Gold for the Monarchs

During a recent visit to the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary on Sierra Pelon, I found an extensive area in the core zone, beside the Llano de los Gobernadores, where all that remained were trunks of mature oyamel trees, carpets of sawdust and beams cut with chainsaws that were waiting to be taken down by the wood traffickers from the township of Nicolas Romero who were brazenly working in the light of day. Over the last ten years, the north face of Sierra has been cut and burned. Now the other sides are under attack.

On Sierra Chincua there were signs of an illegal and sustained felling during the last year and a half, resulting in the disappearance of a critical habitat in the upper part of the Arroyo Zapatero, a place that was one of the principal hibernation sites for the monarchs. The loggers entered Zapatero from the town of Senguio, felled the pines and oyamels on the south-east side of the arroyo, and took them away in trucks. Until their disappearance these magnificent trees protected the monarchs from the winter winds and storms. The area is part of the core zone of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. This represents another ecological atrocity perpetrated in the region where the monarch hibernates, and it reflects the fact that the present protection plan is not working. When is the government going to put an end to these irresponsible practices? Will it be that when the environmental degradation has done away with the sanctuaries and the region suffers a permanent water crisis, the plunderers and authorities will notice the damage? As Dr. Lincoln Brower has insisted, the loss of the monarch hibernation sites will cause the loss of the migratory phenomenon, and the probable extinction of this species.

I grew up in Contepec, Michoacan, a site of one of the five sanctuaries protected by the decree of 1986. Back then, the monarchs filled the streets every winter and in the Llano de la Mula the oyamels were laden with butterflies. Now the monarchs pass by Cerro Altamirano, but not to stay. The oyamels that haven’t been felled are infested with bugs, with nobody, neither the authorities nor the residents, being concerned about it. The annual payments of the Monarch Fund (FM), administered by the World Wildlife Fund, to the ejido members of the Cerro Altamirano – Ejido Contepec, Ejido Pueblo Nuevo Solis and Ejido Cerritos Cardenas – have been in vain, because the disastrous state of the forest shows a total neglect. The Ejido Contepec used this money (about 121,000 pesos {approx. $12,000} in 2003 and 2004) to build bridges and fix drainage ditches. The ejidos, who are benefactors of the FM, may use the money as they decide, but one would suppose that in order to receive it, they should have to conserve the forest. Contepec suffers from a water shortage, but the mayor is more interested in creating a garbage dump in a dry arroyo next to a residential area than he is in protecting the town’s greatest natural heritage: the Cerro Altamirano.

Another threat is hanging over El Rosario, the most visited monarch sanctuary. In March, INDUSTRIAL MINERA MEXICO, a subsidiary of GRUPO MINERO MEXICO (owners of the Pasta de Conchos mine where 65 miners are still entombed1), obtained permission from the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) to exploit the sub soil in the core zone of the Reserve for mineral deposits of gold, silver and lead in the municipality of Angangueo for forty years. Cesar Flores Garcia, head of the Secretaria de Urbanismo y Medio Ambiente de Michoacan (Ministry of Urbanization and the Environment for Michoacan) (SUMA) stated that the work of extraction would not affect the migratory phenomenon, and the former director of the Reserve, Roberto Solis Calderon, asserted that “development is compatible with conservation of the natural heritage”. According to Solis, “the monarch is said to be ancestral but nobody has been able to prove it; on the other hand, what is proven as of 1975, is that a Canadian zoologist was able to place the site of the monarch migration. There is nothing to tell us that there were monarch colonies before the twentieth century, and, “when mining rights were established in the nineteenth century, the monarchs had not yet arrived”. Dr. Brower assures us that the migratory phenomenon has existed for more than 10,000 years. The officials only speak of the work underground, but they don’t mention the installation of a smelting plant where the gold will be melted and concentrated through chemical procedures, nor do they consider the effects on this basically rural region of the presence of a highly polluting industrial operation. As we know, gold mining produces lakes of poison, springs of cyanide, and there have been reports of the deaths of thousands of waterfowl from cyanide poisoning. The dangers of polluting the aquifers with cyanide are real and serious, but there is also the accumulation of waste products. At the entrance to Angangueo, there is still a pyramid of slag left by the old operators of the mine, with nobody concerned about toxic infiltration of the aquifers, nor effects on the health of the population, much less concerned about removing it. It is incredible, even immoral, that someone in charge of the Reserve would promote and defend an industrial project that could affect the monarch’s habitat.

On February 24, 2006 PROFEPA2, the Federal Attorney General’s Office, the Federal Prevention Police, and State Police, dismantled five sawmills and four storage platforms, confiscating lumber – mostly oyamel – with a commercial value of one million pesos. The sites of the illegal operations were in the communities of La Cumbre, Macho de Agua y La Dieta which form part of the population of Crescencio Morales in the municipality of Zitacuaro, a region notorious for its logger bands. The curious thing about this operation is that it lasted for nearly twelve hours but resulted in not a single detainee, as though nobody knew who owned the sawmills.

The environment is one of the sacrificial victims of the current electoral process; neither butterflies nor trees vote, but the loggers and members of organized crime do. So far, the presidential candidates have distinguished themselves for a lack of an environmental agenda, showing a blindness or contempt for the principal element in the struggle against poverty and the future for Mexicans. That is, a healthy environment, which can only be achieved by halting the deforestation and uncontrolled development, and assuring a necessary supply of water for a population that will soon reach 110,000,000, just as thirsty as the monarch butterfly.

[1] A horrific accident a few weeks ago caused a slow and agonizing death for the 69 miners trapped underground after an explosion. The owners, who have been blamed for a cynical disregard for safety conditions, say that the bodies are not recoverable.
[2] PROFEPA: the enforcement branch of SEMARNAT, the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources.