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Restoring Wetlands Through an Indigenous Lens: Mexico City and Hawaiʻi

by Nicole Otero

In this essay, Nicole Otero shares the knowledge she gained in Mexico on the CAORC-ARENET Overseas Faculty Development Seminar, and compares issues around wetland areas and water management to her home state of Hawaiʻi.

On a hot May afternoon, we arrived at Xolchimilco in Mexico City to meet with a local organization, Arca Tierra, to learn about the traditional farming method of chinampas. As we ventured into the canals and listened to the knowledge shared about the wetlands of the area, I could not help but draw similarities to other wetland areas, specifically in the state where I live, Hawaiʻi. Located approximately 3,800 miles from each other, Mexico City and Hawaiʻi have more in common than most people may think. Both areas were once full of flourishing wetlands that were cultivated and maintained by the indigenous communities to sustainably produce food and manage water. This was until these areas began to be governed by non-indigenous peoples and major canals were built to drain the wetlands for expansion and development. Currently, Mexico City and Hawaiʻi struggle with water management issues including flooding, water shortages, and water pollution. The loss of the wetlands in both of these areas has directly affected the overall health of the watersheds and has led to cultural and environmental destruction. Restoring the wetlands and embracing indigenous farming methods hold the solutions to some of the water management issues these regions are currently facing.

Chinamperos carry fresh-cut flowers. Xolchimilco, 2023. Photo By: Nicole Otero

Significance of Water

Besides being vital as subsistence, fresh water is sacred to indigenous communities around the world and is connected to culture, health, and economic well-being. In both Mexico and Hawaiʻi, the indigenous communities believe water plays a significant role in history, particularly in agriculture, cultural practices, and mythology. In the Aztec religion, several deities are associated with water, including Tlāloc, the god of rain and storms, and Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of water and fertility. Likewise, in Hawaiian mythology, there are also deities associated with water, including Kāne, the god of freshwater. Water, or wai, is highly valued by Hawaiians, so much so that the word for “wealth” is waiwai. Both the Aztecs and Hawaiians had the highest regard for water and understood the interconnectedness of land, water, and people. They understood that water was not only a resource for survival, but was also a sacred element that needed to be protected and conserved.

Loʻi Kalo at Waipiʻo Valley. Hawaiʻi 2019. Photo by: Nicole Otero

Traditional Farming Practices on Wetlands

Water management has been crucial to the survival and well-being of indigenous communities all over the world. Mexico City and Hawaiʻi both have an extensive history of indigenous water management practices including the utilization of wetlands to sustain their communities. From an indigenous perspective, restoring the wetlands coincides with restoring traditional farming methods that work to add to the health of the watersheds. Mexico City, specifically the area known as Xolchimilco, which means "where the flowers grow", once had an abundance of water, canals, and floating gardens, known as chinampas. In Hawaiʻi, including Waikīkī, which means “spouting waters”, there used to be areas of flowing waterways, rich farmland full of loʻi kalo (taro wetland fields), and fishponds. In both regions, wetlands were utilized to help produce food, minimize flood damage, and provide clean water to the communities.

Mexico: Chinampas System

Before the Spaniards took control in the 1520s, the Aztecs utilized wetlands for agriculture and water management by creating the raised bed system of chinampas. The chinampas were artificial islands, or “floating gardens”, that were skillfully constructed by the indigenous people to grow a variety of crops and sustain the local people. In addition, the chinampas also acted like sponges, collecting and retaining excess water during the rainy season and then gradually releasing it during drier times.

Hawaiʻi: Loʻi System

In the past, the wetlands of Hawaiʻi were maintained by native Hawaiians and contained many loʻi kalo (taro wetland farms). The wetlands were an integral part of the ahupuaʻa, or Hawaiian land management system, and were the place of rich sustainable food production. The loʻi kalo were designed to be floodable, which allowed taro to be grown in standing water. The flooded fields served a dual purpose in water management as they helped to maintain consistent moisture levels in the taro plants, while also helping to manage water flow through the landscape. Like the chinampas, the loʻi kalo fields acted as retention basins, holding and storing water during periods of high rainfall and releasing it slowly over time.

Chinampas system in Xolchimilco. Mexico City, 2023. Photo by: Nicole Otero

Land Expansion and Wetland Devastation

Unfortunately, the wetlands of both Hawaiʻi and Mexico City have been devastated due to the process of land expansion and the mismanagement of water resources. When the Spaniards took control of Mexico City in the 1520s, they wanted to expand the land area and began draining the wetlands that surrounded the city. Now, all that is left of the wetland system is in the area of Xochimilco where only a fraction of the chinampas exist and are being cultivated. Likewise, many wetlands in Hawaiʻi were also drained, including those in Waikīkī by the construction of the Ala Wai canal in the 1920s. Now, there are very few functioning loʻi kalo fields left where there once were many. In both Mexico City and Hawaiʻi the destruction of the wetlands has led to a loss of culture, environment, and habitat.

Wetland Restoration for a Sustainable Future

Restoring the wetlands and utilizing indigenous farming methods, in both Mexico City and Hawaiʻi, has the potential to address some of the critical water management and food security issues in these areas. When the wetlands are functioning, they have the potential to act as water basins, regulate flooding, reduce water pollution, provide food, and perpetuate culture. Xolchimilco has been designated as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Humanity site and is a natural protected area. Yet, only a small percentage of the chinampas in the area are being used for traditional farming, and the wetlands are struggling to survive. Organizations like Arca Tierra are working to rehabilitate the wetland habitat and sustain the chinampas culture. Many of the wetlands in Hawaiʻi have disappeared or are struggling to survive, and as a result, the watersheds as a whole have been severely compromised. Organizations, like the Protect Our Ala Wai Watershed Organization (O‘ahu) and Save Our Wetlands (Maui), are working to promote the restoration and protection of the wetlands while aligning with Native Hawaiian principles. As both regions search for innovative ways to combat climate change and resolve water management issues, implementing plans that honor the place-based ecological knowledge of the indigenous peoples is crucial and necessary.

Food cultivation at the chinampa of Arca Tierra. Xolchimilco, Mexico City, 2023. Photo by: Nicole Otero

Additional Information and Links

Xolchimilco, Mexico City: Arca Tierra


Nicole Otero is an Assistant Professor in the Languages, Linguistics and Literature Department at Kapiʻolani Community College. She is particularly interested in sustainability, place-based education, and community engagement which lay the foundation for her pedagogy and research. She lives in Hawai'i and enjoys hiking, fishing, cooking, and working with the community.


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