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The Butterfly Effect

For generations, the residents of a small, rural slice of Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains have pursued their livelihoods at the expense of the monarch butterfly. Now, locals and the migrating insects have forged an unlikely alliance. Phil Primack travels to Michoacán to investigate.

Author Phil Primack


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Monarchs in the Sierra Chincua reserve (Joel Sartore/Getty)

AS THE PEOPLE AROUND HIM huff and puff their way along a rocky trail 10,000 feet up in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains, Javier Martínez Colín walks with the easy gait of a man in familiar territory. The 56-year-old chairman of his local ejido, or agricultural collective, says little as the path narrows and the forest grows denser. The group is entering the Sierra Chincua sanctuary, and Martínez knows what’s coming next.

A solitary butterfly flitters over the path. Then five, then a dozen. Before long, the air is thick with them. Weighing just half a gram each, the insects cling to the trees in such numbers that the branches bend under their weight. Finally, the trees don’t look like trees at all, but tree-shaped clumps of wings. Beneath his white straw cowboy hat, Martínez looks on coolly as his charges fumble for their cameras. All his life he has watched las monarcas return to their winter retreats in the states of Michoacán and Mexico, turning the forest into a vivid swirl of orange and black. He played with them as a kid.

Monarch migration to this beautiful but poor slice of Mexico is now recognized as a wonder of the natural world. UNESCO granted the protected sanctuaries World Heritage Site status in 2008. However, the butterflies were not always warmly embraced here. “People used to think the monarchs were the souls of the departed,” Martínez says, explaining that the butterflies’ five-month stay usually begins around Nov. 1, Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Later, as their numbers declined and conservation efforts were taken up, the monarchs came to be viewed as actual impediments to human survival, sparking illegal logging rackets and, in places, civil unrest.

It’s been a long, difficult struggle, but it has finally ended. In Sierra Chincua, Martínez leans back against an oyamel fir, the hum of countless butterfly wings overhead. Having grown up helping his father log these forests, he knows his livelihood now relies on something that until recently seemed inconceivable: keeping them intact.

IT’S AN AGE-OLD CONSERVATIONIST CONUNDRUM, one that is played out in various forms across the world: the conflicting environmental needs of humans and wildlife. Historically, of course, humans have generally prevailed—sometimes to the extent that a rival species is displaced altogether. By the mid-1980s, there was a real concern that this would be the fate of Mexico’s monarchs, whose habitat was being destroyed at an alarming rate. But when the government moved to formally restrict logging in these areas, it provoked an angry response.

“At first, people resented what the government did,” says Ana Maria Muñiz Salcedo, co-founder of Alternare, a Michoacán-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable living. “People depended on the trees for income and to cook and to heat their houses. This was a major switch in their way of life, but nobody came to ask them—even though they were the owners of the forests.”

Things intensified in 2000 with the establishment of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a protection zone that encompasses about 217 square miles (an area roughly the size of Chicago). The reserve was good news for las monarcas, but not for those residents whose livelihoods were effectively cut off. “We did not have a good first impression about the government’s plans,” recalls Martínez, as a monarch lands on his shoulder. “People were worried.”

Many simply ignored the restrictions, while others organized illegal logging gangs—or “mafias,” as the locals called them—that developed a fearsome reputation. Even after the forests came under federal protection, more than 1,000 acres a year were still being cleared. The police made arrests. Some locals dug ditches and set fires to deter the chain saw-toting thugs in their communities. There were even calls for a permanent military presence in the area. But the efforts were neither consistent nor coordinated, and the monarchs’ habitat continued to dwindle.

Then, in 2004, the World Wildlife Fund, which had been struggling to protect the monarchs for more than two decades, proposed a radical solution. Rather than trying to compel people to stop destroying the forests, it said, why not create an environment in which they would want to stop? “We help people understand that, if managed well, these forests could generate a lot of money for all of them,” explains Eduardo Rendón Salinas, who directs the WWF’s monarch program in Mexico. “People have become conscious of the benefits of the forest not only to the monarchs, but also to their own lives.”

A GOOD EXAMPLE OF THE CHANGE taking hold can be found in the story of two brothers, Miguel and Salvador Cayetano Contreras. In the indigenous community of Crescencio Morales, located in a valley below the monarchs’ mountain reserves, the brothers tend to thousands of firs and other pine trees. The saplings grow in long, orderly rows in the small field that is home to the subsidized vivero, or nursery, that they set up after returning from a decade working construction in New York. The idea is that Miguel and Salvador will grow trees to replenish the forests that were culled by loggers, while proceeds from the sale of the trees will help protect these same forests in the future. “The project is part of an agreement we made not to cut trees, in exchange for support for the vivero,” says Miguel. “Even though the monarch does not fly here, we benefit from it.”

Modesta Flores Sánchez is part of a similar program. Behind a simple cinder-block house lined with flowers, she keeps a small greenhouse full of the mushrooms that she and other members of her ejido have been trained to grow and sell. “This has made things better for us,” she says, gesturing at the modest crop as two of her grandchildren look on.

Using public and private donations, the WWF covered the $5,000 startup cost for the mushroom enterprise, and has supported others like it across the reserve area—again, with the aim of drawing people out of the forests and into the fields. Or sometimes the gift shops.

A great many of the work-creation schemes here have focused on the ecotourism market. The four butterfly sanctuaries open to the public attract as many as 150,000 visitors a year, sparking a need for everything from tour guides to food vendors to vigilancia comunitaria, or community surveillance teams, which patrol the reserves and report illegal logging. Still, it was a tough sell. “When the reserve was created, I had to convince people to work with the government,” says Roberto Contreras Rodríguez, secretary of the ejido of El Rosario, home to the area’s largest and most visited butterfly sanctuary. “They were skeptical. But now they see that the tourists are coming.”

The primary source of funding for many of these initiatives is the Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund, established in 2000 with a $5 million endowment from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, plus $1.5 million from government sources. From 2000 through 2012, about $2.6 million in interest has been distributed to communities and private landowners around the monarch sanctuaries. Today, more than 18,000 people receive money directly or indirectly from the fund, the WWF says.

Given that there are 200,000 or so people living in the area around the butterfly reserves, that may not seem like a game-changing figure, but there’s more to the effort than improving people’s immediate situations. In large part, the idea is to establish new attitudes and patterns of behavior among locals, and in this regard the project is showing great promise. For example, Javier Martínez Colín, who once helped his father cut down trees on the site of the Sierra Chincua reserve, now works beside his own sons to preserve the forest.

Not that the monarch is in the clear yet—a combination of climate change, pesticides and the destruction of its milkweed food source by North American farmers is making the species’ annual journey south extremely difficult. In the winter of 2005, enough monarchs arrived in Mexico to fill about 14 acres of forest; just six years later, the population needed only about half as much space.

The fact remains, though, that if the butterflies make it back to Mexico, they face much better prospects for survival. The WWF reports that illegal logging in and around the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is at its lowest point since the reserve was established in 2000—so low, in fact, as to be barely detectable. “After 12 years,” says Omar Vidal, director of WWF-Mexico, “we now have a story of success.”

EVERY MARCH, AFTER FIVE MONTHS hibernating and then mating in Mexico’s sanctuaries, the monarchs head north. They will fly as far as 80 miles a day during their journey, catching thermals and being blown by the wind, ending up—a few generations later—3,000 or so miles away. The increasingly pressing question facing the people back in Mexico is: What then?

“The monarch is very important to the economy here,” says the WWF’s Rendón, “but we need to establish programs and a strategy for year-round tourism and other kinds of regional development.”

You get the sense, though, that the area may have turned a corner, that people here are determined to see this through, on their own terms and in their own ways. The Cayetano brothers, for their part, would like to move beyond growing trees: They’re seeking funding to start a sawmill to produce packaging for the avocados, pineapples, flowers and other plants that flourish all around them. “The population is growing up here,” says Miguel. “If we don’t give our children more opportunities, they will return to abusing the forest.”

This is a real concern. People still speak anxiously about the gangs that ran the illegal logging operations, and fear that they’ll come back if gains aren’t made fast enough. But, again, there seems to be a sense of determination among locals to keep pressing forward. “If we stopped our patrols, the illegal loggers would immediately start again,” says Marciano Solis Sacarias, who works at the largest of the WWF-supported tree nurseries in San Juan Xoconusco, an indigenous community in the state of Mexico. “But now they know we are well organized.”

Sitting on stumps and planks, Solis and his co-workers are eating a lunch of beef grilled on a metal plate over a wood fire, accompanied by fresh avocados, peppers and a pile of tortillas. On about four acres of sloping field below stand nearly 800,000 young trees. Up to 50 locals, including women and children, work at this vivero during prime planting season. For them, the demise of the monarch would be unthinkable. “If it were not for the butterflies, we would not get support for this project,” says Solis’ brother, Fernando, hands in the pockets of his work-worn jeans. “We would have to migrate out of here.”

PHIL PRIMACK is a writer and editor living outside Boston, a city famed for its annual (and somewhat less awe-inspiring) migration of college students.

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