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Chinampas Article: Ditch and Mound edge interface for abundance

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From reading about Chinampas, to seeing a grand example, to implementing with high school students, I love this topic of edge meeting patterns to create abundance. Have seen quite a few sites since that could use this digging and mounding technique of restoring wetlands. This EDU article is a look to the past, understanding the present context of water, and what we could implement to help the future fro food production and habitat creation.

While it is a traditional agriculture that once produced heaps of food in central Mexico, Permaculturists often use the word Chinampa to mean something slightly different yet emulating this original highly productive form of aquaculture. The original system was essentially a form of aquaponics but of course with no pumps, no plastics, no holding tanks, and no electricity. Instead it was an edge enhancement growing system where quasi floating islands were created in the vast lakes of Mexico. While the surrounding locales were deficient in water supply, making agriculture difficult without pumps, pipes and electricity, the natives instead brought the agriculture to the water itself. To create the grow beds they staked out rectangular plots by driving posts downward in shallow areas and weaving these posts together with canes in a wattle. From there they extruded upward with layers of materials that included thatch material grasses like Typha and Juncus that grew on the waters edge to land. They would layer that with the pond bottom muck or detritus as it is known scientifically. From there they could paddle around in boats and grow crops on these islands, which in time grew fertility. Vegetables knew no limit of water or fertility as it was easily gained from the soluble nutrients in the water with its access to the cycling of the compost pile like material of the lake bottom. Waters nutrients are creatively cycled inherently and were easily exploited due to edge creation and creative human interaction. These food growing systems allowed the natives to build complex cultures and some of the highest, if not the highest, population density at the time in the whole world. Although the Spanish did a number on the people population and the chinampa system itself as industrial agriculture developed, the chinampa system remains alive and continued on by a small group of locals and even some permaculturists are involved. In today’s modern world one is able to purchase something similar known as floating islands yet are made of synthetic materials. Although plastic, they are made in the thatch like pattern similar to what the indigenous of Lake Titicaca did for their floating islands. However this design comes from biomimicry with essentially the same materials and mold as an air filter in a machine. It has lots of edge to trap particulates when applied to machinery but when you make them bigger and put them in water the trapped particles of air create the buoyancy. These floating mats are covered in microorganisms which help to cleanse the water of pollutants and nutrients and give a planting space for wetlands plants and vegetables.

Modern Day Permaculture Application

When working in Costa Rica in 2005-06, I had the fortunate opportunity to see an amazing project in the islands of Bocas del Toro, Panama. After crossing the border, we quickly found ourselves on a boat weaving through incredible coastal habitat of mangroves and islands of aquatic vegetation acting as a buffer strip to the coast and creating lots habitat. It was easy to get inspiration from this natural habitat on our journey to the project Finca Luminescence on the island of Bastimentos. Upon arrival at the little coastal island, we were astonished at the amount of edge and biodiversity at the project. After a short walk through a coastal hamlet of indigenous people, you entered into the property and immediately controlled chaos was apparent. Water surrounded everywhere, layers of aquatic vegetation were abounding and the vegetation on land was also extremely layered and visibly still young. We heard bird calls, frog croaks, and even large creatures scurrying to enter the water. On a small ridge point you could overlook to the neighbors property and it was a classic low diversity, cattle pasture so famously implemented by the Spanish through draining of wetlands and sowing with invasive grasses.

Chinampas- Reconstructed Wetlands

What Bruce Hill, Argentinean Permaculturist and one of the first to take Bill Mollison’s course, and crew had done there was amazing and yet so simple. Digging and mounding, giving water back its habitat rather than ushering it outward to destroy coral reef through channeling and poor land management. Rather a paradise of biodiversity was created through edge and giving back the land what it once was. So this is how I have heard the word chinampa be used most in Permaculture circles- reconstructed wetlands. It’s easy to understand as Bill Mollison uses the word chinampa in drawings where peninsulas are created in a water body to give edge. Thus the interpretation by permaculturist comes in many forms but the basic pattern itself is there.
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I always thought a floating garden would be great for those summer cabins up north in the midwest, where the only sun available was on the lakes.
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