Chinampa, fields and canals – San Gregorio, Mexico

I have been interested in chinampa agriculture for close to nine years. I was first introduced to the concept and practice in Panama, when I met Bruce Hill and began and apprenticeship with him working on a project which mimicked numerous design, construction, and management aspects of the chinampa system. I went on to study pre-Colombian history of chinampas in the Xochimilco/Chaleco lake basins in the central valley of Mexico and similar systems in Los Llanos de Moxos, in the Beni region of Bolivia. A significant portion of my senior thesis focused on this topic.

Recently, I visited Xochimilco, considered to be home to the most intact examples of chinampa agriculture.

It took me a while to locate the fields. After taking the tren ligero from Tasquena station in Mexico City, I got off at the last stop, Xochimilco, and flagged a bus bound for San Gregorio, 25 kilometers to the East. I decided to skip the better-known Xochimilco frequented by tourists and Mexican families. From what I had read, it didn’t sound like the first impression I wanted to give myself of what still remained from this once vast network of canals.

I had read that outside of Xochimilco there still existed chinampas farmed by chinamperos in a relatively traditional manner, despite ongoing problems with water shortages and pollution. The traffic to San Gregorio was horrible. After spending thirty minutes contemplating weather or not I could walk faster then the bus was moving, I decided to get off and walk the rest of the way. Entering San Gregorio I asked for directions a number of times, eventually making my way through a small, quiet neighborhood and finding the first canal. I crossed a bridge over the canal and began wandering.

The word “chinampa” is thought to have been derived from the Nauhatl words chinamitl, meaning “reed basket,” and pan, meaning “upon.” The etymology aptly describes the basic idea of chinampa construction, which was traditionally executed by way of piling bed-clay and mud from the lakes, aquatic plants, dry-crop silage, manure and silted muck upon one another in precise layers between paralleled reed fences anchored in the lake bottom. The material used in constructing the raised platforms is excavated so as to create narrow canals which divide elevated areas. The result was a highly ornate, intricate and accessible system.

Chinampa agriculture has represented a self-contained and self-sustaining system that has operated for centuries as one of the most intensive and productive ever devised by man” (Chapin: 9).  It has been generally concluded that the level of technology reached in agriculture during this time was rarely equaled anywhere else in the world at the time. The use of human labor, hydraulic technological sophistication and administrative complexity were correspondingly high (Parsons, 1991; Torres-Lima et al. 1994).

Note the beds, or fields, anchored in with Salix bomplandiana trees. Also note the flat bottom boat, specifically designed to navigate chinampa canals for human transportation, and to harvest and transport biomass used for fertilizer and agricultural goods.

Following this post I will upload more photos detailing additional features of the Chinampas. I will also post a research paper I wrote on the subject for my senior thesis, which goes into much greater detail about the history, design, and management of the Chinampas at Xochimilco.


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0 thoughts on “Chinampa, fields and canals – San Gregorio, Mexico

  1. Saw a bit about this really interesting and obviously incredibly innovative way of being able to create fertile gardens from what was originally water on a Monty Don show a while back. Can’t stand Monty Don, but the gardens that he shared (when he wasn’t talking about himself that is…) were absolutely amazing and went part way to explaining why we humans are at the top of the food chain. Pity we can’t seem to do it right…

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