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Fair trade to preserve a prehispanic farming technique

April 20, 2016
topic:Sustainable Agriculture
tags:#chinampas, #Mexiko, #Xochimilco, #Sustainable Agriculture, #prehispanic culture
by:Pablo Pérez Álvarez
A small company is helping the inhabitants on a group of artificial islands in Mexico which have survived since the Aztec Empire to maintain their declining farming activity by taking their products to the gourmet market in a fair trade initiative.

Xochimilco's status as a World Heritage Site from Unesco is under threat. One of the requirements to maintain this denomination is to preserve its traditional farming. This uses a distinctive technique to grow faster and in an organical way their products, inherited from prehispanic times.

The artificial islands, named ‘chinampas’ (meaning ‘Reeds bushes’), were created around 1,000 years ago by the Toltecs with an agricultural purpose and later were adopted by the native peoples of the Mexico Valley, where the Aztecs emerged. It’s well known in Mexico and around the world because of the touristic ‘trajineras’, the colorful boats that plow through its channels full of visitors and flowers.

But not many people know that it’s still used to produce food. In its almost 16,000 hectares there are still around 1,000 small farmers, who cultivate close to 12,000 hectares. The vast majority is floriculture, as traditional farming has been decreasing over the years. 

“Now only 2% of the chinampas is aimed to grow food. The rest are abandoned, as the descendants of the ‘chinamperos’ (chinampas’ farmers) don’t want to work there anymore”, says Ricardo Rodríguez, who created in 2007 Delachinampa company together with a group of friends with environmental concerns.

“Because of all the social, political and commercial problems that Xochimilco has gone through, chinamperos' sons don’t want to be farmers. They have seen their fathers suffering and emigrate or learn other professions and move away," he adds. Rodríguez blames on the “deficient marketing” for the ‘chianmpas’ production, as the farmers use to sell it exclusively in the Xochimilco district market. That “doesn’ allow the chinampero to prosper nor to be motivated to go on”.

Another problem, he points out, “has been the pollution existing in the area because of the housing development in several parts of Xochimilco”.

Rodríguez, the only Delachinampa founder remaining, buys the fruits, vegetables and dairy products to the local producers at a fair price and sells them door-to-door through a website and to gourmet food stores of the Mexican capital. “The producers say a prize and we don’t bargain for a better one, then we take that offer to the city people”.

Thus, the rest of Mexico City can access to the chinampas’ products, which are fresh and chemical-free and contribute to saving Xochimilco. “What we are doing is to generate a demand for this products, so the chinampas start to get back on their feet again”, indicates Rodríguez.

For some years, the company also provided some of the most prestigious restaurants of the town, as Pujol or Quintamil, listed among the best ones in Latin America. But he stopped doing it because they required a several days gap to pay for their orders, and a small company like Delachinampa couldn’t afford this.

Gerardo Torres is one of the farmers who work with Delachinampa. Aged 32, he is one of the few young people who still work as chinampero, a profession he inherited from his father, but he admits that nowadays “there are very few youngsters growing food in Xochimilco. Many of them have pastures for the cattle, but they don’t grow anymore”. That’s because the farming labor is a very hard work that in Mexico pays very low dividends. “The farmers are going to be lesser and lesser. It’s been hard for me too, as I have a career and sometimes you have to work from dawn till dusk to get something worthy. But if you work you’ll get some money”, he assures.

The partnership with Delachinampa is helping a group of around 30 Xochimilco farmers who are now collaborating with it to make more profitable their efforts. Torres used to sell all his production to Xochimilco market retailers, but very often he kept with part of it and delayed some days to get rid of the surplus. Now, “almost the whole production goes to Delachinampa, I sell it faster”, he explains.

Torres tells that the requirement asked for the company is that the products “must be free from pesticides, must be organic”. They don’t have the organic label, as to get the certification implies a long and expensive process, but they grow in a natural way, with a technique performed already by the Aztecs. This is based in the extraction of the mud from the bottom of the channels, let it dry and cut it in small dices, named ‘chapines’, where they plant the seeds. Thus, the silt serves as fertilizer and, besides, they clean the channels to avoid them became fill. “With this technique the seed grows faster, due to the moisture of the mud”, Torres affirms.

In addition to this, Delachinampa tries to generate social awareness about the importance to consume native products and to preserve Xochimilco chinampas. To get that, it offers tours for people to know how chinamperos work. It hires a trajinera and takes visitors through the channels to one of the islands used for farming. In the journey, they enjoy a lunch prepared with local products.

“Without the chinampas this part of the city would have pollution, water and poverty problems, as the chinamperos would lose their jobs and there would be even food problems”, Rodríguez alerts.

During the tour, the visitors learn about the weak balance that sustains Xochimilco. There, a short distance from Mexico City's hellish traffic, one can spot herons, pelicans emigrated from Canada and some endemic species, like the ‘acociles’ (a genus of crayfish) or ajolote, an amphibian who helps to keep the channels clean by eating the parasites. This animal, the symbol of Xochimilo, is seriously endangered and has raised the interest of the scientists because of its surprisingly capacity to regenerate parts of its body, including the brain.

“They come to know the area, they participate in a demonstration about the chinampa’s farming, become aware of it thanks to a more tangible, vivid and comprehensive experience. So, when they leave, they can explain to others and that’s what helps to preserve all this”, argues Rodríguez.

Article written by:
pablo perez
Pablo Pérez Álvarez
Many problems jeopardize Xochimilco as a World Heritage Site by the Unesco. One of the requirements to maintain this denomination is to preserve its traditional farming.
“Because of all the social, political and commercial problems that Xochimilco has gone through, chinamperos sons don’t want to be farmers any more."
Another problem, he points out, “has been the pollution existing in the area because of the housing development in several parts of Xochimilco”.
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