Chinampas: A Legacy from the Aztecs that Saved Mexico City from Starvation Amid the Pandemic

Centuries after the chinampas were neglected and abandoned, many people of Mexico City remembered this cultural legacy from their Aztec ancestors, which has helped to save millions of them from the food crisis caused by the Covid 19 pandemic.

Photo: YouTube/Andrew Millison

“No one else could find anything, but our canasta still came,” Rocio García told National Geographic. During the critical period of the Covid 19 pandemic, when lockdowns were imposed, a basket of agricultural produce from the chinampas in Xochimilco continued to be delivered to her home.

She now buys exclusively from chinamperos, with many Mexicans following suit, not only to save money but to answer their concerns about their health and the quality of the food they eat.

Ingenuity and Perseverance Were the Seeds of the Chinampas

Chinampas are artificial islands that the Xochimilco people built more than 1,000 years ago when they arrived in Mexico City, which was at that time a valley that was largely covered by five interconnected lakes.

Photo: YouTube/Andrew Millison

Wading into the lake, their leader Acatonallo discovered the nutrient-rich sediments just a few feet deep which would surely bring his people enormous agricultural benefits. He experimented with the sediments by forming layered cubes of soil, rocks, and willow branches. Then, he placed seeds into the cubes, which grew into very healthy plants.

And so, Acatonallo ordered his men to construct bigger versions of the sedimentary cubes throughout the area — artificial islands, each measuring a few hundred square yards with canals in between. They also planted the sides of the islands with willow trees to prevent slumping.

In addition to the artificial islands that they called chinampas, the Xochimilca people prepared seedlings in small cubes of lake sediments that came to be known as chapines.

Photo: YouTube/Andrew Millison

By the 14th century, the chinampas were supplying food to hundreds of thousands of residents and warriors in Tenochtitlan until the Spanish colonization.

But the chinampas remained productive for hundreds of years . . . even into the middle of the 20th century when Mexico along with the rest of the world shifted to industrial foods.

Chinamperos Find Their Rightful Place in a Hypermodern Mexican Society

Today, there are still people who till the chinampas in a similar manner to the way the islands were farmed more than a thousand years ago. But there are just a handful of them, like Miguel de Valle, who wants to continue the tradition and help strengthen Mexico’s food security while also nurturing the wetland’s precious ecosystem.

Photo: YouTube/Andrew Millison

“These techniques are already disappearing. But this is very effective,” said de Valle. “It’s the most local way of feeding people.”

Likewise, the chinampas support a wide variety of wildlife, like migratory birds and local fauna species, including the amazing axolotl. This amphibian is the only animal that stays “young” throughout its life and has the ability to regenerate damaged or lost limbs, including its heart, spinal cord, and even parts of its brain.

Unfortunately, out of the approximately 5,000 acres of chinampas, only 2.5% of the entire area is now devoted to traditional agriculture. Ninety percent were already abandoned, while other areas were converted into soccer fields, tourist spots, and urban centers.

Photo: YouTube/Andrew Millison

Still, some people who have decided to profit from idle chinampas are using modern, heavy machinery on the artificial islands, which compress the rich sediments, thereby depriving the soil of much-needed oxygen. Other farmers also resort to pesticides, unlike in the old days when the Aztecs used ground chilis to naturally repel insects.

But traditional chinamperos like de Valle and other chinampa proponents finally had their break during the pandemic. When the food supply chain suffered disruption and lockdowns were imposed, the residents of Mexico City turned to the chinamperos for sustenance.

Photo: YouTube/Andrew Millison

And yes, while pursuing traditional farming techniques, the chinamperos have also adapted to the modern times to be able to market their produce far and wide. They have learned to sell online, promote through social media pages, connect with customers through WhatsApp, and do delivery service.

The chinamperos now have hectic schedules, as they provide fresh, quality food to many households, restaurants, and other businesses in Mexico City. But, when going to their chinampas, farmers like de Valle still ride on a canoe across the vast wetland, reinvigorated by its serenity.

The historic place, a precious part of Mexico City’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, may indeed be able to endure hundreds of years more under the management of dedicated chinamperos.

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