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.
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?
- Antecedentes de los proyectos de construcción de chinampas en el trópico (1975-1976) – Written by Dr. Arturo Gómez-Pompa, the Director of INIREB when the experimental chinampas were planned and built. Includes a link to a lively exchange of views (in English) about the merits of Chapin’s arguments.
- How did the Aztecs get their food? Sustainable farming in Aztec times
- Resources about chinampas, an ancient form of sustainable agriculture
- How sustainable is organic agriculture on the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico?
- The energy efficiency of farming in Mexico and elsewhere
- Case study of a Tarahumara garden