Weaves in the water: agroecology of wetlands in Mexico Tenochtitlan

The following interview presents the word David Jimenez, member of the cooperative La casa de la chinampa (The house of the chinampa) in a dialogue with Sari Dennise, as part of Comeflores, active research on vegetarian cuisine, conviviality, food, health, agroecology, solidarity economies, memory, and territory defense.

David is native and resident of San Gregorio Atlapulco, a town of Xochimilco, in the lake zone of Mexico City. With 270 hectares of chinampería, San Gregorio is an area of historical, ecological and social high importance. By transiting through its channels we can retrieve from the collective memory the remembrance of this city as a lake system: in these territories, there were at least five lakes: Texcoco, Xochimilco, Chalco, Xaltocan and Zumpango. Between 1607 and 1900, efforts to dry them were a substantial component of the city administration. Today, the members of the cooperative "La casa de la chinampa" are part of those making multiple efforts to prevent the complete drying of the lake, in order to keep this heritage alive. To do this they are seeking to spread and protect the ancient agroecological practices through traditional crops, participation in networks of solidarity economy, educational programs for children, dissemination of regional knowledge and history, as well as complaints and joints before the plundering of resources. 


San Gregorio is different from other villages because they preserve traditional agriculture.

What it is a chinampa and what is its importance in the territorial history of Mexico City?

The origin of chinampa comes from the first tribes who arrived in Mexico City. They began to compost the vegetation that existed at the edge of lakes. Vegetation layers were placed in the lower parts of these banks, tied each other. The word chinampa means chinamitl [the Nahuatl voice chinamitl for branches fabric], which is like a weaved fence, like a braid.

chinampas_baja-16[1] Huejote or ahuejote (Salix bonplandiana) is a species of tree native of central and southern Mexico and Guatemala, which supports large amounts of moisture without consuming it, besides it is very thin, so it serves to support the chinampas and make windbreak function without removing too much light to crops.

Huejotes [1], a kind of willow that resists being planted in the water, were planted in these first chinampas in order to maintain them together. The growing roots of these trees form a net that impedes the falling apart of the edge of the chinampa. It was a task that took hundreds of years and resulted, in the heyday of chinampería, in approximately 12 thousand hectares of chinampas in plain operation. It was the area of greatest productivity throughout Mesoamerica –according to all the authors. Obviously, it was the basis of power and enormous strength of the Aztec empire –the last in enjoying the splendor of the chinampa– as it had enough food for all its people.

Now, despite it has been destroyed, and despite urban sprawl has been advancing on it increasingly, the currently chinampería gives many benefits and gifts to Mexico City. One of them is the relative humidity generated. This area still generates a lot of humidity that prevents Mexico City overheating or the formation of pronounced heat islands. It is still a haven for birds, both local and, incidentally, migrant and native birds. Here at San Gregorio we can count about 170 species of native and migrant birds. The area is under two international statements: it has been declared as World Heritage for its traditional agriculture, and as a 1363 Ramsar Site for wetland protection. Although all these declarations have unfortunately been nothing but paper: the protection of the area has not been given, nor the dissemination of cultural and biological wealth. Year by year the deterioration of the area has been increasing. However, we have calculated that the chinampera area produces about 80 tons of vegetables every day and 90-95% of these vegetables goes to the Central Market for marketing [3].

[2] The statement of Unesco (1987) recognizes the canals and chinampas of Tenochtitlan as an exceptional agricultural system, «one of the most productive and sustainable in the world agricultural systems» and an example of human creativity to build the habitat in hostile environments. Xochimilco is declared intangible heritage of humanity for being the only chinampera lake area that lasts centuries after the conquest of Mexico and the subsequent drying of the system of lakes by the conquerors. It also notes how the chinampas agroecology continues to defend itself from various threats: «introduction of new agricultural technology, excessive extraction of groundwater in the area, abandonment, development pressures and pollution». The Ramsar Declaration(2004), meanwhile, was assigned to the lake system «Ejidos of Xochimilco and San Gregorio Atlapulco»,  and notes the importance of protecting their aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity from the threat urban growth of Mexico City, as well as from pollution, sedimentation, salinization and invasive species. The Ramsar Declaration also emphasizes that the site is home to the axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) and many other endemic species, trees, flowers, herbs, reptiles, amphibians and birds. 

What do you cultivate and what does it mean ‘traditional agriculture’?

The great most of producers grow lettuces: Roman, French, Italian, Romaine, etc. Other crops are feasible, but they privilege lettuces because that is what the markets demand. In fact, in the 70s and 80s, according to statistics from the Central Market, San Gregorio was the first producer of lettuce nationwide.

Here in San Gregorio we practice the traditional chinampas agriculture, we practice the original way. What is this? Well, we almost do not use mechanization in the area, we can draw huge harvests practicing traditional knowledge. First, the fallow [removing of land] of the chinampa, for which only a simple hoe is required. Then we do the seedlings [germinating seeds], for which we require a canoe, a net to remove the mud from the bottom of the channels, a knife and maybe a piece of plastic or some dry grass. It’s amazing that there are no big needs to produce huge harvests in a chinampa.

Currently, large companies are looking to introduce motorized ploughs, pumps or more technified elements, but the costs are very expensive [inaccessible] to producers. For example, we have seen that the performance of motorized ploughs is really inappropriate. When a chinampa has left fallow with a motorized plough, after the second or third crop it only gives a low production because the soil cannot be mixed plainly, it can not be well aired, which is achieved with the hoe itself. So these «advances» of technology have not been successful here. Well, fortunately, in San Gregorio we are still working with fresh-air agriculture with minimal inputs and technology.

[3] The Central Market of Mexico City has been defined as «the largest market in Latin America.» In 2010, the government of Mexico City compared its economic importance with the Mexican Stock Exchange, since it is the only body that exceeds it in business operations. This large market is the main center of purchase and resale of food products in the city. It is estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 people visit it daily (mainly intermediaries who go there to stock up) and that 30% of the national production of fruit and vegetables is marketed in this space. For all these reasons, the Central Market acts as a regulator of market prices (whose movement usually benefits intermediaries), directly impacts the precariousness of farmers and raise prices for the end consumer. 

Why did you decide to organize as a cooperative?

We are a cooperative that was born from the need of spreading this kind of knowledge and marketing our products. The idea of creating comes from a lot of enthusiastic persons trying to follow the traditions and footsteps of our ancestors, but also from the perception that our children, little children, and young people, did not know the chinampa and in the coming years intergenerational transmission is not going to happen. Those were the reasons to create the «La casa de la chinampa» cooperative. The first idea was to spread our knowledge in all areas. We wanted to disseminate what we knew with the intention that, at some point, children could do this generational change, on the understanding that no one can love, care and defend something that does not know well.

Some of the members of the cooperative know each other from childhood. We have great bonding and, well, we are also neighbors and know the problems of our neighborhood. So we thought that forming a cooperative was the best option. Besides, in a second instance, this organization figure makes easier the marketing of our products.

We are four women and six men living in different places along and breadth of San Gregorio. Sometimes, when somebody has no production, the other provides it to her/him. That is to say, we support each other. We have not tried to make bigger the cooperative because we have not had given conditions. We have not found a constant marketing channel to make it bigger, and therefore dissemination has been difficult. We have not found the right spaces or methodologies to find those channels. And we have tried everywhere, but we have not received a good response from authorities or private companies.


Urbanization, development projects, pollution, theft of natural resources and the colonization of the imaginary threaten the region.

From what are you defending the territory?

We used to have the romantic idea of «rescuing» the area, but —unfortunately— we had to switch it to the idea of «preserving» the little we have now. The main idea is to preserve the chinampa architecture and ancient knowledge.

chinampas_baja-68[4] Greenhouses were designed in cold countries to enable crops that otherwise would only be possible in warm ecosystems. The introduction of greenhouses in Xochimilco is not only unnecessary and absurd but is a threat to the preservation and reproduction of chinampero traditional methods that, by themselves, are highly productive and suitable to the region.

Then, the objectives of defending the territory are: the spreading of knowledge and trying to raise awareness among fellows —because we have to start with ourselves— that setting greenhouses is not a good option; that making stakes on the shore of the chinampas either, because they destroy the original architecture of the chinampa; becoming more technical has no sense if we already have a highly productive system. You can not technify expecting more productivity if the existent system is one of the highest worldwide. We believe that it is insane to technify with the excuse of productivity.

The threats in the territory are huge: urban sprawl, the drying of the area by the extraction from aquifers since thirty or forty years ago. And, above all, the colonization of imagination. The chinampero is currently seen on the social scale down as a street sweeper. So, these social issues also make the area more vulnerable.

What we have here is also a social phenomenon. Like I told you before, 70% of the people who are working with chinampas is not people from this town. The reason is the same: people have been undervaluing chinampería in their imaginary. People prefer their children to go elsewhere and not to work in the chinampa. Then, when operating with workers, people who are not from this town, or that rent it out or have only a half part of a chinampa… They are not interested much in their conservation, because they say «if the case if there is no water, I prefer to go away». There is no attachment to chinampa. They work it because it’s business, but that’s all.

[5] Mistletoe (Viscum album) is a parasitic plant that grows on trees and kills them. To prevent its advance prunings were organized before, but the breakdown of the social tissue has also diluted such activities.

We also have a lot of mistletoe that is killing the huejotes. For authorities and political parties saving chinampería is not business. They seek national and international resources but only to keep it dying, in a serious condition, saying «this is going to end, this is going to die».

The ZODES wave is coming [6]. The wave of megaprojects is coming to us, and we are not an exception, although we have the protection of the legal status of Protected Natural Area. Those waves will indirectly or directly hit us. For example, “The City of Health» thought to be set in Tlalpan would be a major consumer of water. All hospitals are large water consumers, more than a housing unit, and that will contribute to dehydration, to a greater drying of this entire southern area.

[6] The creation of ZODES (Zones of Economic and Social Development) is a proposal by the government of Mexico City, headed by Miguel Ángel Mancera. The objective of the same has been widely questioned by various sectors and social organizations who have denounced an initiative of dispossession and privatization that benefits only the privileged business classes. The impacts and effects of ZODES will be devastating in the social and environmental level. They range from the promotion of «gentrification» of neighborhoods, the expulsion of the popular classes and privatization of public spaces, to specific environmental damages, such as the drying up of springs and destruction of green areas.

What are the agroecological peculiarities of the chinampas?

There has been and, indeed, there is great wealth not well known here. For example, the microfauna helped to compost all this organic matter. Just try to imagine the madness it had to be to build 12 thousand hectares of chinampas! They are millions and millions of cubic meters of compost. And it had not been very clear to us, but apparently there is a bacteria —incidentally, it has been patented already by some gringos— who helped to make this compost. There have not been adequate studies of the microfauna that exists in the chinampas, but it is evident in the results, that is to say, in the productions, that there is a difference in taste, in texture. There is much difference between a production of the chinampas and another that comes from any other state of the country. Here we have criollas seeds of chicuarote chile, coriander, parsley, purslane and, possibly, of one or two types of corn. The seed of all lettuce comes from Canada.

[7] As is well known by chefs and cooks, taste and texture of vegetables vary according to its minerals, fiber, water, etc. These characteristics vary due to forms of culture, land, the environment in which they grow and many others factors. The traditional way of chinampa cultivation meets many principles of permaculture long before the term (1978) was coined. Germination land comes from the bottom of the channels in what they themselves call a «natural compost,» without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

Which is the importance of links and bridges with others?

For us, dissemination is a matter of life or death here. Why? Because the government’s strategy —and not only with us, but with almost all social movements or areas where they want to modify land use and, to some extent, to plunder it— is isolating us from the entire city. The vast majority of the population of the Valley of Mexico, not to mention the country, ignores the ancestral cultural wealth that we have. If we can not get people to understand it, we are lost. Because there will be nobody, at some point, to collaborate with us to make a more appropriate defense of the territory.

I would say that rather than marketing dissemination is more important to us. At a certain moment we will need political muscle, a lot of people saying «Yes, I am in favor of the chinampa, I do defend the chinampas«, and no matter if she/he lives at Coyoacan, Vallejo or Indios Verdes, because we will all be affected if this area becomes destroyed.

Have you generated trading alternatives?

One of the main activities we did when the cooperative was founded was marketing the products, but there we have two major problems. First, Mexicans are not used to eat vegetables, they eat badly; most of them eat really bad. You can see children like ants coming and going to shops with their Coca-cola in their hands. So, when we try to sell the high-quality products we grow, the problem is that people are not used to eating vegetables.

That’s a very difficult barrier to cross because it is very difficult to change the eating habits of people. We made many attempts to commercialize the vegetables, but we always have encountered this problem, people almost do not eat vegetables, they are very interested in eating everything except vegetables.

Then, rethinking a little our strategy, we found an alternative: to sell them to condominiums; to groups of people closer to the producers; to direct consumers but in groups. But even so, we have not had a reasonable or acceptable sale, because people are not used to eating vegetables.

So we decided to do more social work. Trying to convince people of the benefits of the vegetables, but not adults, because adults are very difficult to change their eating habits. So we started to work with children, within the program «The chinampa goes to your school». Besides showing all this knowledge, we share Eco-techniques with them. They are taught to reuse PET to have a pot, to have coriander, parsley, even lettuce or some kind of vegetable, without the need of having a large space in their home spaces. They can grow them in a window, on a ladder, and so on.

Then, much to our regret, what has been done is sending our production to the Central Market and trying to change these eating habits, indirectly, through exhibitions and trying to achieve some alternative marketing strategy as we continue to educate on the benefits of eating healthy.

This interview and pictures were made by Sari Dennise as part of active research around nourishment, agroecology and territory defense. For more information, you can write to sari(a)chinampacalli.org