Twilight of the Monarchs

Although in Contepec, Michoacan we always witnessed the arrival of monarch butterflies at Cerro Altamirano each November and their departure in March, it wasn’t until 1976that a Canadian “discovered” the monarch’s winter sanctuaries in Mexico (just as Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World), and revealed to us that the butterflies fly from southern Canada and northern United States to the temperate forests of central Mexico. When the Special Biosphere Reserve of the Monarch Butterfly was created bypresidential decree on October 9, 1986 (at the request of the Group of 100), official protection was given to five sanctuaries, covering 16,100 hectares of core and buffer zones. After 14years of legal and illegal logging, in 2000 the protected area was enlarged to 56,259 hectares, with 15,306 in the core zone and 40,953 in the buffer zone. Nevertheless, none of the four PRI and onePAN presidents since 1986 has wanted — or been able — to put a stop to the logging which threatens to destroy the oyamel forests which are the monarchs’ habitat, jeopardizing the survival of one of the most spectacular migrations on our planet.

Comparison of aerial photographs taken on March 10, 2001 with satellite images from January 19, 2003 shows without any doubt that in two years, in only two ejidos in the state of Michoacan, more than 329 forested hectares were illegally clear cut within the Reserve. This indisputable evidence indicates that the Ejido Francisco Serrato wasresponsible for the disappearance of 178 hectares of forest in the buffer zone and 16 hectares in the core zone. 12 hectares were also clear cut in the adjacent ejido. In the Ejido Emiliano Zapata 123 hectares were clear cut in the buffer zone. It is not known whether permits were granted for any of this cutting, but during overflights on January 21 and 22, 2004 researchers and members of the press saw logging going on in Francisco Serrato, at the height of the monarch season. Footage of trucks loaded with logs were aired on Mexican and Spanish television news programs.

Until recently most of the illegal logging was in the Reserve’s buffer zone, but now the loggers are cutting brazenly in the core zone. In the past few years the oyamel-pine forest in the core zone on the western flank of Cerro Pelón between Macheros andCampamento, in the Ejido Nicolás Romero (municipality of Zitacuaro, Michoacan), has been almost totally destroyed by small-scale but incessant illegal logging. Overwintering colonies have always been present in this forest.

Since last year illegal logging has been going on in the core zone on Sierra Chincua. Loggers have clear cut oyamel trees, rolling them down the hillsides to the road which since the winter of 1976-77 has been the main access for researchers and tourists. This winter the ejidatarios dug huge ditches in an attempt to keep out the loggers’ trucks, as government officials have done nothing to stop them. It remains to be seen how successful this strategy will be for protecting one of the best-preserved forests in the Reserve.

In addition to upsetting the forest ecosystem, reducing the potential for water runoff and causing serious erosion, the relentless thinning and clear-cutting of the forest will lead to increased monarch mortality during the frequent winter storms that hit the region, such as the January 2002 storm which killed more than 80% of the population. In El Campanario and Chincua alone, 50 million butterflies froze to death. This January a milder storm had a lesser impact on the monarchs, although on Cerro Pelón in El Capulin there was a massive die-off and dead butterflies have been falling from the trees for weeks. In contrast, in Ejido El Paso, on Chivati-Huacal, the ejidatarios have agreed to go after the loggers, and have burned their trucks. The satellite photos show the ejido densely forested up to its borders, and the adjacent ejidos where there are few or no trees. Logging within and adjoining the areas where the colonies arrive is incompatible with the survival of the overwintering migratory phenomenon of the butterfly, which the December 2003 issue of Life called one of “The Seven Wonders of the Animal World.”

Many ejidos and local communities have writen to local, state and federal governments asking for help to save the sanctuaries. They have also turned to non-governmental organizations and researchers, in the hope that someone will pay attention to their petitions and bring them to public light. Some ejidos have even requested military intervention to stop organized logging and protect their forests. They should be heeded, as it is unheard of for an ejido to ask for the army to enter a protected area. This petition is evidence of the desperation felt in the face of unchecked logging by armed mafias.

Ejido La Mesa is in charge of one of the four areas in the Reserve which are open to tourists, as colonies have always been present in La Mesa, one or two kilometers north of the deforested area in Francisco Serrato. After the fires during the 1998 El Niño, the butterflies did not return to La Mesa for several years. However, they did come back in 2001 and 2002. The state of Mexico and the federal government invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in tourism infrastructure to support La Mesa, and in December 2002, with much press coverage, state of Mexico governor Arturo Montiel opened the season in this ejido. As a result of the devastating logging in Francisco Serrato, which has begun to move up and invade the forest in La Mesa, this year there was no colony. Instead of recuperation, the permanent loss of the colony can be expected, as well as negative impacts on the watershed and the regions microclimate, and a waste of the investment in ecotourism and conservation. Logging in Francisco Serrato is on the Michoacan side, and the access roads for taking out the wood go through El Rosario and Ocampo, in Michoacan. Excessive logging in Michoacan contrasts with the better quality of the forest and better law enforcement in the state of Mexico. We can safely say that logging and corruption in Michoacan are harming potential tourism in the state of Mexico. Ejido La Mesa has sent written denunciations of logging to state and federal officials. Nothing has come out about this in the Mexican press, to avoid scaring off tourism from the region, since this is an important source of revenue for Michoacan, and the state of Mexico has refrained from publicizing the situation after investing so heavily in an area where no butterflies arrived this year.

The only solution which can guarantee the survival of the oyamel forests and the monarch migratory phenomenon is to decree and enforce a total moratorium on logging throughout the Reserve, covering not only the 13,551 hectares of core zone but the 42,708 hectares of buffer zone as well. So-called “sustainable logging” in the buffer zone is a farce, as in many places the forest has been clear cut, and it’s obvious that communities and logging interests do not respect the legal limits. The Reserve, the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) and the National Commission for Protected Natural Areas are legally empowered to suspend logging permits in the buffer zone, and they should do so.

At the same time, there must be permanent round-the-clock surveillance on roads and highways in the region, and roadblocks should be set up to monitor what the sawmills are doing. The Attorney General for the Environment’s office set up roadblocks last November after raiding the sawmills, and received much media coverage. But the roadblocks were only temporary, and a few days later the sawmills were working again, and the raids had little real impact. It is imperative that inspectors monitor the sawmills all the time, not only when an occasional order comes from above.

To further the dialogue between communities and researchers which was begun last September during the Monarch Butterfly Regional Forum, launched by SEMARNAT and the Michoacan state government, it is urgent to discuss the problem of illegal logging and how to stop it, as merely talking about tourism projects and economic alternatives is a waste of time while the forests are disappearing and with them the monarch colonies, as has happened in La Mesa and on Cerro Altamirano.

Or are we witnessing the twilight of the monarchs?