaquin Cardoso — a rising star of the next generation of Mexico City culinary celebrities — sets out picnic tables and wine glasses. Cooks in matching uniforms spatchcock chickens over clay comal griddles. In the reeds, a woman snaps pictures of a mezcal bottle on her cell phone to post to Instagram.

Yolcan is a nonprofit agricultural project founded by Lucio Usobiaga and Antonio Murad in 2011. Their mission is to save Xochimilco’s chinampa system by promoting organic and sustainable chinampa-grown produce by connecting academics, farmers, chefs, and consumers.

The word “yolcan” is Nahuatl for “land of origin,” and that’s exactly what Usobiaga and Murad are trying to do: They want to return Xochimilco’s chinampas to the traditional system of organic and sustainable permaculture made possible by the unique ecosystem. To show off the potential of the chinampas, Yolcan is transformed into an eco-hip “pop-up” restaurant for today’s meal.

Yolcan’s head chinampero Noé Coquis (standing, far left), chef Joaquin Cardoso (in hat), with co-founder Lucio Usobiaga (standing, far right) and the rest of the team after their first Chefs Semilla event on their Chinampa del Sol. Photo by Mallika Vora/GOOD.

The otherworldly landscape of ahuejotes (willows), soaring white herons, and brightly-colored trajineras transporting whooping weekenders create a scene so beguiling that it’s easy to overlook the fact that Xochimilco is an area of social and ecological conflict on the brink of extinction. 

Both one of the poorer boroughs of Mexico City and a place of living history, it’s the last place in the city built on a lake where the water still flows. It’s also home to the last of the man-made islands that supported multiple pre-Hispanic kingdoms and communities established in and around the ancient lakes.

And soon it may be gone.

Yolcan hosted a pop-up lunch featuring locally-sourced food. Photo by Mallika Vora/GOOD.

Sowing corn, harvesting squats

Without ecological intervention, experts give Xochimilco roughly 30 years. The combination of contaminated water, the tilt of the city as it sinks, lack of interest from youth in a chinampero way of life, and urban growth are all slowly chipping away at the floating islands. In the last 30 years, Xochimilco has lost 20-25% of the preserved area to housing encroachment.

It’s an incendiary combination. Mexican law favors tenants and squatters, 90% of the remaining chinampas are abandoned, and politicians in these areas are looking to form voter blocs. Though the area is technically protected as a UNESCO world heritage site and as an ecological zone, corruption, and complacency make it easy to turn a blind eye in favor of votes. The phenomena of people arriving at the chinampas and secretly building illegal concrete structures under the cover of corn stalks have become a local axiom: “Siembran maiz y cosechan casas” (“They sow corn and they harvest houses”).

Beyond the land loss, these off-the-record urban settlements aren’t connected to sewage systems. Their untreated wastewater flows directly into the canals.

When they give Xochi only 30 years, they are forgetting about us.

Once fed by underground wells, rivers, and the former glacier on the Popocatepétl volcano, Xochimilco has been called “the Venice of the Americas.” Mexico City’s population has exploded over the years, provoking a need for water, which was met by the wells of Xochimilco.

But after decades of quenching the city’s thirst, Xochimilco is running dry. 50 years of extracting water from the underground aquifer have dried out the surface clay, causing cracks and sinkholes. In 2017, a 20-foot deep sinkhole created a whirlpool that drained one of the canals before workers could stop the flow of water with sandbags hours later.

The canals of Xochimilco are lush and colorful. Photo by Mallika Vora/GOOD.

Over the years, a series of well-intentioned but ill-advised programs to stimulate the local economy has further complicated an already troubled situation.

The Brazilian water lilies (also called water hyacinths) were introduced by the Porfirio Díaz administration to beautify the waterscapes; but the plants quickly clogged the waterways, rendering them unnavigable. The problem grew so dire that manatees were introduced to the area to eat the lilies, but a failure to communicate the program with the community led to the manatees’ mysterious disappearance. They were likely hunted by locals who either were feeling culinarily adventurous or under the impression that the gentle sea cows were monsters.

Rumors of the manatee barbecue still run rampant today.

The canals of Xochimilco are ancient and complex. Photo by Mallika Vora for GOOD.

A decade earlier, African tilapia and Asian carp were introduced to invigorate the local economy with commercial fishing. However, fish living in the fetid water are too contaminated for human consumption. They proliferate in the absence of natural predators, devouring both the larvae of young endemic species and the ahuejote tree roots that form the bases of chinampas. As a result, trees lean to the point of collapse, sending chinampas slouching back into the water.

Further complicating things, the weight of the city sinks unevenly into the dried-out soil as it reaches deeper and deeper into its aquifer. Xochimilco is tilted. In 2013, a lock was installed to prevent the water in one half of the area from running off into the other and to keep invasive species at bay. The problem is that the lock operators don’t always arrive and the people who work the chinampas have no way to get to their land.

Ehecatl Morales and Carlos Maravilla, co-founders of Plan Acalli. Photo by Mallika Vora/GOOD.

Plan Acalli

“When they only give Xochi 30 years, they are forgetting about us,” Carlos Maravilla says as we drift down the canals. Maravilla and Ehecatl Morales are the artist duo of the four-person Plan Acalli collective. Acalli, coming from the Nahuatl words for “water” and “house,” means “house on the water” (or “house of the water”). When he says, “They forget about us,” Maravilla’s referring to the work of a handful of independent projects like Plan Acalli and Yolcan who are fighting — one head of lettuce, one beetroot, and one milpa (maize field) at a time — to preserve Xochimilco and its traditions.

Like Yolcan, Plan Acalli is also structured around a chinampa where they grow organic vegetables in strict accordance with indigenous farming techniques. However, they operate under a completely different logic.

For Plan Acalli, the chinampa is both an artwork and an educational laboratory — a means of reconnecting with the living spirit of nature. Through workshops that include traditional farming practices and drawing in-situ, they use the chinampa to engage with Xochimilco’s history and community. They view conversation and community as essential.

Carlos Maravilla, co-founder of Plan Acalli, demonstrating an example of an exercise from his in-situ drawing class tracing lines in a planting bed on the collective’s chinampa. Photo by Mallika Vora/GOOD.

As an artist collective, Plan Acalli have gained notoriety for their award-winning performance, “Plan Acalote.” Over the course of three days, the duo dragged a one-ton trajinera 18.5 kilometers over land from Xochimilco to the Ex Teresa art museum near the Zócalo urban center in Mexico City. The route they walked with the heavy barge symbolically traced the path of the lost Huey Acalohtlia or Canal Nacional that connected Xochimilco to Tenochtitlan — the Aztec urban center that became Mexico City.

Today the waterway is a motorway.

Plan Acalli’s boat moving through the former Roldán canal in 2015, which is now a street in the Centro Histórico. Photo by Francisco de la Paz/Ruta 3000, used with permission.

Moving through the canals and talking with Maravilla and Morales, there is a sense of being grassroots comrades-in-arms. Each infrequent boat that passes greets us and has information to share. Serafín Zarraga Espinoza stops in his canoe for a visit. A civil servant working for the Xochimilco municipality, he’s dedicated to sustainable agriculture and even raises his own bees. He gives us some honey to sample and reports on the status of his hives.

A crew of basureros — the men who collect trash from the squats on the chinampas by canoe — warmly greet Morales. He supplies them with pulque, a pre-Hispanic beverage made of fermented maguey juice. Even Sandrino, an unusually social duck, swims out to greet and scold us.

There is a sense of having moved through time to arrive in a parallel world.

Javier del Valle waves from his canoe and shouts over his shoulder an invitation to his chinampa, Olintlalli. Del Valle’s father Don Miguel is one of the old chinamperos who taught Maravilla and Morales how to restore their island, a process that — due to the depleted condition of the abandoned soil — took more than a year.

We arrive to help del Valle with today’s harvest. Yanking fistfuls of arugula studded with apple-red ladybugs and measured by neon-yellow caterpillars from clods of yielding soil, he explains how the cosmology of Xochimilco governs the chinampero way of life. Their vision is holistic — the planting and the harvest are dictated by the phases of the moon. Plants that grow towards the sun are harvested when the moon is waxing, root vegetables when the moon is full. Shifts in the agricultural calendar are ritualized by celebrations every two months, and traditionally, five days a year are set aside to reflect on the crop and harvest.

Javier del Valle rows through the canals of Xochimilco to arrive at his father's chinampa, Olintlai. Photo by Mallika Vora/GOOD.

At Olintlai, there’s no separating the agricultural work from the cultural. They host workshops in traditional medicine, dance, and oral traditions. There’s no monoculture or agrochemicals here. Bursting with industrious insects, Olintlai’s fluffy plant beds, fastidiously fed and tended by Miguel and del Valle, reflect the aliveness of the soil and the chinampa’s applied philosophy.

Yet, as with so many small towns and common causes, friction abounds. “Ah, Yolcan,” sighs Miguel. “Reporters always come here. They photograph my chinampa — and what shows up in print? Yolcan.”

Guests arrive for the Chefs Semilla event on the Yolcan chinampa. Photo by Mallika Vora/GOOD.

El Chinampa del Sol

At Chinampa del Sol — named for a bed of lettuce planted in a radial sun pattern — the Yolcan lunch is getting started. A flock of chic urbanites steps off the boat onto the island. In chambray and sunglasses and flaunting accents of the well-to-do, their anticipation at the prospect of a day on the chinampa is palpable. They are welcomed with a selection of wine, tequila, and mezcal to sip during a brief tour and introduction to chinampa farming. Each moment and lettuce leaf is excitedly documented by enthusiastic Instragrammers.

We’re just down the canal from Plan Acalli, but we are a world away. With land in the state of Hidalgo and Estado de Mexico and five chinampas, Yolcan is a relative behemoth among the small chinamperos. Its position in the market illustrates how difficult it is for small-scale farming to achieve reliable direct-to-consumer channels. So much can go wrong: Bad weather can destroy crops, and consumers conditioned by supermarket factory-farm products aren’t used to the imperfect look of organic vegetables.

Even if the product is perfect, the consumer’s consistency is an issue. “The clients can take a vacation,” explains a Yolcan team member, “but the vegetables can’t.”

Guests look at the vegetables on the Yolcan chinampa. Photo by Mallika Vora/GOOD.

Yolcan has managed to solve these issues through strategic alliances with chefs at Mexico City’s top restaurants. This approach that has won them notoriety and caché among Mexico City’s socially-conscious hipster set. Early supporters include Enrique Olvera, Eduardo “Lalo” Garcia, and Gabriela Cámara — mean that Yolcan provides produce for Pujol, Máximo Bistrot, and Contramar, among others.

Yet they still struggle. “We’ve started doing events,” Usobiaga explains, “because it’s easier to sell an event than it is to nurture a vegetable for nine weeks and then sell it for 15 pesos,” or about $0.80 USD.

Yolcan’s media-savvy tactics reveal a contemporary logic that belies Usobiaga’s public relations background. Inviting rising star chefs and guests for a lunch on the chinampa is precisely the kind of high-profile flash that could raise the consciousness Xochimilco needs.

With a $70 USD price tag, the lunch is indisputably high-class. But Yolcan’s hope is not exactly about democratizing access to organic food: They’re looking to create a demand in Mexico for sustainable, traditionally grown produce and to prove to Xochimilco families that there is a market for their products at a fair and stable price.

Their intention is to incentivize more people to switch to organic farming on the chinampas in order to save them. With the objective to “educate, delight, and inspire,” their goal, like Plan Acalli’s, is to find Xochimilco’s future by looking to its past.

Guests study the vegetables on the Yolcan chinampa. Photo by Mallika Vora/GOOD

Fiestas and fireworks 

It’s no accident that Xochimilco has survived this long. 12.8 kilometers south of Mexico City, the people of Xochimilco — with their own culture, urban logic, and saltpeter works — have organized and mobilized resistance dating back to the Aztecs. Today, Xochimilco famously has more festivals than there are days in the year, but “fiesta” can also be another word for community organizing. “All those firecrackers you hear,” Morales explains, “ when they pointed out instead of up, are weapons.”

It’s unsurprising that, in a poor area, a farming project catering to affluence could ruffle some local feathers. But no one would invest seven years in an organic farm on protected land that can’t be privately owned and is accessible only by boat without being authentically and passionately motivated. In an area that already feels under siege by the ground itself and is suffering the marginalizing effects of intermingling colonialism and neoliberalism, new tactics need to be tested.

The battle to preserve Mexico City’s chinampa traditions has many fronts: ecological, geological, economic, social, and political.

The hope is that projects like Plan Acalli and Yolcan can in their own ways raise awareness of what’s at stake, prove that there is sustainable economic potential in the chinampas, and inspire the political will to save Xochimilco. 

Top and share image by Mallika Vora/GOOD. 

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Charting A Greener Future For Mexico’s Aztec Floating Gardens Preserving the ecological and cultural treasures of Mexico City’s otherworldly Xochimilco canals.