[Marxism] An Aquatic Paradise in Mexico, Pushed to the Edge of Extinction

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 23 07:15:07 MST 2017


NY Times, Feb. 23 2017
An Aquatic Paradise in Mexico, Pushed to the Edge of Extinction
By VICTORIA BURNETT

XOCHIMILCO, Mexico — With their gray-green waters and blue herons, the 
canals and island farms of Xochimilco in southern Mexico City are all 
that remain of the extensive network of shimmering waterways that so 
awed Spanish invaders when they arrived here 500 years ago.

But the fragility of this remnant of pre-Columbian life was revealed 
last month, when a 20-feet-deep hole opened in the canal bed, draining 
water and alarming hundreds of tour boat operators and farmers who 
depend on the waterways for a living.

The hole intensified a simmering conflict over nearby wells, which suck 
water from Xochimilco’s soil and pump it to other parts of Mexico City. 
It also revived worries about a process of decline, caused by pollution, 
urban encroachment and subsidence, that residents and experts fear may 
destroy the canals in a matter of years.

“This is a warning,” said Sergio Raúl Rodríguez Elizarrarás, a geologist 
at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “We are driving the 
canals towards their extinction.”

Xochimilco (pronounced sochi-MILK-o), a municipality on the southeastern 
tip of Mexico City, is home to more than 6,000 acres of protected 
wetlands, hemmed in by dense streets. Here, farmers grow rosemary, corn 
and chard on chinampas, islands formed using a technique dating from the 
Aztecs from willow trees, lilies and mud.

Residents ply the area’s 100 or so miles of canals in canoes, much as 
they have for centuries. On weekends, thousands of tourists picnic and 
party on brightly painted barges, or trajineras.

“This is the last thread that connects us to our pre-Hispanic past,” 
Ricardo Munguía, an artist and tour guide, said recently while chugging 
through the dawn mist in a motorboat. As he slid past a field of broken 
corn stalks, a pelican swooped by and skidded on the water, slowing 
itself with its wide wings.

“It would be heartbreaking to lose this,” Mr. Munguía said.

As bucolic as the canals appear, intense exploitation of the area’s 
aquifers over the last 50 years has depleted springs, prompting the 
authorities to replenish the waterways from a nearby sewage treatment plant.

As the earth dries out, it sinks, cracking buildings and forming sudden 
craters like the one that appeared on Jan. 24, 50 yards from a barge 
mooring.

Boatmen at the mooring, known as the Embarcadero Zacapa, said they 
noticed the hole when a whirlpool appeared, like water running down a 
bath drain. By the time engineers had dammed off that part of the canal 
with sandbags several hours later, the water level had dropped about 10 
inches.

Since then, the 80 or so trajineras at Zacapa have mostly been idle, as 
tourists head to rival moorings, boatmen said — even though they can 
still reach the canals in one direction. On a recent Sunday, the boats 
were lined up like rows of gaudy shoes, but none had customers.

“We’re kind of shocked,” said Ivan Montiel Olivares, 18, who has worked 
on the barges for 10 years. “If things turn bad, what will we do?”

Juan Velazquez, a boatman in his 50s who was cleaning his deck, said 
that on the weekends he normally made about $15 a day, plus tips. The 
last two weekends he had made just $2.50 each day.

“Nature is making us pay for what we have done,” he said.

Built on a silty lake bed, Mexico City has been sinking for centuries. 
The Metropolitan Cathedral became so tilted that engineers reinforced 
the foundations so that it would, at least, sink evenly.

To slow the collapse in the city center, parts of which dropped about 26 
feet during the last century, officials in the 1960s shifted water 
extraction from downtown to wells near Xochimilco, a decision experts 
called a “death sentence” for the canals.

José Felipe García, Xochimilco’s director of civil defense, said that 
the canal should be back to normal by the end of February. Speaking by 
telephone, he said that the hole — which was filled this week — was a 
product of subsidence and geological faults beneath the area.

But Dr. Rodríguez, the geologist, said it was part of a grim pattern of 
collapses in the area whose cause was “man made.”

Half a mile from the Zacapa mooring, a six-feet-deep crater opened in 
November, splitting a main road and trapping two small buses, residents 
said.

Eduardo Sandoval, an architectural engineer who lives in the 
neighborhood, Santa María Nativitas, and leads an organization fighting 
for water rights, said the holes were a signal that problems were 
“accelerating.”

Water in Nativitas has been a source of endless tension, according to 
Mr. Sandoval, with 130 houses damaged by subsidence. Trucks fill up at 
the local well and sell water on the black market, but homes near the 
well can get water from their faucets for only a few hours a day.

There are scattered government initiatives to increase the water supply, 
such as collecting rainwater in rooftop cisterns. But the feat of 
supplying the region’s 22 million people with water more than 7,000 feet 
above sea level requires more creativity, experts said, like reusing 
dirty water.

The water in Xochimilco’s canals is polluted. Treated water pumped into 
the canals from nearby Iztapalapa contains heavy metals, said María 
Guadalupe Figueroa, a biologist at the Autonomous Metropolitan University.

Worse, she said, illegal dwellings on the chinampas dump raw sewage into 
the canals, affecting fish and crops. Today, much of the tilapia fished 
from the canals are used for cat food, and many farmers grow flowers 
rather than edible crops.

Despite a ban on construction on the chinampas, more and more of the 
islands are being settled, experts and residents said, as small-scale 
farming becomes less competitive and demand for residential space grows. 
Cables droop across smaller canals, supplying electricity to 
cinder-block houses that have no running water or sewers. Near one 
house, beer bottles stuck out of the mud, and a rusty bedspring served 
as a fence on the water’s edge.

Juana Altamirano, who has lived for years in a plywood shack on what 
used to be a chinampa farmed by her father and grandparents, has 
outhouses with the Spanish words for “men” and “ladies” scrawled on the 
metal doors. The sewage, she said, “goes into the earth and doesn’t do 
any harm,” an improbable claim since she lives on an island of tangled 
roots and mud.

Ms. Altamirano, 57, admits that the canal water is polluted. Her eldest 
grandchildren learned to swim in the canal, she said, but these days, 
the water gives swimmers a rash.

“Still,” she said, “we breathe pure air.”

With every farmer who, like Ms. Altamirano’s father, stops cultivating 
the chinampas, “we lose a part of our identity,” said Félix Venancio, an 
activist trying to protect the chinampas and the communal land, or 
ejido, in San Gregorio, a district of Xochimilco.

The knowledge of chinampa farming “goes from generation to generation,” 
Mr. Venancio said. “We’re losing that.”

Dr. Figueroa, the biologist, said that the authorities were working on a 
new plan for preserving the wetlands, pulling together academics, 
farmers, businesses and different branches of government.

Xochimilco, which was designated a World Heritage site by the United 
Nations in 1987, has had no shortage of preservation plans over the 
years, but they remain half-complete, and funds “get lost along the 
way,” Dr. Figueroa said. “There’s a huge amount of corruption.”

She figures that, without a serious conservation effort, the canals will 
be gone in 10 to 15 years. But much of the damage was reversible, she 
said, adding: “It’s still a little paradise.”

Follow Victoria Burnett on Twitter @vsburnett.




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