Marked for Death

Every butterfly that arrives in Mexico makes, for the first time, the journey from the United States or Canada. Should the brutal deforestation continue, one day they will arrive to patches of dust. For this reason it is imperative that the government declare a moratorium on the logging of oyamel trees in the Monarch Reserve because nowadays, when the butterflies head north, the loggers arrive.

A few days ago, I was filmed climbing, on horseback and on foot, the Cerro Altamirano, in Contepec, Michoacan, the town where I was born, for a documentary about the journey of the Monarch Butterfly from Canada to Mexico. We reached the Llano de la Mula, where during my childhood I used to see millions of butterflies year after year. In 2004 there was no colony, and this year, we didn’t find a single one. What we did see were fresh axe marks on many oyamels marked for death. It is good that the army has planted pine tree and put up wire to protect them, but there is no barrier that defends the oyamels against loggers coming from the State of Mexico. Nor is there any surveillance.

On February 16 the Secretaria de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, (Ministry for the Environment [SEMARNAT]) issued a press release that said “the number of Monarch butterflies that arrived during the present hibernation season in Mexico declined”. It noted a 75% reduction of the area used by the butterflies during the present season in comparison with previous years. It made reference to the report prepared by an international committee of scientists headed by Dr. Lincoln Brower. SEMARNAT concluded that the fall in the Monarch population was due to bad weather in the reproductive sites in the US and Canada during the summer of 2004, to industrial agriculture in the US and Canada, to the cultivation of genetically modified corn and soy bean crops, including the Asclepia (cotton) which nurture the Monarch’s larva, the use of herbicides in their habitats and the storms in Mexico last winter. SEMARNAT assures us that: “the migratory phenomenon of the Monarch Butterfly… is not in jeopardy”, boasting that logging in the nuclear zone has been lowered 100%, and reduced by 80-85% in the buffer zones. They declare that, “the forests in the region… are healthy or in recovery.” The press notice omits the most serious part of the report: the accelerated loss of habitat for the Monarch in Mexico due to illegal logging. And that the area used by the colonies this year was the smallest recorded over the last twelve seasons and, possibly, the smallest since annual monitoring was begun at the end of the seventies. “We are playing butterfly roulette”, asserts the committee of scientists. “The degradation of the winter habitat in Mexico due to the multiple effects of illegal logging, the destruction of summer habitats for reproduction through current agriculture and livestock practices in the US and Canada, these must be reduced in order for the migratory phenomenon of the Monarch butterfly to survive. It is the unanimous opinion that the most urgent is that forests within the nuclear zone of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve be protected from further logging”. What is most important for survival of Monarchs in oyamel forests is a suitable and constant temperature, the avoidance excessive cold that can lead to freezing, or too much heat causing them to dry out or burn up their energy reserves. The forest canopy protects them during the day and, at night, covers them like a blanket. Thinning the forest exposes them to cold, wind, humidity and heat loss, increasing mortality through freezing in severe storms like the one in 2002 when the mortality rate reached 80% of the population, or those in 2004 when the mortality was 70%. This loss of the forest is the principal threat to their survival. Satellite pictures taken in 1973 and 2000 show devastation of the forest in all the areas included in the presidential decree of 1986 protecting 16,110 hectares in five hibernation areas in Sierra Chincua, Sierra El Campanario, Chivati-Huacal, Cero Pelon and Cerro Altamirano. In 2000 the reserve was increased to 56,259 hectares, 15,306 in the nuclear zone and 40,953 in the buffer zone. Logging is prohibited in the nuclear zone and permitted under regulation in the buffer zone. See:

The illegal logging during the past four years in both the nuclear and buffer zones is documented, as is the destruction of habitats where colonies existed previously. Last year, in Sierra Chincua, more than 100 trucks were reported bringing down illegal timber. Cutting occurred in 130 hectares and perhaps 40 hectares were razed in the Federal Zone, supposedly under government control. Last year the former director of the Reserve allowed trees that had fallen in the January storm to be taken out on the south side of Chincue, inviting illegal logging above Arroyo Zapatero, where every year there is a colony. With the dead trees were taken the alive and healthy. Now nearly all the large trees are gone, leaving the butterflies with no protection from the wind. Logging has also happened in Arroyo Barranca Honda where the Monarchs move to in the spring before they leave. The roads for taking the timber out have degraded the forest. The sanctuary is crisscrossed with barbed wire, and there are cows all over, even though cattle are prohibited in the nuclear zone. An extensive network of roads inside the Reserve has been documented. In 2003 there were 2,213 kilometers.

In the course of the past seven years the north east slope of El Pelon has been destroyed, logging has rendered several traditional sites on the west side unusable for the Monarchs. Only 5% remains wooded. Apart from the southern peak all of the historical habitat on Cerro Pelon has been degraded or destroyed in the last decade. In November and December of 2004, cut wood and boards were seen in the nuclear zone. This year the butterflies are on the edge of the logged area. In Sierra El Campanario, the tourist site of El Rosarion is managed by the ejido of that name. The side of the concrete road leading up out of the parking lot is lined with souvenir shops and rustic eateries where once was forest. But where the butterflies used to establish themselves the microclimate has ceased to exist. They have formed the main colony in the Llano de los Conejos at an altitude of 3,300 meters. Too high, according to Brower, because they risk a large mortality if there is a storm. In the winter of 2004 the estimated mortality was between 50% and 90% of the population. Weeks later the colony regrouped in some 10 trees.

Sierra Chincua belongs to Angangueo, whose patron saint is Simon the Apostle. The effigy of the saint, who is brought out in a procession on October 28, is accompanied by the attribute of a bloodied saw, since after being crucified his body was sawn into pieces. Nowadays he might be considered the patron saint of fallen trees. The town, previously a mining center for silver, lead, copper and zinc, now serves as a project of the Minera Mexico company, which intends to exploit the mineral resources to the tune of 13,004,305 tons. MM is part of Grupo Mexico, a “holding” that is the world’s third largest copper producer. The mining concession was granted to the English company, Negociacion Minera de las Trojes in the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1909 the silver mines came under control of the American Smelting and Refining Corporation (Asarco), owned by the Guggenheim family. When you enter the town you pass by a pyramid shaped slag heap. In April2004 about 500 residents demonstrated against the illegal logging, calling for the army to come in, since (they said) the Policia Preventiva Federal, (Federal Police), the Policia Ministerial (Local Police) and the Procudaria Federal del Medio Ambiente (Environmental Police [PROFEPA]) were corrupt. They remembered the unfulfilled promise of Vicente Fox to install permanent surveillance in the zone.

Every butterfly that arrives in Mexico makes, for the first time the journey from the United States or Canada, and is the grandchild, or great-grandchild, of those who were here the year before. Should the brutal deforestation continue, they will land one day in patches of dust. This is why it is imperative for the government to declare a moratorium on the logging of oyamel trees in the Reserve because nowadays, when the butterflies go north, the loggers arrive.