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THE BIRTH OF A GARDEN

The task of establishing a botanical garden and nature conservation area in San Miguel de Allende was started in 1989 by Cante A.C., a Mexican nonprofit organization with diverse ecological and cultural interests, founded by Federico Gama and César Arias. The impressive canyon of El Charco del Ingenio, both close yet isolated from the town, appeared as the ideal place for the proposed project - an area of great natural beauty, of ecological, scenic and historical value, in danger of being swallowed up by the irrepressible urban sprawl of the city.

Thanks to timely economic assistance, Cante was able to acquire various parcels of land amounting to about 30 hectares above the cliffs and escarpments of the canyon. Despite its rural nature, much of the land had been seriously affected by human activity - tree felling, removal of soil, hunting, overgrazing, fire, and accumulation of litter … and all this resulted in serious disturbance to local flora and fauna, especially in the upper parts of the canyon, exposed to erosion and the effects of an increasingly arid and extreme climate.

  vista de san miguel

The original project took shape through a master plan of landscape design, carried out by the architects Alejandro Cabeza and Enrique Pliego. The plan visualized an extensive botanical garden surrounded by a conservation zone - a place dedicated to the study, appreciation and enjoyment of nature, open to the local population. The area’s undoubted tourism potential was likewise proposed as a sustainable option.

caminante

The work of clearing and fencing the land was started immediately. With the goal of gradually inducing wild flora and fauna, various tasks of environmental restoration were begun. Among these tasks were the construction of dikes and filtration dams to retain water, humidity and soil, and pruning and improving the condition of the sparse existing vegetation, complemented by limited planting of native species.

The initiative to create a botanical garden in San Miguel de Allende was supported from the outset by the Mexican Environment Agency which authorized the necessary registration and permits to collect plants in the arid and semiarid regions of Mexico. This was done in conjunction with the Botanical Garden of the National University of Mexico (UNAM). With these first few specimens, the garden began to build its collection of plants.

With the infrastructure and minimal equipment in place, such as paths, plazas, lookout points and areas for exhibition and services, the new Botanical Garden of San Miguel de Allende was ready to open its doors to the public. The inauguration took place during the total eclipse of the sun on July 11, 1991. It was a moving ceremony in which representatives of local indigenous communities witnessed the founding of the garden, and raised a traditional cross, cruz de animas, sanctifying the area and committing the communities of San Miguel to the stewardship of its natural resources. Every year since then, the festival of La Santa Cruz del Charco del Ingenio has been celebrated on the site, affirming the important collaboration of people from both rural and urban areas of the municipality.

  cruz

Acquisition of more tracts of land around the original property was made possible by additional economic supports, increasing the area to at total of 67 hectares, which comprise the botanical garden today. Another important expansion of territory took place in 1994, when Cante received 35 hectares adjacent to the Charco del Ingenio in trust from the local government, for the purpose of establishing a popular nature and recreational park, Parque Landeta. Thus the Charco del Ingenio came to cover a total area of 100 hectares including various bodies of water within San Miguel’s zone of urban expansion, free of real-estate development and dedicated to a novel and sustainable program of environmental conservation.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE GARDEN

coleccion botanica
foto Rodrigo Vázquez
 

The vast property acquired and the breadth of the conservation mandate shaped a multifaceted project, which would take it beyond its physical boundaries.

The creation of an extensive botanical collection, mainly of cacti and succulent plants, has meant establishing relations with rural communities, scientific institutions and various authorities for the protection of rare species, or those threatened with extinction. This collection is exhibited in various parts of the garden, such as the Conservatory of Mexican Plants and the Area of Rescued Plants. Likewise, the botanical collection forms the genetic base for propagation in the nursery at El Charco del Ingenio.

The extensive landholding, its extreme topography and the existence of wetlands provide a varied ecosystem, with a surprising variety of flora and fauna. Through the years, indigenous flora has gradually re-established itself in a natural manner, with some inducement, replacing forage grasses and other invasive species. The ecosystem is undergoing a process of healthy regeneration and plants that seemed to have disappeared reappear year by year. The most recent scientific studies made in the area indicate an increasing number of species of flora and fauna, many of them endemic, threatened or in danger of extinction.

Some of the damaged areas of the botanical garden and Parque Landeta have been designated as areas for reforestation with trees and shrubs native to the bio-region, especially those that have been propagated in the garden's nursery and are resistant to drought, poor soils and the extreme climate of this area. They are part of experimental and demonstration plots of an arboretum dedicated to the study of the characteristics and potentials of such species.

These conservation efforts and the promotion of natural resources has received recognition: from thousands of visitors from many different places who come to the Charco, as well as in various publications, and national and international conservation groups and institutions. In 1995, Cante received the National Prize for Ecological Merit from the Mexican government in recognition of its work.

visitors center

The size and complexity of the project eventually made it necessary to create a new organization independent of Cante, dedicated specifically to the development of the botanical garden. Therefore a new nonprofit nongovernmental organization was formed in 1998, El Charco del Ingenio A.C., made up of new associates from San Miguel. The nascent organization received in donation all of the land and facilities which make up the botanical garden as well as the valuable collection of Mexican plants, whose care and management was authorized the following year by the Mexican Environment Agency (SEMARNAT) through the designation of the garden as a "management unit for wildlife conservation" (UMA for its initials in Spanish).

The new organization owns and manages the botanical garden, focusing its efforts on autonomy.  With diverse sources of income, it has aimed for sustainable self-financing of the environmental conservation project. It has also built up a trained staff, each with responsibility for specific tasks in the garden (attention to the public, maintenance, propagation, management of flora and fauna, etc.), supported by Mexican college students contributing volunteer social service work, and by other volunteers from many other places.

One aspect that merits special interest for the new nonprofit organization is the Charco del Ingenio's character as a historical site, an important part of San Miguel de Allende since its foundation. Traces of the past represent an ample compass of time, from remains of pre-Columbian stone tools and ceramics found in caves in the canyon, to a variety of more recent Spanish-era structures, whose vestiges are overgrown with vegetation. Canals, aqueducts, dams, and mills bear witness to skillful water management during Colonial times; there are also ruins of an old hacienda and a still functioning dam, both from the 19th century, and the remains of an iron aqueduct, built in the early 20th century.   ex hacienda

Along with its primary work of natural resources management, the garden also has a social function as a community gathering place for San Miguel de Allende. In addition to various activities that take place through the year, the garden is the site of the Environmental Education Program of San Miguel de Allende (PEASMA for its initials in Spanish). This innovative program combines values and practices of popular cultural with new alternative technologies and is principally aimed at children and youth of school age in the municipality, who learn about the reasons and techniques for carrying out environmental conservation.

The daily presence of out-of-town visitors, both Mexican and foreign, is complemented by a growing number of local users who come to the site for various reasons - above all, for relaxation in Parque Landeta, an ample and popular recreational space with facilities for hiking, gatherings, picnics and camping.

Since 2002, the Charco del Ingenio has been a member of the Mexican Association of Botanical Gardens as well as Botanic Garden Conservation International. It has participated in various conferences and meetings, within and outside of Mexico, and collaborates in the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation of Botanical Gardens.

In 2004, the Charco del Ingenio, along with several other places in Mexico, was named a Peace Zone by the Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan people and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, during his visit in the country.

  tibetans

And in 2005, after years of petitions by the botanical garden, a large area around El Charco del Ingenio was declared by the San Miguel de Allende City Council to be an Ecological Preservation Zone, regulated by a Management Plan and comprising a greenbelt buffer zone where urban development is subject to special restrictions. Thus we seek to preserve this magnificent place as the natural and historical heritage of San Miguel.

The Botanical Garden of El Charco del Ingenio builds itself day by day as a unique and open space with points of interest for everyone: a natural monument, a wildlife habitat, a botanical collection, a historical site, a center of environmental education, and a recreational space for all the community. As envisioned at its inception, it remains an autonomous popular initiative, supported to a large degree by the contributions of its visitors and friends - a silent driving force that helps it to flourish.

paisaje
photo Jennifer Haas

 

 

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