Photo: Xochimilco Facing Demise
The ancient site of the Aztec’s floating gardens, Xochimilco, is quite possibly facing its demise. The gardens, once bountiful and dating back to the time of the Aztecs, are now weedy and overrun by cattle. The waters are invaded by foreign fish many extremely toxic after being fed by waste water treatment plants.
Luis Zambrano, a biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in the nation’s capital, has been studying the area for several years and attempting to help its ecosystem recover. He believes that the decline began long ago upon the arrival of Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés in 1519. It was then that they began draining the lakes and thus altering its ecosystem.
Fisherman Roberto Altamirano is also working to save the UN World Heritage Site, by helping to remove the exotic fish from the canals. Over the last two years, Altamirano netted close to 650 tons of these species of African tilapia and Asian carp and removed them from the waterways, yet when people hear of the fish’s origin many will not buy them. There is a fear that the fish coming from the dirty waters of Xochimilco are too toxic to consume.
Zambrano is also concerned about the endangered salamander, the axolotl, once found in abundance in these waters. In a 1998 survey, 6,000 axolotls were located per every square kilometer, while ten years later only a depressing 100 could be found. Researchers have attempted to begin a rescue program for the salamanders and currently have 20 laboratory raised axolotls in this cleaned and netted stretch of canal. However, Zambrano also states that they have not been able to locate one of these salamanders in the wild, famous for regenerating lost limbs, for months. According to Zambrano, the future of Xochimilco and its wildlife does not look promising. He states, “The place is dying.”
These canals fed close to 50 square miles of gardens during Aztec times which produced several crops a year, such as chiles, greens, cactus and herbs. Yet, after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, life has steadily declined for Xochimilco. Filled with rubble after the earthquake in Mexico City in 1985, reduced in size by almost half with the construction of a highway, as well as continuous neglect and lack of funding all have led to the possibly imminent demise of this wonder of the world.
Martha Teresa Delgado, the environmental secretary for the Mexico City government, said that although many people have discussed possible solutions to save Xochimilco, no one has produced the funding to actually make it happen.
Although he continues to work towards Xochimilco’s recovery, Zambrano does not sound optimistic. “Things have been bad for a long time. But now we fear that the destruction is accelerating, that within our lifetimes this very special place will no longer exist,” Zambrano said. “It will just be a few dirty canals for the tourists and will mean nothing.”