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Cultivating the secrets of Aztec gardens.


PRE-COLUMBIAN MEXICO presented the European world with an untold bounty of new and sophisticated foods and flowers--maize, chiles, tomatoes and dahlias to name but a few. At the height of the Aztec Empire, the agricultural technology which made possible this productivity was most advanced in the central valley, a 3,000 square mile pancake-flat expanse containing five interconnected lakes. Remarkably, many of these ancient farming methods remain in use today and still have much to teach us about feeding more people while showing more respect for our environment. At a time when the twin requirements of ecological protection and agricultural growth are so often at odds, and as the number of the world's hungry continues to mount, we should listen closely to those who grow surplus food on farmlands they nurture as lovingly as their crops.

Population estimates of the Aztec's island-capital of Tenochtitlan in 1520 range up to 200,000 people, with twice that number in the immediate area and over one million in the entire valley. This population's density and size, larger than any conurbation yet known to man, inspired Spanish chronicler Bernal Diaz del Castillo's famous remarks upon first entering the valley, "And when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Tenochtitlan, we were amazed ... Indeed, some of our soldiers asked if it was not all a dream."

The agricultural practice most responsible for feeding such numbers is the chinampa system, a network of raised fields (camellones) on low man-made islands in the middle of lakes and marshes. These raised farming beds are not an Aztec invention. Earlier evidence is found in the nearby ancient city of Teotihuacan and among the lowland Maya, as well as in Suriname's swamps and Peru's Lake Titicaca. But it was under Aztec rule that they were most extensively built and intensively cultivated.

Chinampa is derived from the Nauhatl words chinamitl, meaning "reed basket," and pan, meaning "upon," which aptly describes their building method. Lake bed clays and muds, aquatic plants and dryland crop silage, and silted muck and manures were piled one upon another in precise layers between parallel reed fences stuck in the lake bottom. Long fingers of dry ground alternated with narrow canals, from which the chinampa muds and mucks were dredged, in a tightly laced configuration that resembled an endless water maze. Once the ground was raised to its proper height, fast-growing willow trees (ahuejotes) were planted at the banks' edges to control erosion, provide shade and firewood, and impede the flow of crop-damaging pests. Chinampa farmers became known as "chinampanecas," or simply as "chinamperos".

It is unclear how and why chinampas came to dominate the central valley. Some anthropologists see it as only logical that a farming system based on swamp reclamation and canalization should emerge in an area plagued by alternating flood and drought conditions. Others see chinampa agriculture as a conceptual breakthrough on a par with the Old World's invention of the wheel. Why have roads and wheeled carts when the chinampas created a network of canals through which cargo and passenger canoes easily navigated? What is known, however, is that after the fall of the pyramid-city of Teotihuacan in the eighth century, farming people were suddenly free to migrate throughout the valley. The fresh, spring--fed waters of the southern lakes Xochimilco and Chalco, teeming with waterfowl, fish, and the tasty salamander-like axolotl, offered an irresistible invitation. Xico Island was settled at this time and is one of the first places in the area to show signs of chinampa construction.

By the fourteenth century, chinampas were the basis for the growth of the independent tribe-ruled island states of Xochimilco, Chalco, Mixquic, and Cuitlahuac near the two lakes' southern shores. The Xochimilcans soon became the undisputed master chinampa builders; but being nearest the Aztec capital in adjoining Lake Texcoco, they were also the first to bow to them in a battle which is recounted in a bloodcurdling war annal. Chinampas covered some 20,000 hectares (45,000 acres) and in the two southern lakes. Lake Texcoco and the two smaller northern lakes, Zumpango and Xaltocan, were too heavily salinated and frequently flooded to warrant a major chinampa construction effort.

Earlier, however, after Tenochtitlan had been founded (in 1325) on an uninhabited swampy island, it was expanded atop chinampa-like housing platforms and eventually linked to the twin island of Tlatelolco. In the fifteenth century, the Aztec king Montezuma I and his vassal prince, the Texcocan poet-engineer Nezahualcoyotl, employed 20,000 men to build a ten mile stone dike ("albarradon de Nezahualcoyotl") across Lake Texcoco. This most advanced feat of engineering, complete with sluice gates and drawbridges, halted Tenochtitlan's flooding and lowered the lake's salinity. Its water could then be used for more intensive irrigation, and so chinampa crops ripened just steps from the central plaza. Nezahualcoyotl's experiments in hydraulic engineering did not stop with his dike. On Texcoco's steep hillsides, he combined the seemingly irreconcilable techniques of field terracing and chinampa canalization, using aqueducts to bring irrigation water from distant sources. This self-sufficient, naturally fortified farming system thus helped his city-state maintain its quasi-independence.

Once the Aztecs completed their subjugation of the southern chinampa zone, they forced these more peaceable tribes to sign treaties which read in part, "We will go and serve in your homes and furnish you labor and food for all your needs ... and wherever you go we will carry your loads. We will be your subjects forever." With these words the Aztecs took control of the chinampas, which quickly became the breadbasket to feed their armies. Xochimilcan and Chalcan forced labor was put to work expanding their chinampas to supply Tenochtitlan's burgeoning population. The fields were worked more intensively and around the calendar year. Many refinements in chinampa farming practice thus evolved under the Aztec fist. Necessity under these life-or-death circumstances was truly the mother of invention. But free trade between the southern lakes and Tenochtitlan also existed alongside these involuntary tributes and rent collections.

Chinamperos economized labor wherever possible in order to increase their overall productivity. The chinampas' low profile above water, their long and narrow layout between parallel canals, and their layering of specific soil types reduced the constant need for irrigation. The ground's capillary action sucked sufficient amounts of canal water up and over to the roots of crops cultivated on top. Nevertheless, the work was exceedingly labor intensive. Chinamperos spent their day fertilizing, transplanting, and tending plant nurseries. Their most common fertilizer was the compost of human waste and aquatic plants cleaned from the canals. Chiles were cultivated with bat guano, which was carried in by slave trains bearing baskets of the stuff from the caves of Morelos. Whenever maize was cultivated, ground hugging crops like beans and squash were planted between the rows. Intercropping (policultive) of this sort kept soil nutrients in balance. The root action and silage of these bushier plants returned to the earth the minerals consumed by the more demanding maize crop.

The greatest innovation was the use of seed germination beds and seedling nurseries (almacigas). These allowed chinamperos to concentrate care and attention on crops at their most delicate stage. The beds were laid out at the chinampa's edge and filled with the canal's rich and syrupy bottom muds, dredged up with a long handled pole basket known as the zoquimaitl. This luxuriant growth culture ensured germination and early vigor. When still slightly damp, the mud around each seedling was cut into small cubes (chapines) for transplanting whole. Weak seedlings were discarded, while some slow-growing crops were transplanted twice before maturing to harvest. Flowers such as cempoaxochitl (crow flower) were grown in their own beds, while root cubes of chiles were often sent off to be grown in the highlands.

The sixteenth century Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagun compiled an account of Aztec daily life from native informants, entitled "Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva Espana," which included an extraordinarily detailed list of chinampa-grown plants. In addition to those already mentioned were green tomato (jitomate), chia, amaranth, chayote, and chilacayote, as well as the edible herbs uauhzontli, quiltonil, and quelite cenizo--all cultivated with just one hand tool, the versatile broad-balded digging stick known as the "coa" and still widely used by modern chinamperos.

The pre-Columbian chinampas' productivity was astoundingly high even by today's standards. Estimated maize yields vary between three and five metric tons per hectare. And two crops could be harvested in the same year. Still today, chinampa harvests have been known to outweigh those from high-tech agricultural research stations. (In 1986 it was a chinampero from Mixquic who won his nation's annual maize growing contest.) The exact timing of transplanting allowed for the optimal and proper use of the chinampas. Fields were never left fallow, a fact we know from colonial farmers' almanacs. As soon as one crop was harvested, another set of seedlings were put in place. Scarce land was thus not tied up by long-cycle crops growing from seed. Up to four harvests a year on the same plot were often possible. During the fall/winter season, non-frost hardy plants were protected with mats (abrigos) of straw and woven cattails.

When Hernan Cortes and his Spanish army first entered the valley in 1519, he crossed the chinampa-lined causeway at Cuitlahuac and proceeded directly to Tenochtitlan. While preparing to beseige the island capital two years later, however, he took full control of these southern chinampas. In his letters to Charles V, Cortes called Cuitlahuac "the best looking small city we have seen," and noted Mixquic as "a small town, completely set upon water." The first Spaniards to write about chinampas in detail were responsible for launching the "floating garden" myth remaining to this day. Jose de Acosta, author of the "Historia Natural y Moral de las Indias," wrote that chinampas were towed from place to place like barges. Father Torquemada neglected to repeat this tall tale in his three volume "Monarquia Indiana," but even the clear-sighted geologist and naturalist Alexander von Humbolt was taken in by the floating chinampa story after seeing buoyant mats of water hyacinth the Spanish themselves had introduced.

Chinampero life survived the Conquest largely intact, due in most part to the Xochimilcans' and Chalcans' cultural hardiness. But the Spanish, being horsemen at heart, cared little for the hydrological talents of farmers and, just as they did to the irrigation designs of the Moors, they sabotaged the Aztec's finest water works in one way or another. In their most brazen act, they stole stones from Nezahualcoyotl's great dike in order to erect their colonial city upon Tenochtitlan's ruins. Not unexpectedly, terrible flooding returned and continued to haunt the city until well into this century. The Spaniards' answer to these floods, rather than simply to control the water as the Aztecs had done, was to eliminate it altogether through a series of grand but mostly ineffective drainage schemes. The chinampas might be emptied, they reasoned, but the lake bottoms themselves would make rich farmland. Little did they care that the lakes were mostly saline, or that storms of noxious ground salts, wind-whipped like dust off the drying beds, would soon rival flooding as Mexico City's worst natural scourge.

Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco, even though fed by underground springs, slowly began to shrink and their chinampas to die of thirst over the following centuries. The rivers supplementing Lake Chalco's fresh water supply--Amecameca, Tenango, and Tlalmanalco--were diverted, and was dry by 1900 except in times of heavy rain. Of more dire consequence for the ever shrinking chinampas was President Porfirio Diaz' decision to tap into Xochimilco's largest springs--beginning with Nativitas and by 1930 including La Noria, Acalpixca, and Tlaxiatemalco--in order to supply the fast growing city with drinking water. Lake Xochimilico gradually began to contract. In 1950, a year with little rain, the chinampas turned bone dry.

Chinampero protests finally convinced officials to act, but their answer was only to redirect semi-treated sewage water in through the Canal Nacional, which inadvertently collected untreated industrial and household wastes. Deteriorating water quality caused farmed acreage and crop diversity to shrink while water-born pathogens rose and soil productivity sank. By 1988, only half of the chinampas' remaining 2,300 hectares were actively farmed, and some twenty useful plant species had disappeared in just two decades. Also slowly sinking are the chinampas themselves, caused by pumping from deep-water wells to increase the city's water supply even further. The northern district today often floods while passenger boats in the chinampas' southern zone, now a major tourist attraction, scrape bottom.

The current situation is of grave concern to Jose Genovevo Perez, a chinampero in Xochimilco's Pueblo de San Luis Tlaxialtemalco and leader of a grassroots chinampa preservation campaign. "We still don't get enough water to keep the canals full, and the little we do get is still too dirty," he says. "I want my three sons to follow in my footsteps, to farm like my grandfathers did. But I worry that things are changing too fast for them." Jose is perhaps typical of the modern chinampero, caught between his traditions and the reality surrounding him. Some of his smaller plots have been consolidated for cultivation by tractor, which allows greater economies of scale but also destroys the soil characteristics making the chinampas unique. "But I also cultivate by hand and with draft animals where I can. That's still best." Jose is pleased that UNESCO declared Xochimilco a World Heritage Site in 1988, an honor which brings wider attention on the chinamperos' plight and spurred the government recently to launch the Ecological Rescue Plan. "But the chinampas are endangered, and we want everyone to know we've got to do more to save them," he adds. "Even our schoolbooks forget there are still chinamperos alive today. We're not history yet."

The person most responsible for alerting the outside world to the chinampas as an ecologically-sound farming model is a conservation-minded botanist named Arturo Gomez-Pompa. Gomez-Pompa first became involved almost twenty years ago through his work with the National Research Institute of Biotic Resources, or INIREB, based in Veracruz. As Gomez-Pompa saw it, the challenge was to modify and then transfer the chinampa system, long adapted to the climate and soils of Mexico's temperate highlands, to marginal sites in his country's tropical lowlands in order to increase food production while preserving the environment. This idea's feasibility was underscored by archeological evidence from Belize's Pulltrouser Swamp and the Yucatan's Candelaria Basin showing that the Mayans also had once farmed raised fields (camellones).

Chinamperos were brought to Veracruz and nearby Tabasco to assist in the construction of test plots in coastal swamps and lagoons. Modifications were made along the way, sometimes after painful trial and error, and some experiments were eventually abandoned. But others gradually took hold and attracted wide outside interest. The most successful of these are the raised fields of the Chontal Indians, located not far from Tabasco's capital. Today's thriving Chontal plots apply a modified chinampa technology to the Mayan forest garden system known as "pet kot", a small mixed-use area of fruit trees and food crops. Aquatic plants are composted as fertilizer, but there is little attention to the other standard chinampero practices of preparing and maintaining soil. Thus, even though Gomez-Pompa sees that chinampa building and farming techniques cannot be transferred wholesale from one place to another, he feels they do provide a model for reclaiming and using marginal areas in otherwise land-scarce regions.

But while chinampa-based agriculture might be ecologically and economically feasible elsewhere, questions remain about the future of the original plots. Are Xochimilco's chinampas simply a monument to Mexico's past, or are they still agriculturally appropriate for their time and place in a city of twenty million people? Given the nation's total food needs, some experts consider them as anachronistic as the tiny patches of corn still planted downtown. On the other hand, one recent estimate suggested they could potentially satisfy one quarter of Mexico City's demand for fresh vegetables.

With or without major public subsidy, and regardless of the alternative use of the land they still occupy, Xochimilco continues to serve as a living textbook of pre-Columbian agricultural science. And, with the help of dedicated chinamperos like Jose Genovevo and experts like Arturo Gomex-Pompa, we are finally learning to see the value of this ancient farmlore. Whenever today's chinamperos abandon their plots, this wisdom is irrevokably erased. Thus, if we mourn the loss of individual species of plants as the rainforest is cut, we must also mourn the loss of this collective knowledge of planting as the chinampas are drained.

Louis Werner is a freelance writer and independent producer/director of documentary films.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Organization of American States
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:the floating gardens of Xochimilco in Mexico
Author:Werner, Louis
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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