The Semarnada

Last Wednesday I received a call from some neighbors in Angangueo, Michoacan, a municipality in the very heart of the Biosfera Mariposa Monarca (Monarch Butterfly Reserve). Fifteen trucks at that very moment, in the Llano de las Papas, in the Sierra Chincua, were being loaded with oyamel trunks from the forest that is the winter habitat for millions of monarchs butterflies, from the time they arrive in November for the Day of the Dead, until their departure in March. The neighbors are tired of reporting to the attorney-general’s office and to PROFEPA (Environmental Ministry’s enforcement branch) and having them pay no attention. Sierra Chincua is one of five areas protected by the decree of October 9, 1986 – for which El Grupo de los Cien (The Group of One Hundred) fought so hard – when the Reserve was established for an area of 16,100 hectares (approx. 40,250 acres), and enlarged in 2000 to 56, 259 hectares ( approx. 140, 647 acres) because of devastating logging in the forests of the region, as shown in the aerial photographs taken by the World Wildlife Foundation. Over the past 28 years, the oyamel forest has been reduced by 90%. At one time it is estimated to have covered some 500,000 hectares (approx. one million and a half acres). In January of 2002, a storm devastated the monarch colonies causing the death of 250,000 butterflies in El Rosario and Sierra Chincua.

For the last two six year presidential terms, the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources has shown itself to be negligent – or impotent – in confronting the logging caciques. These range from corrupt politicians (there seems to be an abundance of them), to drug dealers and ejido* bosses. A few months ago, I reported the deforestation caused by the brickworks at the foot of the Cerro Altamirano (one of five sanctuaries protected since 1986), and by the same municipality that wanted to create “a great virgin road’ in the “sacred million year old forest” (so said the fliers), for 4 by 4 off-road vehicle and mountain bike races during Semana Santa (Holy Week). The authorities did not respond.

Last winter, Doctor Lincoln Brower, an expert in this migratory phenomenon, was struck by the magnitude of the logging – including within the nuclear zone – in a period of just one year. He expressed his concern because, now that entire communities with ties to business and political leaders, are making a living by cutting down the trees, the unbridled deforestation could put an end to the micro climate in the Monarch,s hibernating areas. This spring Victor Lichtinger, ex-Minister of SEMARNAT (Ministry for the Environment), told me that he had been unable to make the Federal Prosecutor’s office see the importance of the crime, while the Director of PROFEPA complained of the lack of human and material resources to confront loggers armed with AK 47’s and having sophisticated means of communication. And even though six million dollars from the Monarch Fund, created (thanks to the Packard Foundation) in 2000 by the WWF, are available to pay the campesinos not to cut the trees, the illegal logging continues. I remember the indignation Doctor Brower and I aroused when we suggested at a press conference in 1996 that we should buy or rent the trees from the ejido* or commune members.

This Monday, representatives of government and non-government organizations, academics, and politicians are meeting in Morelia to discuss ways to preserve the region for the Monarch Butterfly, and to allow for development to benefit a growing population. Once again they will face the lack of political will, abuses of power, social problems and corruption. As in other parts of the Republic, the only solution is to enforce the law and use the force necessary to do so.

Another repugnant depredation that is repeated year after year, and to which municipal, state and federal authorities close their eyes, is the plundering of marine turtle eggs on their nesting beaches of the Mexican Pacific. One of the most fantastic phenomenons in nature is the arrival en masse of the female turtles. From the moment they emerge from the waves to go the place where they dig the hole and deposit between 80 and 100 eggs, covering them with their rear flippers before returning to the ocean and disappearing in the foam, it is a magnificent spectacle. However, no feeling is aroused in the voracious egg hunters – apart from greed – who lie in wait on the beaches to steal the eggs. These bandits – a presidential decree of May 28, 1990 declared a total ban on the killing and commercialization of the marine turtle and its products (meat, skin, eggs, oil, shell) – get virtually nothing in Oaxaca, just one peso for each turtle egg. And wholesale they receive less. The decree was the result of an international campaign inspired by a series of articles I wrote about the massacre of marine turtles in Mexico.

The massive looting of the nests of the Golfina turtle in Morro Ayuta (shown in dramatic TV footage a few days ago) does not appear to have aroused the environmental authorities nor the government of President Fox, out of its sleep. For most of the media, the lynching of a marine species is of less importance than the statements of the “pundits” who pollute our political life. The trafficking of eggs in the market of Juchitan continues with impunity, just as it did seven years ago, when ten thousand nests were plundered on the beach of Escobilla, after the reassignment of Navy detachments following attacks by the EPR (Popular Revolutionary Army) in Huatulco.

While national attention is focussed on 500 deputies returning to their congressional seats and the migration of PANISTAS to their cabinet posts, who cares about the fate of the natural inhabitants of Mexico, whose ancestors colonized our forests and beaches thousands of years before the Mexicas or the Spaniards? In a country obsessed with political gossip, who cares that the Laud turtle is on the edge of extinction, dying not only because its nests are looted, but also because of drift nets and long lines, fishing gear that should be outlawed for causing incidental death to marine species. Apparently the repugnant plundering of nature passes unnoticed and our citizenry barely reacts to the atrocities, while elsewhere they would be subjects for national debate and drastic governmental measures.

Worst of all, SEMARNAT has become a Semarnada (a weekly diversion This is a play on words). From the Chimalapas to the Sierra Tarahumara, from the Sea of Cortez to the coasts of Oaxaca and the Caribbean shore, it has shown itself not only to be absent, but virtually useless. Will the new Minister show signs of life, or will he swim like a dead fish, while the natural heritage is being devastated the length and breadth of the national territory?

*ejidos – community lands