Climate

The Prospect of a Climate Revolt From Mexico City

While the West is giving lectures about climate action, in Mexico a new paradigm to combat the crisis could emerge from projects like Roma Verde Garden

The Prospect of a Climate Revolt from Mexico City

Roma Verde Garden is a hallowed site for the eco-activism pilgrim. This leafy enclave in the heart of Mexico City emerged from a site where the earth once protested. After the tragic collapse of a building in the 1985 earthquake that shook the entire city, this site was neglected for 27 years.

In 2003, it was transformed into the Roma Verde Garden, and ever since, it has been the epicenter for over 500 volunteers committed to climate action in Mexico City.

Well-known environmental activist and food sovereignty advocate, Vandana Shiva, has already visited Roma Verde four times. So has Adelita San Vicente, the woman who confronted the agrochemical corporation Monsanto against transgenic seeds in Mexico.

Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico’s recently elected president, knows the place well too. Sheinbaum was Head of Government of Mexico City from 2018 to 2023, and as a climate scientist, had an eye for eco-activism. She contributed to the Fourth & Fifth Assessment Reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body assessing the science related to climate change.

Sheinbaum is no stranger to the environmental crisis. But her election raises the question of how she is going to govern the world’s 11th-largest oil producing country. And it highlights whether it is time for countries like Mexico to finally take the lead for true climate action, instead of being subjected to lectures from Western countries that many feel have become uniquely unsuited to lead the world out of the climate catastrophe over their own interests.

“Well, we [at the Roma Verde Garden] are very clear that the industrial consumer society, which is the society that today the Western world protects by all means, is collapsing,” heralds Francisco Ayala, the founder of Roma Verde Garden. He strongly believes that economic and material growth do not equal social progress, and that the climate crisis has become our civilization’s crisis.

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I-Cono, better known as “Garrafones”, is a project by Bianchimajer + Anna Merci and was part of the Arquine Contest No. 20 in 2018, in the Alameda Central of Mexico City. This cone was built with 2,500 jugs and is made up of 25 concentric circles of variable diameter, which progressively narrows as it grows in height / Photo credit @natyesch

“The Western civilization can no longer synthesize what the world of tomorrow requires,” he insists. If we are going to fight the climate crisis and deliver social value, the world needs a new paradigm for growth and development – what Ayala calls the “Geo-bio-systemic paradigm.” The Roma Verde Garden is on a micro-scale, building on that idea using the design tool of permaculture to find more sustainable ways of life.

In the scientist and biologist Bill Mollison’s own words, “permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.”

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Born in the Roma Condesa neighborhood in Mexico City, to a third generation of migrants who came from Italy and Spain, Ayala graduated with a degree in Law, but soon “vindicated” himself. “I rather thought that things could be changed from within the system, but the harsh reality hit me hard,” he says. He accidentally became a squatter and “shaked all the legal orthodoxy” to save a little lung in his neighborhood – a block long green space that he thought the neighbors would lose to the real estate boom going on in the area at that time.

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Mandala Garden in Roma Verde / Photo credit Huerto Roma Verde

And so he began to persuade some friends and neighbors to make an urban garden, with a compost site and some cultural activities, and, well, magic happened. Suddenly what seemed more like something for entertainment became a struggle for demands and an issue of legal heterodoxy because the owner of the land is a public institution, the Instituto de Seguridad para los Servicios de Seguridad y Servicios Sociales (ISSSTE).

Eventually a fight for space began, “although the ISSSTE has always been good to us,” Ayala admits. When he thought that they were going to lose the land – after fighting in court for almost a year – the fight spilled to the media and Roma Verde gained popular support. In the meantime, the ISSTE was going through some financial difficulties, so Ayala played his last card and defied them: “I’ll get out if you commit to doing an equal or better project.”

The dispute over the land reached an impasse, – and the legal uncertainty is still harming its potential for funding from some organizations, but Ayala and his motley team managed to stay.

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Entrance to the Roma Verde Garden / Photo credit @cosmotone_colective

Roma Verde is a miniature city within a city. A small army of people grow food using different techniques: aquaponics, vegetative reproduction in a greenhouse, and a geometric Mandala garden that pre-Mexica civilizations conceived more than 3200 years ago to, among other benefits, make the most of limited water resources. In Roma Verde, there is also more than enough room for things like a recycling area, blacksmith and textile workshops and a Temazcal, a sort of sweat lodge used by Indigenous cultures for spiritual healing and purification of the body to improve health.

Everyone can access Roma Verde and take part in its activities. It attracts an increasing flow of people that come to the restaurant of regenerative cuisine (95% vegetarian), the bazaar with products from small local producers, and the agroecological market. Local farmers from the peri-urban areas in the Southern municipalities of Mexico City such as Milpa Alta, Tláhuac, Xochimilco and Tlalpan sell their products at the market without intermediation. The earnings contribute to support their ancestral cultivation techniques that are highly productive to feed the city and preserve the rural-urban connection because of their proximity to consumers. Visitors know that whatever they consume at Roma Verde, it has an easily traceable origin and a purpose. 

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Ayala has worked hard to demonstrate that the ancestral knowledge and wisdom of indigenous people – from the Americas (known in the indigenous world as Abya Yala) and from other continents – is central to generating this new paradigm that would reconnect us all with nature again. At Roma Verde Garden, the dissemination and communication of this knowledge that fell into oblivion due to rationalism and colonialism becomes substantial. “We do believe that Latin America, with all its ancestral knowledge that has extraordinarily been protected and preserved by grandfathers and grandmothers against all the odds, can open up a different world view and thinking,” says Ayala.

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Shamanic Drum Ceremony / Photo courtesy of Huerto Roma Verde
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Temazcal in the Roma Verde Garden / Photo courtesy of Huerto Roma Verde

The paradigm shift that Ayala exhorts at Roma Verde requires a reconciliation pact with Mother Earth (Pachamama for indigenous people) “as a counter-proposal to the Cartesian, rationalist, patriarchal and unequal paradigms that prevail in the ways we live today,” Ayala says.

“The disconnection with nature comes from a long time ago. The mere emergence of human consciousness already began a process of uprooting ourselves from nature,” says Ayala. The difference in indigenous people is that they have preserved a sacred sensory relationship with Mother Earth, as compared to Western civilizations. He refers to philosophers like Descartes or Spinoza to explain that the absolute disengagement of Western countries with nature emerged at the end of the 15th century, beginning of the 16th century, when the analytical, deductive and rationalist mind subordinates the natural in favor of the rational and puts reason above everything. 

An avid reader, Ayala’s reference to philosophy intertwines with terms from biology to tell us about the bigger project he has in his hands. I asked him if the experimentation with this new paradigm at Roma Verde could be adopted on a larger scale. He replies that the garden has already generated an important unity, a metaphorical “rhizome” (a subterranean plant stem that sends out roots and shoots from its nodes) with links to more than 380 civil society organizations – local, regional and international.

And he adds, “I believe that something important is happening around the world. Many collectives and groups are beginning to emerge worldwide, precisely facing this new spirit that floats in the environment and that has to do with community organization.” I say that I can fully relate to that after writing about so many activist groups. Ayala thinks replication is going to be a horizontal, organic process because “what needs to emerge is a network of civilizational governance,” he says, using the metaphor of a regenerative mycelium (root-like structure of a fungus).

I wonder why the mystery of Fungi has captured everyone’s imagination. “For us they have become a very interesting symbol for our work because they are 100% regenerative,” says Ayala. “They grow very small filaments named mycelium that begin to interconnect the rhizome, which are the roots of trees and shrubs, and carry out a vital regenerative process that can span thousands of acres. These communication filaments become the internet of the subsoil. When something happens in an area of ​​a jungle or a forest, immediately the mycelium through its filaments and the rhizomes communicate to the entire population. So today what we need in urban and peri-urban spaces is to make sure that we connect with all these projects that are vibrating with the same purposes and intentions as we do.”

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Vandana Shiva (right) and Paco Ayala (left) at the Roma Verde Garden in February, 2020 / Photo courtesy of Huerto Roma Verde

When all these projects begin to communicate and exchange information, there will come a time, Ayala hopes, when a critical mass will metamorphosize towards a higher structure of organization that will generate a profound change in the current social, economic and political order. Cities become very important catalysts in this process because by the year 2030 more than 75% of the world’s population is going to live in urban areas. “If cities do not support urban permaculture and work with projects linked to nature, if they do not begin to generate green and blue infrastructure, then climate action is not going to be feasible, here in Mexico and anywhere,” says Ayala.

The Roma Verde Garden has already obtained several national and international awards and recognitions for its work. And most importantly, it has been named a calpulli by the indigenous community, which is an important organization unit in the pre-Columbian Aztec society. On this basis, Roma Verde Garden has received the pantli, the indigenous emblem that only grandmothers and grandfathers grant to places that deserve it. 

Two years ago, as the dispute over Roma Verde became really critical, Claudia Sheinbaum, Head of Government of Mexico City at that time, received Ayala’s team and showed her commitment to the site. 

It could be argued that until recently, Mexico has suffered from a scarcity of leaders who could take the lead on climate solutions from the hands of the West. Roma Verde, with all its ancestral knowledge, embodies the potential that Mexico, and Latin America overall, possesses to champion a new paradigm for climate action. Mexico is certainly an interesting country to watch.

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