Agroecological Practices A Way of Life

Daniel, a member of the FPDT, prods the dirt on the dyke built during the workday.
Daniel, a member of the FPDT, prods the dirt on the dyke built during the workday. | Photo (detail): © Brenda Anayatzin Ortiz

Atenco – a municipality whose history is tied to draining the bodies of water in the centre of Mexico – today, is a place where caring for water, cultivating land and life in all its dimensions are connected. This is a tour of some of this region’s agroecological practices in the company of the farmer's organisation “Frente de Pueblos en Defensa de la Tierra”.

By Adriana Salazar

Dawn breaks. We arrive to the centre of San Salvador Atenco in the northeast of the State of Mexico to meet with César del Valle, leader of Frente de Pueblos en Defensa de la Tierra (FPDT). This is a farmers organisation created 20 years ago with the aim of protecting the land from dispossession propelled by the imposition of an airport and a series of complementary construction jobs. Throughout the day, we will discover the links between this long struggle, food sovereignty, and the socio-environmental crises of Mexico City, this municipality’s neighbour. We will also talk about how the agroecological practices have transformed the area’s ejidos (plots of communal agricultural land whose members hold usufruct rights) into models for the comprehensive defence of life.

Origin and Destiny in a Home’s Patio 

We park in front of his parents’ house, Ignacio and Trinidad, who are pioneers of this social movement and generous hosts. Going inside, we head straight to the patio where César is waiting for us. The hotplate is heating up as they set the table for breakfast. 

The patio is open to the sky, which starts to clear up gradually. In the middle, there’s a greenhouse where vegetables are growing and where seeds are kept that have adapted to this soil’s conditions over many harvests. There’s a coop with chickens that offer their eggs for our morning meal and some milking goats. There’s a space where medicinal herbs are growing for healing: lemon verbena, muicle, lavender and rue. There are some fruit trees: lime, citron and plum. There are some muddy mounds where hot compost vibrates with microscopic lifeforms. The guests, a group of teaching students who have come from Hidalgo, carry pitchers, glasses and plates of food. Here in this space, a microcosm of the countryside unfolds and expands outside to cover several municipalities: sky, land, fungi, bacteria, plants, animals and human lives are interwoven in relationships of reciprocity. 
  • O amanhecer ilumina a estufa no quintal da família Del Valle, onde César, líder da Frente Popular em Defesa da Terra (FPDT), nos mostra alguns frutos. © Brenda Anayatzin Ortiz
    O amanhecer ilumina a estufa no quintal da família Del Valle, onde César, líder da Frente Popular em Defesa da Terra (FPDT), nos mostra alguns frutos.
  • César del Valle nos explica o papel que as sementes nativas desempenham no projeto agroecológico que ele desenvolve em Atenco. © Brenda Anayatzin Ortiz
    César del Valle nos explica o papel que as sementes nativas desempenham no projeto agroecológico que ele desenvolve em Atenco.
  • Amarrados, os tomates amadurecem sob o sol de Atenco. © Brenda Anayatzin Ortiz
    Amarrados, os tomates amadurecem sob o sol de Atenco.
  • Part of the energy and food chain, the family’s chickens provide their eggs free of hormones and other substances used by the poultry industry. © Brenda Anayatzin Ortiz
    Part of the energy and food chain, the family’s chickens provide their eggs free of hormones and other substances used by the poultry industry.
  • The ideas, practices and efforts involved in this agroecological initiative are embodied in a plate of food. © Brenda Anayatzin Ortiz
    The ideas, practices and efforts involved in this agroecological initiative are embodied in a plate of food.
  • César del Valle points to the location of the spot called El Paríso (“Paradise”). The perimeter fence of the New International Airport of Mexico is seen in the background. © Brenda Anayatzin Ortiz
    César del Valle points to the location of the spot called El Paríso (“Paradise”). The perimeter fence of the New International Airport of Mexico is seen in the background.
César gives us a handful of seeds: purple maize, radish, tomato, lettuce, carrot. These, he says, will be planted, cared for, nourished and harvested; they will be the basis of sustenance for their community. We observe how food production in this region is measured according to the size of the patios, plots and distances between one town and another. Here, land is not worked to meet the demands of large markets located hundreds of kilometres away. The agroecological practices we want to learn from, he states, are not so closely related to the agricultural production based on biomaterials and crop association, which have emerged as an alternative to uniform production and the use of agrochemical products on harvests. These practices, he tells us, can have high energy costs similar to those of the agroindustry if they continue to be understood merely in terms of production.   

To the contrary, in Atenco and other places in Mexico – which are still few –, ways of cultivating the land are being practised that are focused on how a specific territory is linked to life in all its dimensions: land with specific characteristics, communities, dietary needs, unique water conditions and particular conflicts which must be faced. 

With our stomachs and hearts full of energy, we leave the house and go out into the fields. 

The Xalapango Pond Work Project: The City Overflows into the Countryside

The air starts heating up as the sun rises higher in the sky. Leaving San Salvador Atenco, the highway is lined with fields. The maize plants stretch up three metres tall – they brush up against each other, bending and swaying together in the wind. The rivers flow through several concrete canals, now running parallel to the highway. Heading through the fields, we can make out a cement and metal wall that cuts off the flood zones of the Texcoco lacustrine territory. 

This wall is a perimeter fence for the New International Airport of Mexico (NAIM) project, cancelled in 2018 after a public consultation that marked one of the first political actions of the current president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The structure draws a rigid horizon and interrupts the passage of vehicles that, like ours, are trying to travel over a lakebed that has been declared non-existent for decades.

Along our way, we confirm that this lake does, indeed, exist, although differently, and it resists thanks to the actions taken by the towns along its shore: César reminds us that, in Nahuatl, atenco means “on the water’s shore”. 
  • The pond’s landscape vibrates with the animal sounds of birds and mosquitos. © Brenda Anayatzin Ortiz
    The pond’s landscape vibrates with the animal sounds of birds and mosquitos.
  • A few metres from the perimeter fence, water floods the pond’s beds again. © Brenda Anayatzin Ortiz
    A few metres from the perimeter fence, water floods the pond’s beds again.
  • Daniel, an FPDT member, looks out onto the scenery of water and land near the Papalotla riverbank. © Brenda Anayatzin Ortiz
    Daniel, an FPDT member, looks out onto the scenery of water and land near the Papalotla riverbank.
  • Clay-like and mineral-rich soil © Brenda Anayatzin Ortiz
    Clay-like and mineral-rich soil
  • The lacustrine landscape regenerates on the land of Atenco. © Brenda Anayatzin Ortiz
    The lacustrine landscape regenerates on the land of Atenco.
  • For the last time, César del Valle and Daniel carry a tarp that will be used to build the dyke. © Brenda Anayatzin Ortiz
    For the last time, César del Valle and Daniel carry a tarp that will be used to build the dyke.
Despite its cancellation, César says, the airport project (in its multiple versions and over the past two decades) has left a deeply rooted mark on Texcoco’s lacustrine territory. This land not only involves the concave ground where there was once an enormous body of still water but also an entire water system and the ecologies that make these types of formations possible: mountains, hillsides, fertile shores and all the beings that inhabit them. Moreover, this lake is fundamental for sustaining the ways of life in this region and the city that is intertwined with it. 

The wall, the asphalt slabs, the terminal structures and runways now obstruct the seasonal bodies of water from the runoff that comes from Tepetlaoxtoc, in the high basin, through the Papalotla, Xalapango, or Coxcacoaco riverbanks. These waters carry minerals deposited on the bottom of fluvial beds to then nourish the fields and settle in pools, ponds and swamps. Lacustrine bodies such as North Texcoco, Xalapango or the San Juan Swamp create a microclimate that makes it possible for rural ways of life to carry on. At the same time, their waters mitigate wind contamination and shelter many bird species, aquatic animals and plants. 
These pools, however, are continuously drained to the state of Hidalgo to avoid flooding the ruins of this abandoned infrastructure project.

Through the airport and other projects that bring about real estate speculation, land dispossession, water and stone extraction – it’s worth mentioning that in the Texcoco region, over 60 mines have been reported that have left open hollows of up to 50 metres deep at the summits of the hills – the city has overflown into the countryside like a type of “oil spill”. The river drainage infrastructure magnifies it by making the pools’ necessary permanence difficult. What might happen, we wonder, if the countryside were to overflow into the city instead?

We reach the Xalapango pool where other FPDT members are waiting for us to start a job. Like other collective actions that bring together communities from the towns of Atenco, Nexquipayac and Tepetlaoxtoc, this one seeks to recover the bodies of water from the lower part of the basin in order to return life to the lacustrine fields and ecosystems that need their water. We are going to fill sacks with dirt and pile them on top of others. They will form a dyke meant to retain the lacustrine formations and guide their excesses toward other basins, which, at the same time, will remain in the region. 

By taking part in this collective action of filling, tying, moving and carrying the weight of the dirt on our backs, we came to understand that food sovereignty goes beyond the trips between farms and tables, as it involves multiple territories, flows and lives. We discovered that irrigating the fields and keeping them at the humidity levels needed for the agroecological planting models to prosper is not an easy task. We also understood that neither the countryside nor the city is a place exactly, but rather they are different forms of relationships—that sometimes overlap—between a territory and living conditions. 

The Soil in the Farmland Is Alive 

The day starts to turn to dusk. The Del Valle family’s plot is quite near the pond where the purple maize seeds we had held in our hands are now full-grown plants. On their cobs, the kernels peek out from under the husks. We walk between the rows being careful not to step on the plants’ forage.
  • FPDT members, young teaching students and friends of FPDT fill sacks with dirt during the workday. © Brenda Anayatzin Ortiz
    FPDT members, young teaching students and friends of FPDT fill sacks with dirt during the workday.
  • The Del Valle family’s plot stands out from the adjoining fields because of the creole maize crop. © Brenda Anayatzin Ortiz
    The Del Valle family’s plot stands out from the adjoining fields because of the creole maize crop.
  • Purple maize peeks out from under the husks of the cobs. © Brenda Anayatzin Ortiz
    Purple maize peeks out from under the husks of the cobs.
  • Different pollinator species, such as white butterflies, inhabit the farmland we visited. © Brenda Anayatzin Ortiz
    Different pollinator species, such as white butterflies, inhabit the farmland we visited.
  • In the afternoon, Nieves Rodríguez honours us with a unique dish: battered huauzontle with ahuautle (axayacatl eggs) and mole. © Brenda Anayatzin Ortiz
    In the afternoon, Nieves Rodríguez honours us with a unique dish: battered huauzontle with ahuautle (axayacatl eggs) and mole.
In this sense, agroecology is not a new nor exclusively human issue. It is a way of life that involves negotiations between species, taking holistic actions and strengthening community ties. There is an understanding that the old knowledge must be preserved and joined together with new knowledge that arises from the challenges of urban sprawl, environmental devastation and the extractive models that insistently suffocate farm life.

We sink our hands into the moist and microbiologically alive soil before setting out on our trip back to the sprawling city. We thank César for accompanying us during this long day in Atenco as we watch the sun go down. Before leaving, we pull up a radish that shines with a colour comparable to the sunset; once we are back in the city, where there is an abundance of supermarkets, this one will taste different.