Lake Texcoco, located on the eastern edge of Mexico City, had dried significantly during the nineteenth century, a process furthered by the Great Drainage Canal, completed in 1900. Although city boosters praised the canal for having eliminated Texcoco’s floods, dust storms arising from the briny lands began to torment the city. Intermittently from 1912 to 1950, the Mexican government carried out an ambitious drainage and fertilization project to curtail the dust storms and create an agricultural oasis. The government’s vision of a verdant and productive Texcoco bed generated widespread disputes between the state and local campesinos as well as among the urban elite. The postrevolutionary agrarian reform eventually enabled campesinos to negotiate with land reclamation authorities and turn what had been a project exclusive of the local poor into an example of agrarian justice. As engineers struggled to fertilize the briny lands at a reasonable cost, many urban planners proposed lake conservation and afforestation over drainage and farming to secure urban prosperity. But the agricultural vision remained dominant. In the 1950s and ’60s, however, urbanization, the political shift away from campesino production, and the prohibitive costs of farming the reclaimed land opened the door for a conservationist plan to resolve the incessant Texcoco problem. The study of Texcoco reclamation requires the integration of rural and urban history, two fields rarely in dialogue. Intraelite debates over the role of nature in urban growth and campesino protest shaped the evolution of this ambitious public works project. State-led development was therefore not imposed from above but negotiated, contested, and transformed from below by myriad social groups residing in the city and the countryside.
I want to thank Greg Grandin, Karl Appuhn, Sinclair Thomson, Gil Joseph, Lorena Gómez Mostajo, Mikael Wolfe, the participants of the University of Chicago Latin American history seminar, and the two anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions on improving this article.