Mexico's Green Cities of the Desert
The Ecotopia 2121 Project details the future of 100 cities across the globe as though they've somehow overcome all environmental challenges and become super-ecofriendly. This month, we highlight Chihuahua City's future.
CHIHUAHUA CITY 2121
One enduring gem of wisdom usually handed down lovingly to children from their elders is the story of seeds. Either at home or at school, on a farm or in a garden, just about all kids learn about how the colossal trees towering skyward above them have all grown from tiny little seeds that can be held in the palm of their hand.
In an industrial setting like Chihuahua City the lifecycle of plants is often of little regard as citizens seek to preserve their own cycle of human life. Despite this, though, in just about every industrialized zone around the world there is what we may call forest-dreamers. Those that feel the hope, the inspiration, and the possibility held within little seeds; that they may one day become a magnificent forest. Many nations have had such forest-dreamers of legendary status; Johnny Appleseed in the United States, Elzeard Bouffier in France, Jadav Payang in India. Individuals who purposefully, over many years, all by themselves, sow entire forests or parklands or orchards along the sidewalk or pathways or in abandoned areas, through which they happen to amble.
Chihuahua City nowadays has a population of one million people. Its economy depends upon its proximity to the United States border and upon the industrial practice of maqillo. Unfinished parts arrive in Chihuahua from the USA, are then assembled together with cheap labor in unsafe factories, before being sent back again to be sold on the U.S. market. Some well-known companies using this business model include Ford Motors, Honeywell, and Hallmark.
Chihuahua’s other main industry is mining. More and more mines, mainly copper and silver, are popping up just on the desert outskirts of the city. The mines are increasingly the subject of environmental concern, especially with regards to soil erosion and the release of poisonous heavy metals. The mining companies, such as Rio Tinto, are legally required to teach mine safety to residents near the mine sites, mainly rural indigenous people. However, the companies usually use this as a public relations opportunity to promote the mines. For instance, they tell the residents something along the following lines:
"You can carry on working to harvest fibers from the agave plants, getting pricked by their spiny shin-digger leaves every day; suffering itches and rashes. Or you can give-up this old-fashioned dangerous occupation and come enjoy high wages in a safe mine."
The reality is quite different. Mercury from the mines ends up in the water; and dust is contaminating the workers’ lungs. Environmentalists and unionists campaign to clean-up or close down the worst mines but alas, the mines expand across the Chihuahua landscape.
In the future, many locals might begin to think that a temporary rash from an agave plant is infinitely more tolerable than life-long lung disease or cancer. And they envision their towns as pollution free.
A town in Chihuahua State after the mines have been rehabilitated with Agave & Aloe Vera plants
Within this environment of toxic mines on the outskirts of the city and the unsafe factories in the inner-city, I posit that it’s still valuable to fantasize about a Greener future. Our Chihuahua fantasy starts sometime in the mid-21st century with a five-year old schoolgirl, Flora, as she walks home with a bunch of seeds gathered during her morning lessons. As she walks passed an abandoned canal, around the corner from a quiet factory, across the dusty rocky field near her home, she stabs a hole in the sandy soil, lays a seed, and pours a few drops of water from a drinking bottle on to it. The next day she checks on the places she has sown but nothing has happened. And the next day, too. And one more day. Nothing.
But the walk to school and the walk back home again is boring and long and there’s little else to do, so for a week or more Flora keeps sowing seeds and then checking upon them later. Until, one afternoon, in a spot near a water-logged hole, maybe a month later or so after she first began, a small green shoot with a few leaves rises out of the soil.
As soon as she gets to her class the next day she asks her teacher for more seeds. And every day after that as well. Sometimes her teacher obliges, sometimes she cannot. Flora didn’t know what sort of seeds she was sowing, they were all different; some small, some large, some smooth, some grooved, some even had wings. The teacher didn’t know what Flora was doing with the seeds—in fact both teacher and student thought the other a little bit weird so they never chatted in any depth about it.
Sometimes, Flora’s new shoots withered and died but sometimes they grew green and woody and sturdy. One grew into a pumpkin. Flora liked them all and she was determined to continue, imagining that by the time she was to leave school forever -- an eternity into the future for her — maybe a mighty forest will line her long route.
It didn’t quite work out that way but enough of Flora’s seeds seemed to germinate and grow to keep her enthused whilst her teacher kept donating seeds. Over the next few years, Flora’s friends and families heard about her efforts. A few times she had the chance to show them, too, walking to and fro around her neighborhood. Some thought it was inspirational. Others thought it was an eccentric waste of effort since sooner or later the plants would be mowed down by the city.
A small town in the outskirts of Chihuahua City, c2121,
after the mines have been rehabilitated with Agave & Aloe Vera plants
By the time of Flora’s last year at high school, though, many of her plants were still standing and some were taller than she was. By then she had learnt what kind of trees they were, mostly desert-willows, as it turned out.
In later years, moving into the new century, Flora’s fascination with trees did not wane and she was always trying to enlist her friends and neighbors to help with weekend sowings and plantings around their community. The local newspapers chanced upon their activities once in a while and started reporting about them as Greening the City. Over time, all across Chihuahua City, readers began offering their support by donating seeds or helping to spread them, or by pointing to a neglected site that could do with some ‘Greening’. Despite numerous setbacks -- where upon carparks and new factories were built upon certain plots after years of gardening -- as whole Flora’s part of Chihuahua City grew gradually more verdant and lush.
The emerging urban forest of desert willows within Chihuahua delivered upon the city a host of benefits that Flora didn’t initially realize:
a) the desert willows helped shelter neighborhoods and communities from the adverse effects of wind and sun, keeping them cooler and more humid,
b) the desert willows helped mitigate all kinds of pollution: air pollution waned somewhat, as did noise pollution and visual pollution.
c) the desert willows also helped control erosion in certain places where the surface and sub-surface was made fragile by development and overuse.
At one point, Flora also started cultivating plots of Agave plants. She took a fancy to one particular species, Agave lechuguilla: The Little Lettuce, which grows only in the arid soils of Chihuahua and in no other place in the world. Despite its nickname, and attractive appearance, The Little Lettuce is a hardy tough little plant with rigid toothed-lined leaves that can easily pierce the toughest of outdoor-wear. With the right skill, the fibers of The Little Lettuce can be turned into ropes and mats and brushes. These products could last decades -- it is said by the native Chihuahuans -- for so tough are the fibers.
Occasionally, Flora would venture off into the outskirts of Chihuahua City to see if she could find out from locals there more about The Little Lettuce. While The Little Lettuce was quite common in the desert, it never grew near a mine. Some said the plant was sensitive to pollutants whilst others thought it was because The Little Lettuce knew where the Earth was dead and the people bad.
The outskirts of Chihuahua City, c2121, after the mines have been rehabilitated.
By the beginning of the 22nd century, the mines around Chihuahua had been bled dry of commercial metals, and they all rather quickly shut-up shop, one after the other, in the space of a few years. For many locals, this was not a something to be worried about. The land would finally be left in peace. By now, Flora had grown into old age yet still in 2121, she was ready to begin a new project. Under her direction, the indigenous craft of agave cultivation started-up once more to replace the mining industry.
She was determined to develop a nature-based cottage-style industry so that her grandchildren would not ever have to work in a maqillo factory. She was such a well-known figure in Chihuahua City by this time, though still regarded as eccentric, that she gained help from all sections of society; natural history clubs, the local municipality, and from some factory managers, too. Working together, by the end of the year, Chihuahua’s first Agave-roofed homes, made from the fibers of The Little Lettuce, were rolled-out to families in different parts of the city.
The forest that Flora had dreamt-of when she was five years old ended up taking an entire lifetime to emerge but eventually it enveloped entire sections of the city. Her seedlings not only managed to survive the city, they ended up becoming an integral part of it.
The outskirts of Chihuahua City, c2121, with a growing urban forest.
The Ecotopia 2121 Project details the future of 100 cities across the globe as though they've somehow overcome all environmental challenges and become super-ecofriendly. For the full Chihuahua City scenario, see the book of the project. For more information about Chihuahua City, desert mining, urban sustainability and American succulents, see the further readings below:
Bell, F. G., and L. J. Donnelly. Mining and Its Impact on the Environment. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2006.
Bell, S., and S. Morse. Sustainability Indicators: Measuring the Immeasurable. London: Routledge, 2008.
Chales, G. Cacti and Succulents: An Illustrated Guide to the Plants and Their Cultivation. Marlborough, UK: Crowood Press, 2006.
Jain, R., J. Cui, and J. K. Domen. Environmental Impact of Mining and Mineral Processing: Management, Monitoring, and Auditing Strategies. Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2015.
Mouget, L. J. A. Growing Better Cities: Urban Agriculture for Sustainable Development. Ottawa: IDRC Books, 2006.
Velducea, M. B. “Copper Mining in Chihuahua’s ‘Protected’ Reserves.” Earth First Journal, March 10, 2015.