From the Monarch to the Sea of Cortez

Case: Illegal Logging. Sanctuary: Monarch Butterfly. Agency: Mayor’s Office of Angangueo, Michoacan. File: Environmental Crime. Those were the headings on the dossier sent June 4 by the authorities in Anganguero to the Attorney-General of the Republic to protest the devastating logging in the center of the Biosphere reserve for the Monarch Butterflies. What is shocking about the present situation is the relationship between the loggers and armed criminal groups (who have turned the Reserve into a No Man’s Land), and the magnitude of the deforestation. This will seriously disrupt the phenomenon of the butterfly migration since, upon their return, they will find their habitat has become a cemetery of felled trees.

In the dossier, there is a letter a letter dated March 23 addressed to Lazaro Cardenas Batel, Governor of the State of Michoacan, asking for his assistance against the deforestation, because, “for some time past this illegal logging has increased in this federal reserve zone. In areas adjacent to Cerro Prieto, up to 42 trucks line up ready for the trees to be cut down. Faced with this situation, we have reported it to the appropriate authorities but we feel that they have still not been able to arrest those responsible for this environmental crime”. Another urgent letter was sent April 5, explaining that the plunderers “are neither ejido members nor campesinos, it is outsiders who are taking the wood.” This contradicts the social excuses made for the logging by Governor Lazaro Cardenas Batel who said: “if we tell the people they cannot exploit their forest, we condemn them to death by hunger, or we force them into illegal logging” (New York Times, June 2, 2004).

The Governor does not mention the annual benefits that the ejido members receive from ecotourism, nor the payments for conservation of the trees from World Wildlife Fund. Besides, as says Professor Eliseo Gonzalez Garcia of Angangueo, “the Governor should understand that if an ejido member wants to take out wood, why doesn’t he exploit his own forest, instead of going into a federal zone to log? Or is it that the ejido people have first finished off their own forest and now are attacking what is not theirs”.. Exactly! these “poor woodcutters”, after complaining that “everybody worries about the butterflies, but, what about us?” assaulted journalists from the New York newspaper and smashed the photographer’s camera, hit a radio reporter in the face and kidnapped them for 45 minutes. Smelling of alcohol, they threatened them. “We are thieves, not savages.” But, according to the guide, after the Governor had sent in the judicial police, the loggers returned.

Never mind that Vicente Fox, in December of 2001, promising permanent vigilance by federal police, declared in Sierra Chincua: Not one more tree will fall in the Monarch Butterfly zone”. Since then the loggers have felled thousands of trees and the police have withdrawn. For this reason, the Mayor of Angangueo Jorge Martin Arizmendi, sent a letter to the President of the Republic on May 14 to remind him that since his last visit, (the Reserve) “has partially been abandoned in terms of inspection and vigilance in the forest, so the well-organized loggers have been laying it waste right up to the center where the butterflies hibernate.” We “ask for intervention by the Mexican Army to establish a permanent control post to control and to safeguard these forests.” He mentions that “the prevention needed is not a matter of roads and sawmills. The 700 hectares that belonged to Colonel Mondragon, which the government expropriated in 1986 when the Reserve was created, are part of a federal zone and because they belong to the government the loggers want to destroy them. What we are asking, is that the federal government hands them over to the town of Angangueo to conserve and protect them”. But, since their petitions produced no response, the Mayor, the schools, the civil society, and even the priest of the town decided to hold a silent protest march against the logging on Wednesday, April 28. During the demonstration, the predators passed by them with trucks loaded with wood to show the impunity they enjoy.

For those who know are aware of the criminal mafias which have invaded the Reserve with about 3500 loggers, the petition of the authorities of Angangueo is logical, since, because they have high powered weapons and communication systems, nobody can oppose them. “The forests in Mexico are also strongholds for drug dealers and armed rebels”, states Victor Lichtinger, the former Minister for the Environment. Besides hauling the wood in large trucks, the mafias have an advance guard of Volkswagens and light trucks with no plates to warn of any guard posts or operations in the area. The World Wildlife Fund has recommended establishing army posts at strategic points, since, in spite of the large operations conducted by the federal government to slow down illegal logging, the deforestation in the zone of the Monarch Butterfly is flourishing”. “Local people know their heritage is being destroyed”, says the scientist Lincoln Brower.

Meanwhile, along the Sea of Cortez, for the first time, a rural community has started legal proceedings against the Nautical Ladder, a FONATUR (Ministry of Tourism) project. On May 13, a license was granted for the construction and operation of a marina for commercial use in Bahia de Los Angeles, a heavenly town in the State of Baja California. The marina is to be built facing the town, in Punta Arenas, on the great beach that is visible at low tide. In exchange for a few low-level jobs, all the inhabitants will pay the cost of this project, which is for the benefit of private investors. On June 3, the Ejido Council of Tierra y Libertad requested an amparo* for the concession to be annulled. The dredging in the area under concession will impact irreversibly on the environment of Bahia de los Angeles, besides wiping out the traditional economy of the population, which up to the present, has managed to maintain a sustainable balance with its environment. The bahia is one of the places in the world where the whale shark congregates, but construction will clog up the bay and destroy this refuge which is crucial for its survival. If it loses its habitat the whale shark will disappear, along with the tourism associated with it. Permanent changes caused by dredging and the construction and operation of the marina will put an end to the fishing of flounder, a species which spawns in this region. Several species of shellfish, a basic food for the 600 residents, abound here. Destruction of the mollusc’s habitat will cause the loss of this food source. The Punta Arena marsh, a refuge for five species of officially protected birds, will be another victim of the marina. Finally, the principal attraction of Bahia de los Angeles, its landscape, will be wiped away. “To preserve the landscape” was the reason Ernesto Zedillo gave for canceling the construction of the biggest saltworks in the world in Laguna San Ignacio, sanctuary for the gray whale, after a five-year campaign conducted by the Group of One Hundred. Will Vicente Fox have the same sensitivity? Or will the projects have to to stopped by legal means? Six months ago, following a complaint by the group of One Hundred, fines were imposed for the construction of a marina at Santa Rosalillita, another Nautical Ladder project.

By invoking the poverty of local residents, federal and state authorities will find an easy excuse for destroying the environment. But these are the people who have to defend themselves against the greed and corruption of people, alien to their communities and indifferent to their right to decide how they want to live, and what activities they want to pursue, in a healthy environment.

The residents of Angangueo and Bahia de los Angeles expose the farce of “sustainable development”, where development plans are imposed from above and from outside their communities. There can never be another Monarch butterfly sanctuary, nor another Sea of Cortes, but our governments can destroy these spectacular phenomena of Nature. This is how we in Mexico celebrate World Earth Day.

* “Amparo” is an order for protection against the actions of authorities, a very powerful provision in Mexican law that has no adequate translation in English.