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