Aztec artificial farm islands still provide food for Mexico City seven centuries later

Modern-day chinampas in Mexico. (Photo from: Arca Tierra)

During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, food supply chains were disrupted due to border restrictions. The disruption worsened the food insecurity in Mexico City, a thriving metropolitan home to around 9.2 million people. The food supply problem pushed the people to reflect on how their forefathers made Tenochtitlan, the predecessor of modern-day Mexico City, self-sustaining hundreds of years ago.

The city of Tenochtitlan was built by the Aztecs living in Central America from the 13th to 16th century. The need to land amidst the swampy marshes of Lake Texcoco pushed the Aztecs to establish stunning reclamation projects considered well ahead of their time. The Aztecs built artificial strips of land called “chinampas.” These strips of land were constructed from soil piled on reeds and sedges and anchored to the lake bottom by a fence of a native willow tree.

A chinampa is one of the most productive agricultural systems known for its efficiency and self-sustainability. It doesn’t need fertilizer since the piled soil is like a sponge, continuously absorbing water enriched by fine sediments, plant remains, and animal excrement from the lake. These artificial-farm islands could produce 13 times more crops and can hold much water compared to dry land farming.

With the current pandemic and increasing climate change-related challenges, cities strive to increase self-sufficiency in terms of food supply. Mexico City’s chinampas, located near the city center, give the people the benefits of having healthy and locally grown food. The agricultural wonders that fed the city’s ancient residents hundreds of years ago are coming back to feed the modern and ever-growing population.


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