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Good InfoMexico's Floating Gardens Are an Ancient Wonder of Sustainable Farming

Mexico’s Floating Gardens Are an Ancient Wonder of Sustainable Farming

Waterline is an ongoing series of stories exploring the intersection of water, climate and food, told through the eyes of the people impacted by these issues. It is funded by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.

Standing amid rows of juicy, lime green lettuce and chunky florets of broccoli, Jose Paiz appears as if he could be the owner of a modern, high-tech farm. But the crops thriving here, in the suburbs of Mexico City, are part of a 1,000-year-old tradition.

“My ancestors were doing this before even the [Spanish] Conquistadors arrived in Mexico [in 1519],” says Paiz, while crouching down to pick up a handful of powdery soil from the chinampa, or “floating garden,” on which we are both standing.

These highly productive man-made island-farms, which can be found floating on lakes across the south of Mexico’s capital, date back to the time of the Aztecs or perhaps even earlier — and now proponents say that these ancient engineering wonders could provide an important, sustainable food source as the city faces historic drought.

Chinampero Jose Paiz stands among rows of greens.Chinampero Jose Paiz stands among rows of greens.
As a chinampero, Jose Paiz is carrying on a tradition that goes back centuries. Credit: Peter Yeung

“My grandparents taught me the methods,” adds Paiz, 32, who is the fifth generation of his family to be a chinampero working in San Gregorio Atlapulco, a traditional working-class neighborhood about 10 miles south of the center of Mexico City.

Experts say that these chinampas, which have been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, are considered one of the most productive agricultural systems in the world. The artificial islands are built by gathering large amounts of soil from the bottom of the lake and placing it on top of reeds, grasses and rushes in a mass that rises above the water. Farmers then plant a fence of ahuejotes, Mexican willow trees, around the plot to naturally protect against erosion. This system means that the chinampa’s soil is constantly enriched by nutrient-filled sediment flowing in from the surrounding ditches and canals, yielding multiple harvests every year.

An aerial view of chinampas, floating gardens, with trees growing at their edges.An aerial view of chinampas, floating gardens, with trees growing at their edges.
Ahuejotes, Mexican willow trees, are planted around the plots to protect against erosion. Credit: Peter Yeung

“In terms of agriculture, they are one of the best examples of how humans can work with nature,” says Lucio Usobiaga, founder of Arca Tierra, an organization providing local farmers in the area with technical and entrepreneurial support.

One of the first traces of the chinampas dates back to the 14th century, when the Aztecs arrived at the region of what is now modern-day Mexico City. There, they founded the settlement of Tenochtitlán — which would become one of the most powerful cities in all Mesoamerica — in the Valley of Mexico. 

But as the Aztecs soon discovered, the valley’s boggy, lake-filled landscape was difficult to cultivate or build on. So they devised an ingenious plan to adapt to the surroundings: the chinampas.

A 2013 paper by North Carolina State University professor Matthew Teti found that in the 16th century, chinampa farms could produce 13 times as much crop as dry-land farming in the same area — a system that provided food for hundreds of thousands of people. Chinampas, the study said, are “one of the most intensive and productive agricultural systems ever devised.”


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