Mexico City Ecological Park: A wilderness restored

Dahlias were first cultivated here by the Aztecs.
Dahlias were first cultivated here by the Aztecs.

This could be any other forest on the outskirts of any other city, I think to myself as the path curves through a grassy field, past a burst of orange sunflowers and into the shade of a mossy oak grove. Then Guadalupe stops and gestures for us to take a seat on the cool boulders in the clearing.

“Close your eyes,” she says. “Breathe deeply. Feel the peace that is in this place.”

Far in the distance, the murmur of traffic dissolves into the timeless rustle of the wind in the trees.

I do feel the peace; but my mind is straying back to what Guadalupe has just told me about this place, and it defies imagining.

Just two decades ago, this ferny hillside was virtually indistinguishable from the city below. And had it not been for Ajusco’s position as one of the most important aquifer recharge zones in Central Mexico, and a political drama that is still playing out to this day, it would have remained that way.

Nature is a classroom for Guadalupe Nuñez at Mexico City Ecological Park.
Nature is a classroom for Guadalupe Nuñez.

(click here for photo tour)

I’ve come to visit one of the projects of Pronatura, a nonprofit group with offices all over the country from the Yucatan in the Southeast to Enseñada in the Northwest. In Mexico City, the organization administers the Mexico City Ecological Park and runs an environmental education center, a native plant nursery program de ecological restoration……. and a butterfly breeding program, among other projects. Guadalupe Nuñez, who coordinates the environmental education program at the site, is my guide.

She has just led us to the first “station,” a series of stops on the trail that she uses to illustrate her curriculum.

“This is where I tell people to turn around and look,” she says.

The leafy canopy opens here onto a startling view: a yellow-grey cloud smothers the landscape, a clutter of urban sprawl stretching for miles below, barely visible through the smog that envelopes it.

Mexico City, not far below, is barely visible through an envelope of smog.
Mexico City, not far below, is barely visible through an envelope of smog.

“We use this station to explain to people why the lungs of the forest are so important to protect,” Guadalupe said. “If the government had not stepped in to reclaim this land, all of Ajusco would have looked like that.”

After the devastating earthquake of 1985, thousands fled to the outskirts of the city to rebuild and start new lives, many of them building on land they claimed for themselves. This unauthorized activity occurred everywhere and for the most part was unchallenged.

In Ajusco, however, the government took a stand. The area is not only an important recharge zone, but also is situated along the Chichinautzin Biological Corridor, a conservation initiative stretching from the northern Sierra Madre to Morelos in the south.

Here in the forests of Ajusco, “the place where water is born” in ancient Nahuatl, it’s easy to forget the proximity of what is, by some estimates, the world’s second-largest metropolis. It was here that the flower now known as the dahlia was first cultivated by the Aztecs and used for its medicinal properties; today they sprinkle the verdant hills, turning their delicate orange and purple faces toward the sun. “Mirasol,” the locals call them: Look at the sun.

I have not been able to find any reports to corroborate Guadalupe’s version of events, but a collection of dramatic photos hanging in the Pronatura Environmental Education Center in Ajusco Medio (once a private home like many others in this area) seem to verify it.

In 1989, the government evicted the families who had taken over the land in Ajusco, bulldozing hundreds, perhaps thousands of homes. An aerial photo shows a virtually treeless area crisscrossed with dusty streets and nondescript houses – Ajusco in 1989, after it had been scalped and settled.

Aerial photo of Ajusco in 1989

Another photo shows the area as it is today, a lush green forest. The most dramatic, however, shows what seems to be anguished families carrying their belongings out of the area.

Squatters forced from Ajusco in 1989

Most families simply left and began anew somewhere else. A few, however, continue to battle in court to reclaim their homes. A winding path through the forest took us past several of them, overgrown with weeds and in various states of deconstruction. One, however, was a grand estate frozen in time, untouched by the bulldozers. Obviously not everyone who settled here was a penniless squatter.

As one wanders on through the Ajusco trails, Mexico City’s volcanic origins become vividly clear. The black volcanic stone that showered down from the volcano Xixtle some 2,000 years ago is the backdrop for the vivid green of this unusually verdant pine and scrub oak forest. Here, too, one is surrounded by the work of Forest Restoration Program coordinator Saul Arruel and his team: an abundance of native species chosen for their ability to feed and shelter wildlife and regenerate the soil.

Tepozan is being reintroduced for its fast growth and soil regeneration capacity.
Tepozan is being reintroduced for its fast growth and soil regeneration capacity.

Here at the Environmental Education Center, the Pronatura staff is working to win the hearts and minds of a new generation of city kids.  An opossum named Chencho, a house full of butterflies and a bodega full of art supplies are the tools of their trade. And judging from the smiles on the faces of the Garcia family during their recent visit, it may just be working.

Rafael shows off the Aztec bird mask he's just made.
Rafael shows off the Aztec bird mask he’s just made.

Other programs at the center include a food pyramid, experimenting with the ancient Mesoamerican architecture to produce a compact, terraced garden.

The food pyramid packs a lot of produce into a small, easy-to-reach space.
The food pyramid packs a lot of produce into a small, easy-to-reach space.

I’ve just come from the mariposario – the butterfly breeding program – where Pronatura staff and volunteers collect the eggs of butterflies in the surrounding forests, bring them here to let them hatch, grow and metamorphose in the safety of the laboratory. When the butterflies emerge from their cocoons, half of them are released into the wild, and the other half are reserved for the butterfly house.

A Mexican Silverspot stretches his wings in the mariposario.
A Mexican Silverspot spreads his wings in the mariposario.

It is here that visitors – most of them children – are allowed to “liberate” the butterflies into the flowery haven that is the butterfly house.

“It’s one of the most effective ways to help the children bond with nature,” says Saul Saldaña, coordinator of the butterfly program. “As the butterfly takes flight, the child experiences a sensation of profound joy. It’s something they never forget.”

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The Parque Ecologico de la Ciudad de Mexico is open to visitors during the week and on Saturdays, but if you want a guided tour, you’ll need to make an appointment in advance at ajuscomedio@pronatura.org.mx or by calling (52) (55) 54 46 71 08. English interpreters are not available at this time.

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