Chinampas 2.0 – an Elegant Technology From the Past to Save the Future

Chinampas in Tenochtitlan

My name is Rodrigo Lañado and I’m known as “El Hombre de Maiz” (the maize man) and I represent Hombres de Maiz, which is a project I developed after dropping out from college in 2010 to dedicate myself entirely to my biggest passion — permaculture — thanks to the inspiration I received from Masanobu Fukuoka’s and Bill Mollison’s teachings.

I’m very happy and proud to show you a little more of what you already perhaps know about chinampas. A chinampa (from the Nahuatl word chinamitl, meaning hedge or box of sticks) is an ancient Mesoamerican method for agriculture and land expansion, through a kind of artificial islands. They were used to grow flowers and vegetables and to expand usable land space onto the surface of lakes and ponds in the valleys of Mexico. Remember that Mexico-Tenochtitlan was a city of many kilometers made of artificial islands. It was far more complex, sustainable and advanced than what has been made in Dubai recently (not to mention that some of the artificial islands in Dubai are now sinking and disappearing, while the ones made in Xochimilco have lasted for centuries).

They were used for agriculture and for creating land, as we mentioned above. A chinampa is an artificial island made with logs, sticks and living trees called “Ahuejotes” or willows. The trees hold the soil of the island together and after the tree grows, the root system of this tree creates an area upon which is deposited topsoil properly selected in layers of biodegradable materials such as; grass, leaves, shells of different fruits and vegetables, composting aquatic plants and other materials.

As far as I have researched, it is a technique developed in ancients times of Teotihuacan, originally created for semi dry climates as a water harvesting and food production system. It appears that they were not originally from Xochimilco, where this system emigrated and reached their splendor in the fourteenth century, somewhere around 1519. With the use of this technique the Aztecs took up most of the Lake of Xochimilco, and its combination with other techniques such as irrigation channels and terracing, allowed them to support a dense population of more than 230,000 people — that’s a lot more than any other city in the world at that time.

In Hombres de Maíz (“Men of Maize”) we think it’s a real and affordable solution, especially for arid climates but also very effective in most climates. They capture and store water, produce fish, shrimp, vegetables, flowers, medicinal plants and all sorts of plants and grains. They are not affected by drought as other systems are, and they save more than 80% on water compared to conventional irrigation systems. The system protects crops from frost and ‘pests’ like moles, ants, blind worms and many others, not to mention they are up to 7 times more productive per m2 than any other agriculture system. The system is totally sustainable, maintaining constant moisture in the area, which is perfect for the microbiology of the soil. It’s perfect for creating a self reliance habitat and is a great way to respond to floods, and is incredibly fertile (probably the most fertile agricultural system ever devised).

Chinampas at Xochimilco

It is also a food production system that functions as a water purification system as well as a very effective climate modifier (imagine transforming several acres of desert into a chinampa system). It’s an elegant, diverse and healthy system of natural aquaponics, so to speak.

Today more than ever it is necessary to revive and bring to light this ancient and advanced technique, because in these modern times it could literally save humanity from hunger whilst helping to reverse global warming. Just imagine the enormous potential of this, if applied on a large-scale.

Another view of the chinampas in Tenochtitlan

That’s why Hombres de Maíz, the organization I feel honored to represent, took on the task to investigate and learn from the best “Chinamperos” (local families that have built chinampas since the times of the Aztecs in the lake of Xochimilco) to adapt and reproduce this system for dry climates, especially for the semi arid part of the state of Guanajuato, México, where I live. I want the people of my region to stop struggling with loss of crops due to water scarcity, and do it without government aid and their very ineffective water management systems — not to mention the urgent problem of malnutrition my neighbors have (I live in a low income rural zone).

Mr. Pedro Mendez, my friend and teacher

Finally after two years of research we built the first experimental prototype chinampa near Guanajuato City. Currently this chinampa is home to more than 20 aquatic plants species, many of them native to Lake Xochimilco and other from lakes of Guanajuato (Xacaltule, tule, water cress, duckweed, lilies, papyrus, etc.) and also houses animals such as axolotls (native from Xochimilco), an almost extinct type of salamander that’s capable of regenerating even its own brain, several carp and shrimp, not to mention the flora and fauna that have made all these at home, like snails, frogs, birds, aquatic beetles, etc.

We managed to adapt the same concepts we experimented with one year before in a “perma aquaponic” system that requires no cleaning of the fish containers, and we let the ecosystem develop as a natural pond would, but in a 100 gal electric pump version. And we saw that if you just develop a well balanced pond ecosystem with plants, bugs, animals and other organisms, even if you do it in a small aquaponic container, you can achieve no pH changes and low ammonia levels. So we took on the task of repeating the same effect in a small artificial pond of 5000 lts that would not use any electric equipment at all, and we planted it with black and white corn native from Xochimilco, sweet corn from Guanajuato (yellow-orange), blood of Christ Corn (very beautiful, white with red stripes), Milpa black beans, pumpkins and Chilacayotas (a type of squash that loves to grow on soil and expands over the water too), white clover (as nitrogen fixer), flowers, lettuce and other crops such as strawberries (all non hybrid or transgenic seeds). The list of species that can be grown in this system is endless — almost anything is possible on a chinampa and you get animal and vegetable protein of awesome quality and quantity with little labor involved and almost no maintenance required.

Among the wonderful benefits of this beautiful system, we can mention:

Forget about the task of watering plants, ever. Yes, that’s correct. In this kind of modernized chinampa, it is never necessary to water the plants, because they simply absorb the water they need by themselves, because the water rises from the bottom by capillarity to the plant root system.

Experimental chinampa of “Hombres de Maíz” at 3 weeks

Forget the task of composting work and fertilizers. Chinampas remain fertile through the water being full of fish, bird and other animal manure that is converted by the nitrogen cycle bacteria that transform (as you well know) ammonia into nitrites and nitrates that the plants use to grow. You also have the aid of worm castings from the worms that naturally love to live in chinampas, not to mention that the lilies used for making composting layers exist in large quantities over the water. They make a wonderful compost (worms love it) keeping the soil moist. The moisture in this system allows various microorganisms and fungi that live on land to survive without the stress of water scarcity.

Experimental chinampa of “Hombres de Maiz” at 4 weeks. Lettuces and
a small Milpa (corn, beans, squash and other plants associated)
in full sun without stress.

Our friend Celeste visiting the chinampa

Forget about of germinating and transplanting — you save time and you get no back pain. Almost any seed that you throw to the soil grows beautifully.

This is the best system I have ever seen or experienced. My ancestors knew well what they did, that’s maybe the reason why Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton often say these systems are among the most productive and efficient in the world.

Happy fish eating mosquito larvae and duck weed

We “Hombres de Maíz” would love the task of teaching and propagating this technique all around the world if we could, and adapting this system in as many climates and areas as possible to help people to feed themselves, control erosion and store rain water effectively, but in the meantime we will continue researching, making more and larger chinampa systems. This is research, development and implementation from “Hombres de Maíz” at service for humanity. .

We will keep taking photographs as we progress, and in a subsequent article we will show everybody how to make a chinampa or “water bed”, as we like to call them, step by step in your own backyard.

Wish us luck. We encourage people all around the globe to try this system and see for yourselves how great and beautiful these chinampas systems are.