The Recurring Nightmare of the Monarchs

As happens every year – who knows for how long – along with the Day of the Dead and the visiting souls of the departed come the monarch butterflies who have flown the 5,000 kilometers, from southern Canada and the northern United States to the oyamel forests in Michoacan and the State of Mexico1, to spend the winter. In March, those who have survived the winter, storms and the thinning of the forest canopy, will journey in the reverse direction, and procreate so that their great grandchildren, driven by a mysterious need to emigrate to the south, will make their way by routes they have never before traveled to places in our country unknown to them.

In a report dated February 16, 2005, the Secretaria de Medio Ambiente y Recurson Naturales (SEMARNAT) 2 declared that “the migratory phenomenon of the Monarch butterfly … is not at risk,” that logging in the nuclear areas “has been reduced 100%” and in the buffer zones by 80-85%, and that the forests of the region are healthy or in the process of recovery”. Unfortunately, this is not true.

Of the sanctuaries in the Monarch Biosphere Reserve (Sierra Chincua, Sierra El Campanario, Cerro Chivati-Huacal, Cerro Pelon and Cerro Altamirano) that are protected by the Presidential Decree of 1986, Cerro Pelon, with 1,345 hectares in the nuclear zone, and 6,787 hectares in the buffer zone, is the largest. The sanctuary is situated between the municipalities of Donato Guerra and Villa de Allende, in the state of Mexico, and in the municipality of Zitacuaro, Michoacan. According to the web page of SEMARNAT, lease of the land is shared among nine ejidos, six indigenous communities, and four small properties.

Ever since the Decree was published there have been conflicting attitudes in each ejido or community. While some understand the importance of protecting natural forest resources, others fight to exploit them in an unsustainable and flagrantly illegal manner. According to the “Social and Biological Analysis in the Special Reserve of the Monarch Butterfly” presented to the Environmental Law Institute by the Comite de los Cien Internacional in 1997, this has been the case in agrarian nuclei such as Nicolas Romero, Crescencio Morales, and El Capulin, properties in the Cerro Pelon, where the forest has been over-exploited, even in the nuclear zone. In a report, delivered to Semarnat, the scientific community and the public at large by a team of experts headed by Doctor Lincoln Brower, the forest on the north-eastern side of Cerro Pelon has been destroyed by fire and logging over the past seven years while, because of the small-scale logging on the west side, some of the traditional sites for monarch colonies have become stripped and therefore useless. In November and December of 2004, wood and cut lumber were seen, visitors and residents heard chainsaws daily, and saw trees strewn in the road to El Campamento, which leads to the peak of El Pelon, where the logs were being pulled out. During the migrating season of 2004-5, the colony established itself on the edge of the logged area. From the destruction on El Pelon during the past decade, only the south side has been preserved, probably because it is steep. It could happen that this year the monarchs have no place to alight, because fresh logging has occurred on the south east side of El Pelon, above the area known as Llano de Tres Gobernadores. This logging is within the Nicolas Romero ejido and possibly part of the San Juan Xoconusco ejido. Many large diameter pines and oyamels have been felled and, on the logging site, many of the trunks have been turned into beams and lengths of lumber. Fresh stumps, large amounts of sawdust and trimmings bear witness to recent logging. Apparently, the processed wood was taken out by truck northward through the Nicolas Romero ejido. In this region, since March of 2005, a road leading up from San Juan Xoconusco has been improved at considerable expense, with metal drains and cement walls. If the intention is to take illegally cut lumber on that road, it will cause catastrophic logging on the south side – until now pristine – of Cerro Pelon.

In Sierra Chincua, there has been illegal logging in the nuclear zone, in the area known as Arroyo Zapatero where the monarchs establish winter colonies. The present logging of oyamels and pines is happening in the Federal Zone of Llano de Toro, although there are signs that it extends to land in the Calabozo ejido. As in Cerro Pelon, the presence of stumps and sawdust bear witness to this. This year loggers have deforested the south slope. The timber is taken out along a logging road that comes down from Arroyo Zapatero to Senguio. These areas of Cerro Pelon and Sierra Chincua are within the nuclear zone of the Reserve, where according to the Decree there is a total ban for an indefinite period on exploiting the forest because, together with El Rosario, these areas constitute the three principal hibernation sites for the monarchs. Meanwhile, ejido members of Graciano Sanchez accuse the El Rosario ejido of monopolizing tourist revenues and of “awarding woodland to the State of Mexico”. They are threatening to block access to the sanctuary if they are not paid; this notwithstanding the fact that since 2001, ejidos and communities with land inside the nuclear zone of the Reserve have been receiving money from the Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund to preserve the forest and not exploit the timber. Among these desperate dispatches there is one piece of good news: the monarchs have returned to the Cerro Altamirano, in Contepec, Michoacan, the town where I was born and raised.

Combating the loggers is dangerous. On September 22, a number of trucks loaded with timber were intercepted by 10 policemen, and then taken back by more than 100 armed men who, we are led to believe, belonged to a group of loggers from Ocampo and Ciudad Hidalgo, Michoacan. On November 3, at a function that took place in Llano de las Papas, Sierra Chincua to welcome Papalotzin, the little plane that filmed the monarchs on their journey to Mexico, the Governor of Michoacan, Lazaro Cardenas Batel, announced the creation of a State Forest Police Force whose 26 members would, on horseback and in trucks, coordinate with PROFEPA3 and the State of Mexico to protect the Reserve. At the function, ejido members from Sierra Chincua accused the assistant prosecutor from Zitacuaro of having released from detention the day before, a logger in possession of thousands of lengths of lumber, on the pretext that there had been no official complaint. The efforts of Cardenas Batel are quite laudable, and are the opposite of those of the previous state governor. Likewise, in the short amount of time that he has headed PROFEPA, Ignacio Loyola is has demonstrated a growing interest in protecting the Reserve.

Year after year we see the same depredation. Year after year, the oyamel forests get smaller, placing the migratory phenomenon at risk. The problem lies with the greed of the loggers, some ejido members, and politicians who have formed ominous and corrupt alliances to sabotage the Reserve. As long as the greed and complicity exist the monarch sanctuaries are endangered. Only a permanent and armed vigilance in the Reserve, enforcement of the law, and a citizenry determined to defend the presence of the monarchs in the oyamel forests of Mexico can combat this tendency. One thing is indisputable, the permanence of the trees will guarantee the well-being of the inhabitants of the region.

Mexico. Besides being the name of the country, Mexico is also the name of one of the 32 states.
SEMARNAT. Federal ministry for the environment.
PROFEPA. The Enforcement branch of SEMARNAT. In other words: the environmental police.