Urban Agriculture in Mexico City: Healthy and Necessary
by Devon G. Peña
The Colhua Mexica (Aztec) twin island cities of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco were filled with urban farms, home kitchen gardens, fish-stocked ponds, and aviaries. Two large lakes south of the cities were filled with highly productive floating gardens known aschinampas. These ancient Mesoamerican city-states were basically food self-sufficient. The conquest destroyed most of these cultural ecological landscapes and built Mexico City with the rubble of demolished temples, schools, colleges, homes, and other buildings. Mexico City has never been able to reproduce this ideal condition of food self-sufficiency and instead basically sucks the energy out of the Mexican countryside and — ever since NAFTA — from fresh produce and processed food imported or manufactured with ingredients from the U.S. and other countries.
Now comes an encouraging report from the Mexican press highlighting the rapid growth of urban agriculture in one of the world’s largest and most expansive cities. According to the Mexico City newspaper, Excelsior, urban gardening is no longer an activity confined to the urban margins. it is sprouting up all over the center of the city. Due to low cost, consumer benefits, and close-at-hand access, food production in urban gardens is taking hold in Mexico City and officials are recognizing the need to get the city’s population to stop viewing this as a fashionable trend and instead understand the many benefits. Leaving behind the idea that only rural or low-income populations have to resort to farming, many people have found that producing their own food is an effective way to reduce costs, eat better, and decorate homes with greenery.
“The simple act to enter the kitchen and to know that to open the window, go to the balcony, courtyard, or garden, and a good part of the products one needs to make a meal is there, shows the tremendous goodness of nature,” said Antonio Guerra, president of the association Agricultura en Calle (Agriculture on the Street). He says the investment of time and money is small as a vegetable garden at home or the apartment requires only a small space to place the pots or containers in which the produce are grown.
Within the framework of the International Year of Family Farming — decreed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO for its acronym in English) — environmental organizations and local authorities agree on the need for the capital city’s inhabitants to understand the opportunities they have to produce their own food. “This needs to stop being seen as a fashion trend and instead should be viewed as a public policy generated for the inhabitants of the city,” said Hegel Cortés, head of the Ministry of Rural Development and Equity for Communities (SEDEREC). The immediacy of fresh food and high quality offered by urban gardens can consolidate this into a food security scheme for the inhabitants of the capital and which will be reflected in improved health.
Hegel Cortés reports that since last year the Ministry launched a program of sustainable small-scale agriculture in housing units to transform vacant or seldom used public spaces into gardens cared for by the residents. Just last week, residents of the residential pod Emiliano Zapata, Álvaro Obregón Delegation, presented the first harvest of tomatoes, which will serve for the consumption of the neighbors. The surplus will be sold and the proceeds are reinvested in the unit. “When a surplus begins to occur in urban gardens it is going to become a question of marketing. Beyond food production and health, employment and self-employment, education, and respect for the environment, urban agriculture will create a culture of sustainability in the Mexico City,” he said in an interview.
Hegel Cortés highlighted the involvement of children in the care of urban gardens, whom they have named guardianes agroalimentarios (agri-food guardians) to promote the culture of care for the environment, responsible consumption, and self-production of food. The same occurs with older adults as they follow suit, said the head of SEDEREC, and discover that the gardens are a productive distraction that improves your mood and provides a living space for conviviality.
Hegel Cortés emphasized that this year the government will provide for the installation of ten new urban gardens in housing units in the Álvaro Obregón Delegation and five more in Miguel Hidalgo, coupled with the budget of two million dollars to support the associations or individuals who want to create and participate in them. Regarding the marketing of surplus urban garden crops, he sees that in one sense this represents a form of competition since the urban garden crops can be classified as organic due to the use of sustainable production processes and can be sold at prices that are slightly higher than the commercial products available in the markets.
Cortés Hegel recognizes the need to promote regulations to make this activity more accessible in terms of cost and procedures, and certification for produce from urban gardens from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA). “These should go toward acquisition of organic labels, green stamps, and good practices so that the producer who does not use pesticide chemicals or fertilizers that are derived from petroleum can demand a better price for the procedure,” he said.
Diffusion via Bicycle
Another agency that promotes family farming is the Ministry of Environment (SEDEMA) with programs like Alcánzame (Catch Up to Me) during the first Sunday of each month on a group bike ride through the Paseo de la Reforma. Pedestrians and drivers are invited to learn about urban gardens at home and are provided advice on how to install them according to Liliana Balcazar, Deputy Director of the Centers for Environmental Education of SEDEMA, who reports that in the first two editions of the program more than two thousand people have been served.
Woman of the Garden is another program that trains women, housewives in situations of vulnerability, and college students. “Women recognize that producing their own food reduces costs and is a form of savings that contributes to the family economy,” said Rosa Gómez, Executive Director of Urban Forests and Environmental Education, another SEDEMA agency. She offered that the agency has already prepared a manual so that people who wish choose to install gardens at home know the care requirements and get good results. Meanwhile, the organization is offering weekend courses on family gardens and urban agriculture at the three environmental education centers. Their locations are available on the website www.sedema.df.gob.mx.
Tendency from the 70s
During the presidency of Luis Echeverría, the Mexican Institute for Children and Families promoted home gardens in rural areas and communities with little access to services. In 1976, the then First Lady, María Esther Zuno, gave instructions that promotores (advocates) from Social Group Volunteer Program should conduct training workshops for rural women and indigenous people, giving them the information needed to undertake home kitchen gardens. Of course, such an idea, while perhaps well-intended, was also wrongheaded and perhaps even racist since native peoples have always kept traditional home kitchen gardens when they have had the time and space. It is the indigenous people who developed the methods and practices that are today widely used in urban agriculture.
Although there were no official results of the program, during the administration of Luis Echeverría, presidential reports constantly gave recognition to home kitchen gardens in various states of the Republic and acknowledged the work of supporting and guiding the families.
Government agencies in the Federal District (DF) such as as SEDEMA and SEDEREC seek to promote the benefits of urban agriculture. These include the following:
- Harvesting an urban garden reduces the costs and increases savings that contribute to the family economy.
- Producing your own food ensures these contain no pesticides or fertilizers.
- Providing immediate access to fresh high quality food.
- Giving the elderly a productive and convivial distraction.
- Promoting a culture of environmental stewardship and responsible consumption among children.
The urban agriculture movement in Mexico City is a process that turns a tradition full circle toward an embracing of the practices of the original inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico. What remains unclear is if these programs are primarily benefiting people from the middle class and other higher income groups or if they are also reaching the urban poor and marginalized communities. In the meantime, Mexico City is returning to its urban agricultural roots in a big way and perhaps redefining what it means to be a Mexican and a city-dweller.
Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.