The chinampa, a thousand-year-old Mexican orchard, fights against extinction

The chinampa, a thousand-year-old Mexican orchard, fights against extinction

By Emilio Godoy

“There may be five or six harvests a year. Lettuce can grow in 30 days, ”this producer, president of the La Casa de la Chinampa cooperative, made up of six members and which operates within Xochimilco, one of the 16 territorial demarcations (equivalent to municipalities), tells IPS with enthusiasm. the capital's megalopolis.

The ejido (land of collective exploitation) in which Jiménez has his farm consists of 800 hectares, of which half houses chinampas, and where 800 owners live, mainly dedicated to the production of vegetables.

The chinampas system, a term that comes from “chinampi”, which in the Nahuatl indigenous language means “the place of the fertile land of flowers”, was already practiced by the native peoples long before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors in the 15th century.

The technique developed by the Aztecs is based on the construction of cultivation tables in the wetlands of the micro-region, by means of fences made of stakes of ahuejote (willow), a typical tree of this ecosystem and whose virtue is to support excess water.

The bottom of the chinampa is rich in mud and organic waste, which provide nutrients for the growth of plants, in their inland types, planted on the banks and watered with water from the canals, and from the lagoon, which grows on the water.

Thanks to this, vegetables and greens contain high nutritional levels, fixed by the interaction of the ecosystem.

The chinampera zone, the orchard that feeds the 21 million people of Mexico City and its metropolitan area, is preserved in the metropolitan demarcations of Milpa Alta, Tláhuac and Xochimilco.

The total area where the chinampas system is used is 750 hectares, cultivated by about 5,000 producers. The scheme is profitable for them, since about 80 tons of vegetables leave their fields every day.

For each lettuce they receive about 10 cents on the dollar, Jiménez calculated, while continuing to tend one of the rows of this plant on his property.

Vegetables like spinach, chard, radishes, parsley, coriander, cauliflower, celery, spearmint, chives, rosemary, lettuce, and purslane come from these floating gardens. This collage of leaves is the postcard that the visitor sees when entering the paths that intern him in a carpet segmented into planting rectangles and in the water arteries that feed them.

The system retains water, produces fish, vegetables, flowers and medicinal plants, is not exposed to drought, saves water, compared to traditional irrigation.

In addition, studies on chinampas indicate, it repels pests, they are more productive than conventional agricultural schemes and it allows the production of biomass. The modality is totally sustainable, as it maintains humidity in the area, which benefits the microbiotics of the soil, and regulates the microclimate of the area.

Ricardo Rodríguez, founder and director of the company De la Chinampa a la Mesa, devised a way to combine traditional production techniques and new technologies by marketing vegetables via social networks. Thus, it collects vegetables in the natural area of ​​Cuemanco, in Xochimilco, registers customers on its page, processes the purchase and delivers it at home.

“Demand is generated for them to continue sowing and have reasons to cultivate the land. That causes the chinampas to be restored. The market recognizes the value of the chinampería, they are beginning to recognize agricultural production, ”Rodríguez told IPS.

Rodríguez works with 22 chinamperos who harvest approximately 15 hectares and plant broccoli, spinach, beets and radish. The entrepreneur processes about eight orders a day, with an average weight of about eight kilograms, already has 450 registered customers and places the vegetables in organic stores and restaurants.

Xochimilco, inhabited by more than 415,000 people in about 125 square kilometers, belongs since 1987 to the World Natural and Cultural Heritage sites of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco).

In addition, its lake system has been part of the Convention Relative to Wetlands of International Importance since 2004, known as the Ramsar Convention, especially as a habitat for waterfowl.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) lists chinampas within the Ingenious Systems of the World Agricultural Heritage, as they conserve agrobiodiversity, adapt farmers to climate change, guarantee food security and fight poverty.

For Marco Covarrubias, coordinator of the Gastronomy Center of the private University of the Cloister of Sor Juana, based in Mexico City, its food value is very important.

“The advantages are that it is in permanent contact with the water that, unlike other systems, is not watered on top but is absorbed by the plants. The nutritional value is obtained from the fact that a good part of the chinampa is free of pesticides, insecticides or agrochemicals, a remarkable added value ”, he told IPS.

Irregular urbanization, the use of pesticides, climate change, the excessive exploitation of the aquifer and abandonment have driven their daggers into the bowels of the chinampa, indicates a study by the World Cultural and Natural Heritage Zone Authority (AZP) of Humanity in Xochimilco, Tláhuac and Milpa Alta.

The AZP, created in 2014, is responsible for managing the preservation of the special ecosystem in the area and thus maintaining the Unesco and Ramsar designations.

“Any rescue must take into account the producers and the cultural environment in which the chinampa develops. It is an unappreciated culture, the restoration plans are not fulfilled, ”said Jiménez.

His cooperative decided to convert two hectares of its land into a plot demonstrating the benefits of the modality for visitors.

In addition, on Monday 22 of this month, a dissemination program began in schools in the area that includes a virtual tour of the chinampas area. With public financing of about $ 6,400, they are committed to educating about 6,000 students from seven elementary and secondary schools in Xochimilco.

The environmental authority faces austerity to protect the region. If in 2015 it had a budget of $ 700,000, that amount fell this year to 400,000. Since 2013, AZP has supported 174 environmental and cultural improvement projects, but their impact on the chinampas is unknown.

In addition, in March 2014, the French Fund for the Global Environment donated 1.65 million dollars for the conservation of the area.

In its October 2014 report, "Rehabilitation of the chinampera network and the habitat of native species of Xochimilco", the Institute of Biology of the public National Autonomous University of Mexico suggested that restoration should be a priority due to its ecological, economic and Social.

For this reason, he recommended the promotion of the chinampa-refuge model, "since this represents multiple benefits for the improvement of water conditions at the same time that it promotes sustainable productive activities as a strategy to avoid the advance of the urban area."

“Greater attention is needed on the chinampas area, observing it as an area with very high production potential and creating a public policy that links the people who live in and from the chinampas and, from there, direct buyers can be concatenated. It is a good option to pay more attention to, ”said Covarrubias.

His university has organized the La Chinampería program since 2014, to link producers and buyers. In addition, this year it is executing another applied research plan to promote value chains, in which 15 Chinese producers participate.

"There is a lack of awareness programs so that the descendants begin to recover the chinampas, improve their cleaning system and recognize the producer," said Rodríguez, who organizes the "Tour-conscience" tours, to raise awareness about the role of the chinampas in safety food and the importance of small agriculture nearby.

The businessman wants to create a farmers market in Cuemanco, generate a designation of origin for Xochimilco, so that the commercial value of the production increases, and install a collection center.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez
Photo: A farmer transports through a canal in Xochimilco what he has just harvested in a chinampa crop, an ancestral system that takes advantage of the humid lands of municipalities in the metropolitan area of ​​Mexico City and provides vegetables to its population. But this Aztec technique is threatened by urbanism and pollution. Credit: Emilio Godoy / IPS

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