Butterflies in the Storm

The Presidents came to visit, the photographs were taken, the official decrees were issued, ministers and governors came and went, promises were offered, the photographs were taken, the loggers continued to devastate, and the butterfly, ay! he went on dying. The situation of the sanctuaries of the monarch butterfly could be synthesized in this paraphrase I am making of the poem “Masa” by the poet Cesar Vallejo.

On Tuesday, Febuary 12, there appeared a shocking piece of news on the front page of the New York Times:“Storm in Mexico Devastates Colonies of Monarch Butterfly.” Up to 250 million butterflies had frozen to death in the Michoacan sanctuaries of Sierra Chincua and El Rosario, after two days of continuous rain on the 12th. and 13th. of January, followed by an exceptional cold. According to Doctor Lincoln Brower, who days after the storm found the sanctuaries carpeted with butterflies to a depth of up to 30 centimeters (12 inches), 80% of the population perished in El Rosario and 74% in Chincua. The scientist declared that this is the greatest mass mortality in the 25 years he has been investigating the migratory phenomenon of the monarch butterfly in Mexico. The World Wildlife Fund has stated that, “preliminary analysis of the massive mortality of the monarch butterfly last month in its places of hibernation indicates that the probable root cause is deforestation, and logging within and around the sanctuaries of the butterfly”. The mounds of dead butterflies were higher where there were no trees, reinforcing the assertion that the cutting of a single tree of the umbrella of forest cover can cause death through freezing.

Actually, since the official decree of 1986 that declared 5 sanctuaries to be protected areas – El Rosario, Siera Chincua, Chivati-Huacal, Cerro Pelon and Cierro Altamirano -, legal and clandestine logging has not only continued, but has increased. In November 2000, the size of the reserve was extended and a program was announced that would pay ejiditarios (ejido members) not to cut trees. During a trip to El Rosario and Chincua 500 sawmills were found. In the town of Ocampo, at the foot of El Rosario, the corrrals of several houses contain sawmills. On the highways trucks pass by loaded with oyamel (a type of pine) logs.

Says Isidro Gonzales (a member of the Management Committee for the 261 ejiditarios of El Rosario): “what has given us a real headache are the loggers. We barely turn our heads and there they are, cutting down trees” (El Universal 13/2/2002). This ejidatario, who also collects entrance fees from tourists who visit El Rosario, complains that since the beginning of the season, although they usually welcome 250 thousand people, only 15 thousand have come. On Tuesday, February 12, the day news of the disaster was released there were only 10 visitors. Which is only natural, since what are people going to see? Heaps of dead butterflies? Cut down forests? Pools of dust? The condemnations of logging by this ejidatario could have been taken from another ejidatario through another journalist after the mortalities of butterflies in 1992, 1995, 1998, and 2001. The deforestation continues. The circumstances barely change. In other years, as in 2002, the butterflies died because of biological phenomena, frosts and rain, without man having anything to do with it.

What is most dramatic is that this year happened to be a season with the greatest number of butterflies in the reserve in a long time. Study of this enormous mortality has led scientists like Lincoln Brower and others, to believe that instead of there being 10 million per hectare, as was previously believed, the density of monarchs in the oyamel forests could be 50 million per hectare (2 and a half acres), which makes the phenomenon of the monarch even more extraordinary, and the responsibility of our government for conservation even greater.

Unfortunately Mexico is a magical country, and as happens with crime, where there are murders but no murderers, millionaire frauds and no criminals, so in the case of the monarchs there are massive mortalities but no responsible parties. As in other years, in 2002 it was the climate that was responsible. They don’t say that each time there are fewer trees in the zone, that the mountain clearers have destroyed the micro-climate, that the butterflies have no natural protection against the elements. In the face of the death of 250 million monarchs officials quietly shrug their shoulders and, minimizing the disaster like the news agency of Roberto Solis, that was in charge of the reserve in the time of the PRI and now in time of the PAN, “this is a natural climatic phenomenon which has to be seen as part of nature’s equilibrium.” Besides,according to him, the other sanctuaries protected in 1986 were not affected. Regarding the Cerro Altamirano, I have been informed that, yes, a colony did form, but the butterflies died of cold. And as for the famous protection, is SEMARNAT (Environmental Enforcement Agency) aware that the new mayor (PRD – Partido de the Revoluccion Democratica – left of center opposition party founded by Cuauthemoc Cardenas in the 80’s) is splitting up the hill of the butterflies among ejidatarios to be used for cattle and planting?

Faced with the deaths of butterflies happening every year in one sanctuary or another, it is time for the government to take drastic measures for their protection. First should be a declared moratorium on cutting the oyamels in central parts of the reserve, and reducing considerably the deforestation in the buffer zones that surround the heart of the Mexican refuge and the monarch butterfly.