At first the trees appear unchanged.
The branches of the oyamel firs curve towards the ground, heavy with dark shapes that rustle in the wind. The forest is silent. A few seconds pass in stillness before a beam of sunlight carves its way through the canopy. As it settles upon the tree, the branches erupt. Flooding into the air, the gold and copper colors on the monarch butterflies’ wings set the forest aflame.
The monarch butterfly is an insect which has bridged cultures for centuries. In an unrivaled natural phenomena, every fall billions of the tiny insects embark on a multi-generational migration.
Starting in the northern regions of Canada, the monarchs flutter their way across 3,000 miles, over the plains of the United States, all the way to this small mountain range found bordering the State of Mexico and Michoacán. Almost the entire North American population of this species, which only months ago was spread across the continent, is now concentrated in a swath of forest about as large as four football fields.
Unfortunately logging in the area where the monarchs overwinter has been steadily causing the climate within the forests to change, increasing temperature swings and leading to dramatic decreases in the monarch population. But the monarchs are not the only ones that live within this tiny strip of forest, and attempts to regulate the use of this land has had equally devastating effects on the local people who live in the area.
At the base of the mountain known as Cerro Pelon, where the monarch colonies were first discovered, sits a tiny farming village called Macheros. Even though it is just a two-hour drive outside of Mexico City, the town has no cell service and limited-to-no internet connection. The people who live there love their home and the beauty of the monarchs; however, because of the limited economic opportunities in the area, in many ways they find themselves competing with the monarchs for sustained existence.
Anayeli Moreno was born and raised in Macheros, and she was one of the first in her family to go to college. She went to the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México and then spent a long time abroad continuing her education and giving talks about the monarchs. Even though she speaks fluent English, she is self-conscious about her accent and often ducks her head, pulling the strings on her hoodie over her nose. She majored in tourism, a vocation which makes only too much sense in Macheros.
“Now that people around the town have started to see more tourists, they have started to try and put in more stores to increase the opportunities here.” She said, passing by the town’s one small barber shop. “But often visitors are shocked by how underdeveloped the tourism is here.”
Built upon a hill, the bright red and orange houses that make up Macheros stack on top of one another. There is only one main road, made out of cement, which twists between the buildings. Today, this town is a perfect example of the conflicting tensions that exist between the Biosphere Reserve officials, conservationists, and local residents.
“The problem is that there was never any plan for what would happen to the people who live here after this area was declared an official reserve and the land was appropriated 40 years ago," says Ellen Sharp. Ellen is Anayeli’s sister-in-law and when she moved to the area in 2012 she and her husband, Joel Moreno, opened up the JM Butterfly Bed & Breakfast in an attempt to create local jobs based on monarch tourism.
Just a few steps down the road, Anayeli’s mother, Rosa Rojas, runs the only restaurant in the town. It is small, not much more than a kitchen with a few extra tables scattered throughout the house that Joel himself designed and helped build. In the mornings, Anayeli works in the kitchen alongside her sisters and her grandmother.
“Pues muy bien acerca de las Mariposas. [I feel very good about the butterflies],” says Anayeli’s sister-in-law Yesmi Mendoza. “Porque…gracias a esos animales pues tenemos trabajo. [Because…thanks to those animals we have jobs.]” Aside from helping out around the restaurant and the bed and breakfast, all of the sisters work side jobs that focus on developing monarch tourism. Yezmi weaves baskets made out of the pine needles that have fallen off of the oyamel firs in the monarch sanctuary. Another sister-in-law, Mayra Sandoval, paints rocks in beautiful designs inspired by the monarchs, which she sells in front of the restaurant.
“Las mariposas, es como que traiga una energía muy positiva para todos. [The butterflies, it’s like they bring a very positive energy for everyone],” Mayra said. “Y se va la mariposa se va …una parte de mi sonrisa. [And when the butterflies leave, a part of my smile also goes.]”
Their mother, also known as Doña Rosa, is a plump grandmother with smile lines around her eyes, but she frowns as she begins to talk about the rise and fall of monarch tourism in Macheros.
She was 14 years old when the butterflies’ over-wintering site was officially ‘discovered’ by the outside world in the 1970s. According to National Geographic magazine, the monarchs were discovered by a Canadian zoologist named Fred Urquhart along with the help of two citizen scientists, Catalina Trail and Ken Brugger. But the people who lived in the town under the mountain had always known that in the winter seasons the monarchs came to slumber in the mountains above them.
In fact, Doña Rosa told Anayeli, “Uno los veía pero uno sabía lo que tenia aquí. [People would see them, but we didn’t know what we had here.] En ese tiempo…creían eran los almas de los difuntos. [At the time…we thought they were the souls of the deceased.]”
It wasn’t until outsiders began coming to the town that villagers like Doña Rosa realized how special the butterfly phenomena actually was.
Initially, many of the locals were excited. Back then Macheros had no roads, no cars, no water, and no electricity. The people who lived there were primarily farmers. They grew corn, raised animals, and logged the forest around them to sell the wood, use the timber in their homes, or burn at night for heat. When people began to come to Macheros to see the butterflies, the villagers hoped that the influx of tourism could bring modern conveniences to the town.
But it soon became apparent that the butterflies were not the blessing the townsfolk had hoped for, Doña Rojas says. People did begin to come to the town to see the butterflies, but they would travel in from far away cities like Morelia or Mexico City. They came in buses filled with people, stayed for an hour or two, and then left. They spent no money in the town. They bought nothing but perhaps one meal because there were no souvenirs and no hotels. They would not hire guides to take them into the mountain, and they refused to rent a horse, choosing instead to make the long journey on foot. They left nothing except litter in the forests.
Still, according to Doña Rojas, a town further down the mountain, El Capulín, became jealous of the perceived tourism Macheros was bringing in. She says they had logged all of the trees near them and now had no source of income, so they blocked the roads to Macheros, and began petitioning to close the entry to the Macheros reserve.
For five years, in the early 90s, Macheros was closed off to the outside world. During this time, maps of sanctuaries that were open to the public were created, and Macheros was not included. Despite the fact that it was the site of the original monarch discovery, Macheros became the forgotten reserve.
Employment options in the town dwindled. Meanwhile, as scientists became more and more aware of how vital this area was to protecting the monarch population, the Mexican federal government became involved in management of the area, with the primary focus being the direct welfare of the butterflies themselves. In 2000, President Jose Lopez Portillo promoted the area, by a legal decree, to the status of a federal Biosphere Reserve and gave it the official title of Reserva de la Biosfera Mariposa Monarca, or Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in English.
The reserve includes a swath of forest that started 100 km northwest of Mexico City, and spans from the western end of the State of Mexico to the eastern boundary of the State of Michoacán in Central Mexico. The property protects eight of the 14 known monarch colonies and an estimated 70 percent of the total overwintering population of the monarch butterfly’s eastern population. And, it includes Cerra Pelon and the town of Macheros.
As a Biosphere Reserve, the area now fell under the administration of the Mexican Federal National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), and all activities that can be performed on that land are set in accordance with the General Act of Ecological Equilibrium and Environmental Protection.
However, when the reserve was established, land tenure in the area was left unchanged, and local landowners were left responsible for providing for themselves on land that was now under federal jurisdiction.
Research done by American scientists determined that the forests acted as a blanket for the butterflies sleeping within. The trunks of the oyamel firs that the monarchs rest upon trap the perfect amount of heat. If the temperature radiating out from their trunks were any colder, the monarchs would freeze. Any hotter, and the insects metabolisms would kick in and they would starved to death. This delicate balance can be easily disturbed by logging in the area. If the forest is thinned, the monarchs are more susceptible to temperature swings, and as such logging of the forest was one the greatest threats the monarchs faced. When the reserve was established, logging permits were stripped in the Commission for Environmental Cooperation; however, little consideration was given to the fact that for the locals, logging was one of the only sources of income available to them.
Aware of the economic strain that these limitations put on the locals, government officials in coordination with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) petitioned to start the Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund to reward locals for conservation efforts. The hope was that the reward would provide an incentive to reduce deforestation to close to zero, and that government officials and the locals would be able to work together harmoniously towards the common goal of preserving the monarch species.
However, in practice, things are rarely this straightforward.
Today, many of the people who live in the area feel frustrated by the officials from the government who come in and try to tell them what to do. They say they are the ones working to protect the butterflies and officials just show up to take pictures and get name recognition.
Representatives from the government could not be reached to comment on these complaints, but when an official guide working with CONANP, Adrian Sotelo, was asked about some of his experiences trying to spread knowledge about bio-conservation he stated the following.
“We are not very in touch with some of the locals. It can be difficult and frustrating to try and work with them. Often the only way to have an effect is to explain to them that their sons and daughters are the ones who will have to suffer the consequences of their actions. Then, sometimes they listen.”
Many people in the area feel that ordinances set up by the reserve do too little to provide them with economic opportunities while simultaneously doing little to nothing to protect the monarchs. The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is one of the most well-funded national reserves in all of Mexico, but the people in the Macheros say they see scarcely any of that money.
A man named Jose Espinoza who worked as a forest ranger protecting the forests since the butterflies original discovery commented that, “la reserve, no cuidan. Nada. Es que dan ordenes pero de allí ya no. [The reserve, they don’t take care [of the forest], they just give orders but beyond that, nothing else.]”
Around the town, people tell similar stories. They say that it would be better if officials from the reserve hired local people to protect the forests. That way, locals would have more economic opportunities and wouldn’t be so reliant upon the forest.
A man named Antonio Juarez who worked at the ticket booth at the entrance to the Macheros sanctuary said it would be better, “si esto se hubiera hecho comunal. [if jobs were established communally.]”
Others say it would be better if reserve officials did more to deter the illegal loggers. That it would be better if they paid more attention to the locals' reports stating when and where the logging occurs.
“Ha habido muchos casos en que todavía siguen tirando los arboles y sacando madera. [There have been many cases where people still knock down trees, taking wood],” said Mauricio, another worker at the front entrance to the Macheros sanctuary. “Y nadie les dice nada. Cuidan todo de día, pero de noche es cuando sacan. [And nobody says anything to them. They [officials from the reserve] take care of everything during the day, but at night is when they [loggers] are taking the wood.]”
Locals say it would be better if reserve officials had a branch of their office that was based here, on the actual reserve. It would be better if officials took the time to get to know them, and understand how their lives and communities operated before they came in and enacted new regulations.
“Es frustrante porque, estamos aquí y ya sabemos cual es nuestro trabajo. [It’s frustrating because, we’re here and we already know what our job is],” Mauricio commented. “No necesitamos que alguien nos dice, ya sabemos. [We don’t need someone to come and tell us. We already know.]”
The people around the town love and care about the butterflies. Many say the butterflies changed their life, and they hope more people come to see them.
Anayeli’s grandfather, Señor Moreno, shook his head when asked about the reserve.
“Yo pienso que nada más tiene el nombre de reserva. Porque en realidad ellos nunca vienen aquí o vienen cuando van a venir las mariposas una vez al año. Y se presentan a la reunión del ejitario para decirle a la gente, aquí estamos. Pero en realidad no están protegiendo nada.” [I think they are a reserve only in name. Because, in reality, they never come here, or they come once a year when the butterflies arrive and then they present themselves at the reunion of the ejitario to tell the people ‘we are here.’ But in reality, they’re not protecting anything.]
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been involved in conservation efforts in Mexico almost since the Biosphere Reserve was created. Most of its efforts in the area go towards promoting good forest management and sustainable tourism. WWF tries to establish alternative income-generating ventures in the area through developing sustainable mushroom and tree nurseries. It also works with local and federal authorities to improve the area’s tourism infrastructure and management.
The WWF is the leading organization for providing conservation specialists with the statistics on logging and monarch mortality in the area that are needed in order to assess the threat status the monarchs are currently facing. However, according to some conservation experts, the methods are not always foolproof and the data it releases is sometimes spotty.
Dr. Lincoln Brower is a world-renowned scientist who has been studying the North American monarch butterfly for more than 50 years. Despite the fact that he is almost 86 years old, he still tries to make the arduous journey up the mountain to visit the monarch colony as often as he can. Anayeli’s brother, Joel, said that just four or five years ago he spotted Dr. Brower in the Cerro Pelon sanctuary collecting butterflies for research.
“It was almost a comical sight,” Joel laughed. “This old man was running around waving a giant net around his head.” Dr. Brower currently lives in Virginia, and his office is haphazardly filled with books and papers on the monarchs.
Tucked away on the corner of one bookshelf sits a dusty trophy, which turns out to be the Reconocimiento a la Conservacion de la Naturaleza award given to him from the Mexican Federal Government for the work he has done with monarch conservation.
Dr. Brower says that in the past his relationship with the WWF has been positive and open; however, over the last few seasons he has had difficulties regarding the data it will or will not release.
For example, Dr. Brower says that the reports that the WWF has been releasing on the amount of illegal logging occurring within the reserve fails to account for the many trees lost to ‘ant logging,’ or individual tree removal, which collectively over time is also very damaging.
In addition, Brower says that the WWF’s methodology for reporting the number of monarchs that return to the reserve every year is based on counting the hectares of forests over which the monarch colonies span. This number is currently the only way to gauge the level of monarch endangerment. However, the density of the monarch population has decreased dramatically since this method was developed in the 1980s. This means that even though the butterflies are still spanning the same amount of forest, in reality there are fewer of them than reports indicate. He believes the current reports of butterfly numbers are likely seriously overestimated.
This is only one of a number of frustrations Dr. Brower and many other scientists have faced in trying to get accurate data from the WWF Mexico. He says that the WWF claims to have precise GPS data tracking the specific trees where the colonies of butterflies have landed for several years, but they don’t publish this anywhere where it is available to the rest of the scientific community. He has requested that they send him this data, because it is key to understanding how logging truly affects the butterflies, but they have repeatedly failed to respond to his requests.
“They’re sitting on a huge pile of data that would be very valuable to the scientific community if it were published. That’s a serious problem.” Dr. Brower said. “I have requested it from them on many, many occasions.”
Repeated efforts were made requesting comment from WWF and WWF Mexico. At one point, a member of WWF Mexico offered to set up an interview with an administrator, but that conversation did not occur because WWF Mexico stopped responding to requests to establish a time for the interview.
Meanwhile the people who live in the town of Macheros would like to do their own part to help contribute to the conservation of the monarchs and gather some of this data.
When Anayeli’s sister-in-law, Ellen, and her brother Joel opened up the JM Butterfly Bed & Breakfast, they saw it as an opportunity to increase economic opportunity in the area and potentially decrease the villager’s reliance on logging. Now, Ellen and Joel want to do more for their community.
Recently they began working on a non-profit project called Butterflies and Their People to hire locals to patrol the forest, prevent illegal logging, and gather valuable data to help share with the scientific community.
They managed to raise the funds to hire one person to patrol the forest and take weekly data collection on the state of the forests and the size of the butterfly colonies, but they have faced push back from officials working for the reserve on the idea of allowing more people to do data collection. Ellen and Joel say that they want to help establish baseline data on how the colony sizes fluctuate from week to week, and what the average mortality is every season.
In order to get permission to do this, they need to receive a ‘letter of no objection’ from the commissioner of the ejido; however, they were told in-person by the director of the Cerro Pelon sanctuary that their workers would not be allowed to monitor anything about the monarch colonies or reforestation. When Ellen asked if they could establish a baseline for monarch mortality, she was told no, because that's already being done by the WWF.
This isn’t the first frustration the couple has faced from reserve officials. When Joel and Ellen first moved to the area, they were hiking on the mountain and noticed some logging had been done in the most vital, core zone of the sanctuary.
The couple went to report it at the headquarters of the Biosphere Reserve in Zitacuaro but say they were told they weren’t allowed to report logging, only the commissioner of their ejido, or district, had the authority to do so. Ellen and Joel posted online to Dplex, a listserv run by the non-profit organization Monarch Watch, to report the trees they had seen cut. Soon their post began gathering attention, and Joel and Ellen say that a rumor began circling that their ejido would not be receiving their annual payment for ecological services because of what the couple posted on the internet. Ellen and Joel say they were called to a meeting of the ejido where people shouted at them. Later, the rumor turned out to be untrue.
“I am here to protect the butterflies.” The frustration in Joel’s voice was palpable. “But the reserve doesn’t do anything to protect them, and it makes me mad. They come here, and they give a person a jacket with their logo on the sleeve and then they take a picture and say they are doing something. But the local people have nothing. They have to go and cut a tree to make a living.”
The complex myriad of conflicting interests in the monarch reserve doesn’t end in Mexico. International influences can have just as much effect on the economics in Mexico that drive monarch conservation.
Most of the people who live in the towns beneath the butterfly sanctuaries turn to agriculture to make a living, and avocado plants in particular are one of the most profitable plants to grow. But this creamy fruit, which has become such a delicacy in the United States, is quickly turning into another threat for the monarchs.
The agricultural plots just outside of Macheros fill the horizon. Fields of avocado trees are bordered by rickety wooden fences, and tiny newly-planted saplings stack row by row alongside of fully grown trees, hanging with the fat, dark green fruit.
“We plant avocado trees because we think logging is the worst thing in the whole world,” Anayeli says as she stands inside of her father’s plot.
Since avocado trees thrive at the exact same climate as the forest where the monarchs over-winter, it is difficult to produce them in bulk anywhere else. Because of this, over 40 percent of the world’s avocados are now produced in areas near the monarch reserve, and as American consumption of the avocado continues to increase, the demand for larger and larger supplies rise as well. The price of just one fruit jumped from 86 cents in January 2015, to $1.10 in July 2016. Meanwhile in response, in Michoacán alone around 15,000 to 20,000 acres of forest are converted to avocado plots each year.
Unfortunately, avocado trees also use twice as much water as pines or firs, aggravating local climate change and affecting water retention. In addition, the boom in avocado trees has also started to fuel deforestation as more and more people begin to convert plots of the forest into orchards. To date 30 to 40 percent of forest loss has been cited as due to avocado expansion, according to officials from the Mexican attorney-general’s office for environmental protection. There have been reports of people converting forests by planting avocado trees under the firs, waiting until they are old enough to produce fruit, and cutting down the forests around them. There are even reports of people burning the woods so they can claim the land for agricultural purposes.
Anayeli and her family can make anywhere from 15 to 25 pesos, or about $1 for a kilo of avocado. The minimum wage in Mexico right now is 80 pesos, or about $4 for an entire day’s work.
The money made by avocado farming can be life changing for the people who live here.
As Anayeli drives away from the orchards she points into the forest bordering the agricultural fields. Beneath the arch of the pine’s branches, a series of juvenile avocado trees have been planted.
“We are inside of the reserve right now,” she says.
Standing at the base of the monarch’s sanctuary, it is hard not to feel as though time is running out for the delicate creatures.
Since 1993 researchers have been trying to keep tabs on the size of the monarch population by mapping the number of hectares the butterflies cover. Butterfly numbers peaked in 1996 when the insects covered approximately 18 hectares. By 2013 they covered only 0.67.
Last year though, numbers had increased dramatically, reaching almost 4 hectacres. Many organizations were feeling hopeful about the monarch’s situation, but the butterflies have faced a myriad of unexpected obstacles since that time.
In March 2016, an unprecedented ice storm swept through the reserve, right as the monarchs were preparing to leave. It knocked over huge swaths of the trees located in the core zone of the reserve, and froze to death many of the insects that were about to head home for the summer. What made the storm particularly devastating, however, was that the state and federal officials then opened up the reserve for salvage logging. Locals living in the town below went in, without supervision, and began removing the fallen trees from what is the most important, and ecologically delicate zone of the monarch’s habitat.
More recently, plans have been put in action in the town of Angangueo, which sits just below the butterfly sanctuary of Sierra Chinqua, to reopen an old copper mine. The mine had petered out in the 1960s and ceased to employ workers, but never officially shut down. Today, officials from Grupo Mexico are attempting to reopen the mine, stating that since it never officially closed it is grandfathered in from the reserve’s restrictions on land use.
Many fear the effect the reopened copper mine would have on the butterfly sanctuary. Copper production produces massive amounts of toxic sulfuric acid in the water that is used to refine it, and Grupo Mexico has yet to publish any details on how it plans to protect the water sources. Conservationists are worried as well because Grupo Mexico does not have the best track record in environmental safety. In 2014 Grupo Mexico was responsible for a massive accident that spilled 11 million gallons of toxic chemicals into the waterways in Sonora, Mexico.
The old remains of the mine which existed in Angangueo still twist beneath the trees which the monarchs rest upon, and the tailings of the mine’s dump site stretches nearly a mile long outside of reaches of Angangueo. On top of the mound, nothing grows.
In contrast, many people in Angangueo are hopeful that the mine will reopen. They long for some form of economic opportunity in the town that will keep their friends and families from having to move far away in order to make a living. Grupo Mexico projects it will be able to employ 3,000 people for the next 10 to 12 years, and it has already promised to dedicate 7 percent of earnings to the municipalities in the area in order to stimulate social programs and further job creation. The people in the town believe the mine will offer a chance to return Angangueo to its golden days.
The most recent reports of the monarch’s numbers for 2017 say that the population has dropped by 27%. Monarch Watch calculates that the adult monarchs likely only cover about 1.13 hectares. For the monarch population to be considered stable and sustainable, a consistent number of at least 6 hectares must be met.
Conservationists insist that this doesn’t need to be a ‘locals versus butterflies’ situation. If regulations were put in place to allow locals to grow avocados in ways that are sustainable and tourism in the area was cultivated in a way that lead to a booming economic infrastructure, then both the locals and the monarchs could live together.
For the people who live in the villages beneath the monarch’s sanctuaries, the monarch may be their last and greatest hope of surviving in their current homes. If the tourism brought in by the insects encouraged economic growth in the towns, the monarchs could represent the best chance these people have to develop a sustainable economy.
The next best option is working as a miner for low wages in dangerous tunnel shafts.
The next best option is mass producing avocado trees, which dry up the land and lead to mono-cultivation of the forests.
The next best option is logging, in a forest that is quickly running out of trees.