This past March I travelled to the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary located in Michoacán, Mexico. The trip was a magical experience that demonstrated the power and complexity of nature, as well as the resilience of local communities dedicated to its protection.
The existence of these sanctuaries is truly spectacular- each year millions of Monarch butterflies migrate from Canada and the United States to the rugged forested mountains of Central Mexico. From November to March the butterflies hibernate in the cool and moist environment of the mountains, before mating and returning North. The monarchs cluster vertically within the crown of Oyamel Firs, which provide a unique microclimate of consistent temperature and humidity with protection from wind, rain, freezing and hot temperatures. For this reason, 90% of the Monarch butterfly population hibernates in the Oyamel Firs of Central Mexico. Although a spectacular natural sight, the populations of Monarch butterflies are under increasing threat. In 2020, biologists recorded a 53% decrease of butterfly habitat from the previous season and a decrease of 80% over the last few decades.
The decrease in butterfly habitat is due to a variety of environmentally damaging activities. In Michoacán, extensive logging, mining, and agriculture remain the principal industries for employment. For many communities in this area, dependency on resource extraction can result in the destruction of local environments reducing access to clean water, affordable food, and a sustainable income. Criminal organizations, outside of local communities, have also become increasingly involved with illegal logging and mining. For this reason, efforts by local environmental activists to conserve the Oyamel Fir trees have resulted in horrific violence. In January 2020, Raul Hernandez Romero and Homero Gomez Gonzalez were murdered for their advocacy and work on the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Reserve. In particular, Gonzalez’s advocacy towards reforestation, development aid, and organized demonstrations had made him a threat to many industries in the area. It is a shock and tragedy for family and friends as well as for environmental advocates across the world.
The murder of Romero and Gonzalez clearly demonstrates that conservation strategies must be developed to both protect the habitat as well as provide an income and safety for the nearby communities. One success story is the La Cruz Habitat Protection Project (LCHPP) founded by Jose Luis Alvaarez Alcala. Its mandate is to reforest the land surrounding the reserve, in the Highland Lakes watershed area and the Uruapan avocado farming areas. As well, it promotes sustainable forest management among the local landowners for their economic benefit. There is an educational component for school-aged children and university students for hands-on experience. Community members collect seeds from native Oyamel, Pine and Cedar trees. They are planted in greenhouses and then at 12” in height are donated to communities and landowners. Seedlings are then planted in areas where habitat needs are greatest. As trees mature, communities can use the sustainably harvested wood for daily use and as a source of income through timber sales. Mushroom nurseries follow a similar procedure. In particular, communities are taught how to produce and market many local varieties of mushrooms.
Similar to other economic development initiatives, international and domestic tourism to the Monarch butterfly reserves has had diverse results. Tourism surrounding the Monarch butterfly overwintering grounds has been an economic benefit for many individuals within the community and therefore an incentive to protect the ecosystem that the Monarch inhabits. Owners of hotels, souvenir stores, restaurants and tourist drivers, horseback guides, Sanctuary guides all benefit from the butterflies. Some infrastructure has improved such as the road leading to the El Rosario Sanctuary. However, many locals have not seen any change in their own livelihoods. Tourists tend to spend time and money where the modern conveniences are more accessible, rather than staying and eating in nearby towns. Local community members have also expressed frustration that the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is a well funded national reserve, yet the revenue from tourism is not distributed into local services and infrastructure. A more inclusive economic growth model for tourism could be essential in promoting environmental protection through community participation efforts.
A sustainable balance between the environment and economy is difficult to achieve. In Mexico, conservation strategies in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere are ongoing with good intentions and some success stories. However, the situation is complex and will take time to design strategies that invite compliance. To improve the chances of success the Mexican government will need to develop the necessary resources to create a sustainable environment for butterflies and inclusive economic benefit for Mexicans. The monarch life cycle and migration include three countries and tourism from all over the world. The responsibility to save the ecosystem that will protect butterflies and help the local communities belongs to all of us. Giving up isn’t an option.