Apr 052014

How are bananas grown commercially?

Banana plants (their lack of a central woody stem means they are plants, not trees) can grow to heights of 10 meters (30 ft), with leaves up to 4 meters (12 ft) in length. Banana plants grown commercially are usually much lower in height for ease of management and to limit wind damage.

Each individual plant produces a single stem. Each stem contains six to nine clusters of bananas (“hands”), each with 10 to 20 individual bananas (“fingers”). Commercial banana stems each produce six or seven hands with 150 to 200 bananas. Each stem weights between 20 and 50 kg.

A typical banana plant grows to a size with harvestable fruit in nine to 18 months. Harvesting bananas is often done by workers in pairs, with one cutting the fruit off the stem and the other catching the bananas to prevent them striking the ground and being damaged.

After the fruit is harvested, the stalk dies or is cut down. In its place one of more “daughter” (or “ratoon”) plants will sprout from the same underground rhizome that produced the mother plant. These shoots are genetic clones of the parent plant.

Banana plants require rich soil, nine to 12 months of sunshine and frequent heavy rains (2000-4000 mm/yr), generally more than can be provided by irrigation. Bananas are either spayed with pesticides or wrapped in plastic for protection from insects. Wrapping the fruit also reduces the bruising caused by friction with leaves in windy conditions.

Bananas are easily bruised and damaged in transit, but can be picked green (unripe) and ripened quickly at destination. They are generally picked and packed on or close to the plantation.

Commercial plantations of bananas often use very large areas of land, with 2000-2400 plants/hectare. Good access to transportation routes (roads or railways) is essential in order to avoid damage after packaging. Banana cultivation is very labor intensive. Banana plants are often used as shade for crops such as cacao or coffee.

Banana packing plant. Credit: Sagarpa.

Banana packing plant. Credit: Sagarpa.

Challenges for the commercial cultivation of bananas

Weather and climatic hazards

Banana plants can easily be damaged by strong wind and entire plantations can be destroyed by tropical storms and hurricanes.


Bananas are susceptible to a wide variety of pests and diseases. For example, Panama disease (aka Black Wilt), an infection in the soil, ravaged banana plantations throughout the Caribbean and Central American in the 1950s, virtually wiping out the Gros Michel variety cultivated at that time. The more fragile Cavendish bananas proved resistant, though they required more specialist packing. A new strain of Panama disease (Tropical race 4) capable of killing Cavendish bananas has emerged in Asia, but has yet to reach Latin

Fungal diseases such as black sigatoka are one of the current major issues faced by banana producers. To combat black sigatoka, plantations may be aerially sprayed with pesticides from helicopters. Black sigatoka has already reduced banana yields in some parts of the world by up to 50%. Fighting this disease apparently now accounts for about 30% of Chiquita’s costs.

Commercial bananas have limited genetic variability and limited resistance to disease. This has led some experts to argue that fungal diseases may wipe out commercial banana plantations permanently, though the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) disagrees. The FAO argues that export varieties of bananas make up only about 10% of the total world banana crop, and that considerable genetic diversity remains in the plants grown for local consumption by small-scale farmers in developing countries.

Pesticide applications and pollution

Numerous studies have suggested that commercial banana production is often accompanied by high levels of pollution, both of the soil and of water courses. For example, the authors of “Soil and Water Pollution in a Banana Production Region in Tropical Mexico” studied an area of 10,450 hectares in Tabasco where the “agricultural activities are primarily banana production and agro forestry plantations (Spanish cedar and bananas).”

The area had been sprayed weekly with the pesticide Mancozeb for a decade at an application rate of 2.5 kg/ha/week. The study monitored soil, surface, subsurface and groundwater pollution. It found that there was a “severe” accumulation of manganese in the soil, while surface and subsurface water was “highly polluted” with ethylene thiourea, the main metabolite of Mancozeb. The authors concluded that “The level of pollution in the region presents a worrisome risk for aquatic life and for human health.”

Banana research

In Latin America, the Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Research is a leading banana breeding center and the source of many promising hybrids, including some that can either be cooked when green (like plantains) or eaten as ripe bananas. It usually takes decades to develop and introduce a new hybrid. Scientists are also working on genetically-engineered (GE) bananas that will remain ripe longer, and are trying to develop dwarf hybrids that produce large amounts of fruit for their weight, are easy to work, and less susceptible to storm damage.

Sources for science of cultivation methods and issues:

  • Morton, Julia. 1987. Banana, chapter in Fruits of warm climates.
  • Violette Geissen, Franzisco Que Ramos, Pedro de J. Bastidas-Bastidas, Gilberto Díaz-González, Ricardo Bello-Mendoza, Esperanza Huerta-Lwanga, and Luz E. Ruiz-Suárez, 2010. “Soil and Water Pollution in a Banana Production Region in Tropical Mexico”, in Bull. Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, October 2010, 407–413.

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Eight types of bananas are grown commercially in Mexico

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Mar 202014

In an earlier post, The geography of banana production in Mexico, we provided an overview of banana production in Mexico. Eight different kinds of bananas are grown in Mexico (see graphic). The harvesting of bananas is mainly in the third quarter of each year. A series of maps showing the distribution of each of the eight types can be accessed via the tabs on this page.

Eight kinds of bananas grown in Mexico

Eight kinds of bananas grown in Mexico. Click to enlarge. Credit: SAGARPA

The eight main types of bananas grown in Mexico are:

  • Cavendish gigante – thick skin, milder taste, the most popular of the smaller varieties, 55% of national production, half of it from Tabasco
  • Macho – plantains, best eaten cooked; about 15% of national production, mainly in Chiapas (municipalities of Suchiate and Acapetahua), Tabasco (Centro and Cunduacán) and Veracruz (Otatitlán and Tlacojalpan)
  • Tabasco – high quality, medium sized fruit with excellent flavor. About 7% of national production
  • Valery – less firm fruit, consistency more like a cherry (4%)
  • Dominico – short, squat, relatively straight and sweet-tasting (3%)
  • Pera – fat, slightly curved, and up to 24 cm in length. Each finger can weigh 300 grams (2%)
  • Manzano – long rhizomes, pleasant taste and smell (1%)
  • Morado – disease resistant, stronger tasting, orange-tinted skin (0.5%)

Mexican banana and plantain recipes (from MexConnect)

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Mar 132014

Having noted in previous posts that farm sizes in southern Mexico are smaller (on average) than in northern Mexico, and that farm size is affected by socio-economic factors, and that farmers of smallholdings are unable to generate a decent profit, it is interesting to consider the relationship between farm size and marginalization.

Mexico’s National Population Commission (Conapo) has formulated a compound indicator of “marginalization” and publishes its “marginalization index” at regular intervals. Data are available at both the state and the municipal level for the entire country. This discussion relies on the state level data.

Scatter graph showing average farm size and marginalization index

Scatter graph showing average farm size and marginalization index. Data: INEGI, Conapo. Credit: Geo-Mexico

Each dot on this scatter plot represents a state. For the 32 points, the statistical correlation (Spearman’s Rank Correlation Coefficient) is –0.483. This negative correlation (significant at the 95% level) means that marginalization is inversely associated with farm size  (i.e. the greater the marginalization, the smaller the likely farm size).

In short, the north-south divide that we found when looking at the pattern of farm sizes in Mexico is closely linked to the north-south economic divide that characterizes the country.

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Mar 082014

Bananas are the world’s fourth most important dietary staple after rice, wheat and corn (maize). They are a major source of nutrition (low in fat, but rich in potassium and vitamins A, B, C and G) for people living in tropical areas. Of the 80 million tons of bananas produced globally each year, less than 20% enters international trade; the remainder is eaten locally. Bananas that are ripe and eaten raw are called desert bananas; those that are cooked are called plantains.

India is the world’s largest banana producer (31% of the world total) but is not an important exporter. Other leading producers include China (10%) and the Philippines (9%). Mexico (2%) is the world’s tenth largest producer, and the world’s 13th largest exporter. The world’s leading exporters of bananas (in dollar terms) are Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia and the Philippines.

How did bananas reach Mexico?

The banana plant is thought to have originated in southern Asia, possibly in the Mekong Delta area. Though the details are sketchy, banana plants were carried from there to Indonesia, Borneo, Philippines and Pacific Islands, including Hawaii. By AD650, bananas had reached Egypt and the Mediterranean coast. In the fiteenth century, Portuguese navigators and slave traders carried bananas to the Canary Islands. By the early sixteenth century, bananas had been introduced by Spanish missionaries to Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola in the “New World”.

Bananas reached Mexico for the first time in 1554 when Bishop Vasco de Quiroga (the first Bishop of Michoacán), returning from Europe, brought some plants back with him from his short layover in Santo Domingo.

FAO statistics for the past few years show that Mexico has about 75,000 ha planted with bananas. Total production is close to 2.2 million metric tons a year, giving an average yield of about 30 metric tons/ha. The yield is trending slowly upwards. The yield under irrigation (38.3 tons/ha) is 55% higher than that from rainfed farms. As a result, while irrigated farms account for just under 40% of the total acreage of bananas, they supply 50% of total production. Commercial banana growing provides about 100,000 direct jobs in Mexico and 150,000 indirect jobs.

Mexico's banana-growing states

Mexico’s banana-growing states [corrected]

The main banana producing states (see map) in Mexico are:

  • Chiapas (35% of national production), especially the municipality of Tapachula
  • Tabasco (25%), where average price per metric ton is lower. Mexico’s largest banana exporting company, San Carlos Tropical Exports, is based in Tabasco.
  • Veracruz (13%), especially in the municipalities of Martínez de la Torre, Atzalán, Tlapacoyán, Nautla and Papantla
  • Michoacán and Colima (6.5% each)

Bananas are also grown, on a smaller scale, in Jalisco (4.5%), Guerrero and Oaxaca (3% each) and Nayarit (2%).

Maps showing banana cultivation areas in individual states can be generated via SIAP, the Agriculture Secretariat’s online database system.

Trade in bananas

The world’s major importers are the USA (bananas are the single most widely eaten fruit in that country), Germany, Japan, Russia, UK, Italy, France, Sweden and China.

Bananas were first introduced into US diets (from Cuba) in the early 19th century. The earliest large-scale shipments of bananas to the USA were from Jamaica in the 1870s, and were organized by Lorenzo Dow Baker, who later founded the Boston Fruit Company, which later became the United Fruit Company, now Chiquita Brands International.

Banana exports from Mexico have risen rapidly in recent years and reached 307,000 metric tons in 2012 (compared to 60,000 tons in 2005), worth about 140 million dollars. The USA is the world’s largest importer of bananas and Mexico’s main foreign market, receiving 80% of all exports of Mexican bananas.

Source for history of bananas:

  • Jenkins, Virginia S. Bananas: An American History. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2000

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The number of small farms in Mexico is growing

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Mar 032014

The uneven distribution of farmland in Mexico was one of the fundamental causes of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, but by no means the only one. Landless campesinos (peasant farmers) lacked any way to control their own supplies of food. Revolutionary leaders called for the expropriation of the large estates or haciendas, which had been the principal means of agricultural production since colonial times, and the redistribution of land among the rural poor. A law governing this radical change in the land tenure system came into force in 1917 and the process has continued, albeit sporadically, into modern times.

About half of all cultivated land in Mexico was converted from large estates into ejidos, a form of collective farming. In most ejidos, each individual ejidatario has the rights to use between 4 and 20 hectares (10-50 acres) of land, depending on soil quality and whether or not it is irrigated. In addition, members of the ejido share collective rights over the use of local pasture and woodland.

By 1970 land redistribution had been more or less completed. Even so, most farming land still remained in the hands of a very small minority of farmers (Figure 15.2). Only 1% of farms were larger than 5000 hectares (12,355 acres) but between them they shared 47% of all farm land. Meanwhile, 66% of farms were smaller than 10 hectares (25 acres) yet they shared only 2% of all farm land.

Have things improved since then?

The 2007 farm census (see graphic) revealed that two-thirds (66.4%) of all farms are under 5 hectares (12.4 acres) in area; this percentage has remained roughly the same over the past 40 years. Between them, they farm just 6.2% of Mexico’s total farmland.

The number and size of farms, 2007

The number and size of farms, 2007 (updated Figure 15.2 of Geo-Mexico). Data: INEGI. Credit: Tony Burton / Geo-Mexico

The number of small farms has increased since 1970, but so has the total number of farms. Between 1991 and 2007, there was a 55.2% increase in the number of farms under 2 hectares in area, and a 45.4% increase in the total area they worked.

There is no solid data for why the number of microfarms has increased, but it may be partially explained by larger farms being split into smaller pieces (one for each family member) following the death of their original owner.

Most tiny farms are likely to be family-run, producing crops largely for subsistence, rather than for market. Small plots of land are likely to prove uneconomic and unsustainable to farm; it is impossible to generate sufficient profit from them for a family to enjoy a decent livelihood.

In one study, Enrique de la Madrid Cordero, writing for Financiera Rural, calculated that a typical smallholding of 5 hectares, planted with corn (maize) could generate a profit for the owner of about $4000 pesos. This profit represents 6 months work. At the time of his study, someone earning minimum wage for the same six months would have received a total of almost $10,000 pesos. The precise numbers vary, depending on average yields and the crops planted, but cultivating a smallholding is obviously not an easy way to make a living.

These same farmers are unable to advance since they have no means of accessing credit, having no suitable assets to offer as collateral, even if they could ever afford to pay the interest! Similarly, they do not have the savings to invest in improved equipment, higher cost seeds or to introduce new techniques or technology. They are, essentially, trapped in a cycle of poverty.

At the other end of the scale, a very small percentage of farms in Mexico are very large indeed. Nationwide, 2.2% of farms account for 65.1% of the total area farmed in the country. Larger farms are commercial operations, sometimes multinational operations. Their size and profitability ensures they have ready access to credit, and can adopt new technologies and methods relatively quickly.

The uneven distribution of land in Mexico clearly remains an issue, one that is likely to impact social justice agricultural output and productivity for decades to come.

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The pattern of farm sizes in Mexico: is there a north-south divide?

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Feb 242014

In 2007, INEGI census recorded 2.4 million “units of production” (farms) under 2 hectares in size. This number is 43.5% of all farms, and includes farms not being actively worked. 22.9% of farms were between 2 and 5 hectares in area and a further 23.4% between 5 and 20 hectares. In sum, almost 90% of all farms had an area of 20 hectares or less. At the other end of the size spectrum, 2.2% of farms were larger than 100 hectares.

In terms of land tenure, 68.5% of all farms were in ejidos (a form of collective farming), 28.5% held privately and the remaining 3% were other (communal, public, mixed). Almost three-quarters of all farms under 20 hectares in area are ejidos, whereas about three-quarters of all farms over 100 hectares in size are private.

Map of average farm size in Mexico, by state, 2007

Map of average farm size in Mexico, by state, 2007. Data: INEGI. Credit: Tony Burton/Geo-Mexico

The choropleth map (above) shows the average size of farms (in hectares) by state. It is very clear that larger farms are concentrated in northern Mexico. All the states along the US border have average farm sizes in excess of 100 hectares. At the other extreme, a ring of states in central Mexico (centered on the Federal District) have average farm sizes that are below 5 hectares. The average farm size is slightly larger to the south of that ring of tiny farms, and significantly larger towards the east, including those states comprising the Yucatán Peninsula.

The general pattern is of a north-south division, which becomes even clearer when the average farm sizes are plotted as an isoline map. With minor exceptions, the “surface” represented by these isolines slopes steeply away form the highest values in north-western Mexico towards the south-east.

Average farm size in Mexico

Average farm size in Mexico. Data: INEGI Credit: Tony Burton / Geo-Mexico

Classroom exercise

Having recognized this pattern in farm sizes, can you think of reasons that might explain it? The short answer is that farm sizes vary in response to a multitude of factors, These include historical, demographic, and socioeconomic factors as well as relief, climate, natural vegetation and soils.

Q1. Compare the maps in this post with maps for some of the factors you think might be important. (Try our Geo-Mexico Map Index as a starting point). For example, the northern area of Mexico, the area with largest farms, is primarily semi-arid or arid. Why might farms in arid and semi-arid areas be larger than in other areas?

Q2. Have a class discussion about the relative importance of the factors that have been identified or suggested.

Q3. Discuss the relative merits of the two mapping methods used in this post (choropleth and isoline) to portray average farm sizes.

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Record avocado production and exports, 2012-2013

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Nov 112013

Mexico is the world’s largest producer and exporter of avocados. In the 2012/13 season, Mexico’s avocado orchards produced a record 1.3 million metric tons of avocados. More than 90% of Mexico’s avocados are grown in the state of Michoacán, where about 12% of all agricultural land is currently under avocado orchards.

Avocado-growing states in Mexico.

Avocado-growing states in Mexico

Avocado exports rose 33% to 643,000 metric tons, worth 1.2 billion dollars, also a new record. The main export market remains the USA which imported 518,000 metric tons between July 2012 and June 2013, to help satisfy a demand that has risen rapidly.

Total USA avocado imports in 2012-2013 from all countries were 40% higher than the previous year, and have risen over the past 15 years from 200,000 metric tons to 750,000 metric tons.

In 2012-2013, Mexico also exported 125,000 metric tons of avocados to Canada, Japan, Central America and Europe, a 32% increase over the year before.

The Federal Farming Secretariat has introduced a new national certification system for growers to help ensure consistent quality and reduce spoilage during transport. Many avocado growers are working towards increasing the number of orchards certified by Global Gap, a worldwide certification organization.

avocado-marketingRelated posts:

Geo-Mexico has many other agriculture-related posts (easily found via our tag system). They include posts about the geography of growing/producing Christmas trees, cacao, honey, sugarcane, coffee, chiles, floriculture, tomatoes, tequila, horticultural crops and oranges. Enjoy!

Are Aztec chinampas a good model for food production and agro-development?

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Oct 072013

There is no doubt that Mexico’s indigenous farmers developed numerous ways to ensure successful harvests. The details varied from one region to another, but among the techniques employed were:

  • the mitigation of erosion by building earth banks and check dams in gullies
  • polyculture, recognizing that this minimized the risks inherent in monoculture.
  • the terracing of steep slopes to channel water where it was most needed.

In addition, some indigenous groups, including the Aztec in central Mexico, took advantage of their expertise in water management to develop highly productive systems of farming in wetlands. The chinampas (or so-called ‘floating gardens’) in the Valley of Mexico are the prime example of this water management skill, though similar systems were also used in the coastal marshes along the Gulf coast.

On the other hand, the later introduction of large-scale commercial farming methods has often led to deleterious impacts on the countryside and the long term sustainability of such methods is questionable.

In seeking to help Mexico’s rural areas, some development experts have suggested re-adopting Aztec methods, especially their method of building chinampas to farm wetlands. The invention of chinampas as a highly productive form of intensive wetland cultivation was, historically, one of the greatest ever agricultural advances in the Americas. Among other things, it allowed settlements to thrive in areas where rain (and therefore rain-fed food production) was markedly seasonal.

Among attempts to re-introduce ancient methods, one which stands out occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, when INIREB (Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones sobre Recursos Bióticos), based in Xalapa (Veracruz) employed chinamperos from the Valley of Mexico to build experimental chinampa-like fields in Veracruz and Tabasco . These projects are briefly described in Andrew Sluyter’s fascinating book Colonialism and Landscape, Postcolonial theory and applications (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), the main basis for this summary.

Google Earth image of camellones chontales

Google Earth image of camellones chontales

The most ambitious project was a later federally-organized one in Tabasco, where 65 massive platforms (camellones), each about 30 meters wide and from 100 to 300 meters long, were built in the swampy Chontalpa wetlands. The project, known as camellones chontales was backed by the local Chontal community though it was not directly involved in the construction phase. Because of the scale of the project, large mechanical dredgers were used to build the platforms, rather than relying on laborious and slower hand labor.

After construction, the Chontal community began farming the platforms, but initial results were very disappointing. Things improved with time, especially when the Chontal took full control of the project. From their perspective, the project meant that more members of the community now had land that could be farmed, and they shifted the emphasis away from the “vegetable market production” favored by officials towards growing corn (maize), beans and bananas for local household consumption, improving local food availability.

Recent press reports, such as this 2-minute Youtube clip (Spanish), claim that many parts of the camellones chantales have now been abandoned, owing to insufficient investment in maintenance.

Why did the project fail initially?

This is one of the key questions connected to this example. Sluyter refers to two articles written by Mac Chapin (from Cultural Survival, an organization that champions the rights of native peoples). Chapin argues that the projects, and their assumptions, were fundamentally flawed. For example, the use of dredges to construct the platforms turned the soil profile upside down, bringing infertile clay towards the top and sending nutrient-rich layers downwards, beneath the reach of plant roots. In turn, this meant that organic matter and fertilizers had to be added to the land in order for good crop yields. Because of the dredging, the canal floor between the platforms was very irregular, making it much more difficult for the Chontal to fish using drag nets. Many of the crops planted were “exotic” and production was market-oriented rather than subsistence or locally-oriented. Chapin was particularly critical of the lack of suitable transport routes for sending produce to distant markets. In addition, chemicals were needed because of the proliferation of insects in these lowland wetlands. (Insects are rarely a problem at the higher altitudes of central Mexico).

Chapin concluded that this development project was just one more in a long line of failures where an outside model was introduced into a new area without sufficient prior research or local involvement in the planning stages. Sluyter agrees with this conclusion, pointing out that there is no evidence that these Tabasco wetlands ever had any form of chinampa farming, even in pre-Columbian times, perhaps because they have “a much greater annual fluctuation in water level than those in Campeche and Veracruz”.

Want to read more?

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Resources about the geography of chinampas, an ancient form of sustainable agriculture

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Sep 302013

This post describes some of the many online resources about chinampas, one of Mexico’s ancient and most important indigenous forms of sustainable agriculture.

For photos, the best starting point is Dr. Jason Turner’s site about chinampas which includes an extensive bibliography about chinampas as well as several “Virtual Field Trips” (photo sequences). Even though these photo sequences often lack any accompanying descriptions or captions, they cover a wide range of ideas, and are organized in self-explanatory groups such as:

For an article describing a recent tour of a working chinampa in Xochimilco’s Ecological Reserve. illustrated with great photos, try Touring Xochimilco’s farms with De la Chinampa written by Lesley Téllez (self-described food writer with a “deep love for Mexican food and culture”) on her blog “The  Mija Chronicles”.

Youtube also has a variety of chinampa-related resources. In English, the best introduction is Discovery Atlas – Mexico: Xochimilco which provides a good background to the history and covers the basics.

Two Spanish-language Youtube resources provide valuable additional information. Each video lasts about 5 minutes, but neither video has English language subtitles.

The first is Divina Ciudad: De la chinampa a la mesa which looks at one specific project designed to help raise public awareness and aid the conservation of the remaining chinampas in Xochimilco, on the south-eastern outskirts of Mexico City. This project supplies consumers with fresh produce grown on the chinampas in Xochimilco or sourced from within 150 km. See the project’s website – De La Chinampa – for more information.

The second Spanish language video is Profeco TV Reporte Especial: Productos de la Chinampa, un ejemplo de consumo sustentable, This video, made by the federal consumer protection agency Profeco, explains how the produce grown on the chinampas is pesticide-free and relies on sustainable production methods. It calls on viewers to “learn more about the method and help ensure that chinampas do not disappear.”

Book (Spanish)

  • Rojas R., Teresa (Coord) 1995. Presente, pasado y futuro de las chinampas. Mexico DF: Ciesas/Patronato del Parque Ecológico de Xochimilco A.C. This is a collection of 25 papers presented at a 1990 international conference in Mexico City.

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Sep 092013

Prior to European contact in 1519, what did the Aztec people eat?

The basis of Aztec diet was corn (maize). They cultivated numerous varieties of corn, as well as many other crops including beans, amaranth and squash. Some dishes were seasoned with salt and chili peppers. This mix of items provided a balanced diet that had no significant vitamin or mineral deficiency.

In addition, the Aztec diet included tomatoes, limes, cashews, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peanuts, cacao (chocolate), wild fruits, cactus, mushrooms, fungi, honey, turkey, eggs, dog, duck, fish, the occasional deer, iguana, alongside insects such as grasshoppers. From the lake water, they scooped high protein algae (tecuitlatl), which was also used as a fertilizer.

How did they obtain their food?

The Mexica (who later became the Aztecs) faced a particular dilemma, largely of their own making. Mexica (Aztec) legend tells that they left their home Aztlán (location unproven) on a lengthy pilgrimage lasting hundreds of years. They were seeking a specific sign telling them where to found their new capital and ceremonial center. The sign was an eagle, perched on a cactus. Today, this unlikely combination, with the eagle now devouring a serpent, is a national symbol and appears on the national flag.

Artist's view of the Aztec capital Tenochititlan in the Valley of Mexico

Artist’s view of the Aztec capital Tenochititlan in the Valley of Mexico

The dilemma arose because they first saw this sign, and founded their new capital Tenochtitlan, on an island in the middle of a lake in central Mexico. An island linked by causeways to several places on the “mainland” might have had some advantages in terms of defense, but supplying the growing settlement with food and fresh water was more of a challenge.

Much of their food came from hunting and gathering, and some food was brought by long-distance trade, but space for farming, especially on the island, was at a premium.

The Aztecs solved their dilemma of how to supply food to their island capital by developing a sophisticated wetland farming system involving raised beds (chinampas) built in the lake (see image below). Originally these chinampas were free-floating but over time they became rooted to the lake floor. The chinampas were separated by narrow canals, barely wide enough for small boats or canoes.

Artist's representation of chinampa farming

Artist’s representation of chinampa farming

From an ecological perspective, these chinampas represented an extraordinary achievement, a food production system which proved to be one of the most environmentally sustainable and high-yielding farming systems anywhere on the planet!

Constructing and maintaining chinampas required a significant input of labor, but the yields per unit area could be very high indeed, especially since four harvests a year were possible for some crops. The system enabled fresh produce to be supplied to the city even during the region’s long dry season, whereas food availability from rain-fed agriculture was highly seasonal.

Artist's interpretation of chinampa construction (from Rojas 1995)

Artist’s interpretation of chinampa construction (from Rojas 1995)

The planting platforms or chinampas were built by hand, with alternate layers of mud, silt and vegetation piled onto a mesh of reeds or branches. Platforms, often but not necessarily rectangular, were about 10 meters wide and could be 100 meters or more in length. Willow trees were often planted on the edges of platforms to help stabilize them and provide shade for other plants and for the canals that separated the platforms. Interplanting crops was common, and polyculture was the norm. For many crops, multicropping (several crops in a single year) was possible.

Because the planting platforms were close to water, extremes of temperature were dampened, and the likelihood of frost damage to crops reduced. The root systems of crops had reliable access to fresh water (sub-irrigation). The canals provided a variety of habitats for fish. The mud from the bottom of canals was periodically dredged by hand and added to the platforms, supplying nutrients and preserving canal depth. Together with the regular addition of waste organic material (compost), this replenished the platforms and meant that their fertility was maintained over very long periods of time.

The system could even cope with polluted water, since the combination of constant filtration on the platforms, and aquatic weeds in the canals, partially removed most impurities from the water.

Where can chinampas be seen today?

Archaeologists have found vestiges of chinampas in several regions of Mexico, some dating back almost 3000 years.

Mexico’s best known chinampas today are those in Xochimilco on the south-eastern outskirts of Mexico City. Xochimilco is a Unesco World Heritage site, but faces heavy pressure from urban encroachment and highway construction. Xochimilco’s canals (with chinampas separating them) are some of the last surviving remnants of the large lake that occupied this valley when the Mexica founded Tenochititlan.

Xochimilco (Wikipedia; creative commons)

Xochimilco (Wikipedia; creative commons)

Visiting Xochimilco’s canals and market is a popular weekend excursion for Mexico City residents and tourists alike. However, the modern-day chinampas of Xochimilco are not the same as they would have been centuries ago. First, the total area of chinampas in Xochimilco is only a fraction of what once existed. Secondly, some of the chinampas have been abandoned, while on others chemical fertilizers and pesticides are often used. Thirdly, the area now has many exotic species, including introduced species of fish (such as African tilapia and Asian carp) that threaten native species. Numbers of the axolotl (a local salamander), a prized delicacy on Aztec dinner tables, are in sharp decline. Fourthly, the water table in this area fell dramatically during the last century as Mexico City sucked water from the underground aquifers causing local springs that helped supply Xochimilco to dry up completely. Rubble from the 1985 Mexico City earthquake was also dumped in Xochimilco’s canals.

Lakes in some other parts of Mexico were also used for chinampa farming. For example, in Jalisco, just west of Guadalajara, Magdalena Lake “was a prime source of food for the 60,000 or so people living close to the Guachimontones ceremonial site (settled before 350 BC) in Teuchitlán. They learned to construct chinampas, fixed mud beds in the lake, each measuring about 20 meters by 15 meters, which they planted with a variety of crops… The remains of hundreds of these highly productive islets are still visible today.” (Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury, p 69)

Chinampa farming was one of the great agricultural developments in the Americas. It was, and still can be, an environmentally-sensitive and sustainable method of intensive wetland agriculture.

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