The village of San Gregorio Atlapulco is one of the only remaining communities that farms in the Aztec agricultural tradition. Located in Mexico City’s Xochimilco municipality, San Gregorio Atlapulco is home to vast fields known as chinampas, small islands which are connected by canals used for irrigation and transportation. Farmers cruise on boats through canals between fields to plant, cultivate, and harvest. Tenochtitlan, the Aztec island capital located in the middle of the Lake of Texcoco, was once fed by an integrated, complex system of chinampas. Though the Lake of Texcoco was drained and Tenochtitlan became Mexico City, echoes of Mexico‘s agricultural past still exist, though they remain under threat.
The region’s altitude, consistent sunlight, and abundant water makes for an ideal all-year growing environment. “We basically keep the fields producing all year. How [much we] harvest depends on what crops we put in,” José Alfredo Camacho, a farmer from San Gregorio, told CityLab. “Spinach will take a month and half, radishes one month. It depends on the crop rotation we decide on.” Chinampas are created with help from the huejote tree. “The huejote is the only tree which can resist this much moisture,” Gustavo Camacho told CityLab. “The roots keep the banks of the canals firm. To make a chinampa you first have to make an enclosure of branches and plant willow trees in the water. Then you fill the enclosure with mud and water lilies.”
While chinampas are fertile and bountiful, they are not especially profitable. “Nobody makes chinampas anymore,” said Camacho. As the ground beneath Mexico City has warped under the exploitation of underlying aquifers, low-laying chinampas have flooded while highland chinampas have dried out. Though the situation is not hopeless, change would require compromise. “We could solve the subsistence problem ourselves without asking anything of the government by making a system of cascading dikes like the rice paddies of China, but that would require a communal effort which is difficult to organize,” said Camacho. “Such a system of would cut some people off from their fields, which is why they disagree. But if things continue like this the chinampa economy will have disappeared completely in 20 years.”