Monarchs without a Throne
Por Diego Cevallos
In their annual 5,000-km migratory ritual, not all monarch butterflies reach protected sanctuaries. Many alight in other locations in Mexico, where the silence of the forest takes them in and anonymity protects them.
IZTA-POPO PARK, Mexic, (Tierramérica).-
- Fame surrounds the monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico and the policies and money necessary to protect these beautiful flying insects. But there are other places in the country that provide a refuge for the monarch and were anonymity is its best defense.
The monarch makes its migratory journey at the end of each year, flying as far as 5,000 km from the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada to Mexico. But this insect species is feeling the pressures of demographic changes, tourism, as well as the uncontrolled logging in its five official havens in central Mexico.
The problems have reached the point that many environmentalists believe that the future of this brilliant orange and black butterfly is in serious danger. The government, meanwhile, is paying closer attention to the area where the monarch arrives to spend the Northern Hemisphere winter.
In late 2001, the Vicente Fox government set up the Monarch Butterfly Protection Trust Fund. It ensures that the areas set aside for the monarch sanctuaries - covering some 48,000 square km - are protected by anti-logging policies, while the local peasant farmers receive money in exchange for preserving the forest.
In the last three decades, 44 percent of the wooded areas of the monarch havens have been destroyed or degraded, threatening the butterfly population, warns the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
But the butterflies that do not reach those sanctuaries have a different story. They spend the winter in areas where there are no tourists and where the silence and anonymity of the forests takes them in and protects them.
"We are not going to make the same mistake we made with the sanctuaries. Here it will be the community that takes responsibility for protecting the monarch and its forest, and tourism will be tightly controlled," Alejandro López, director of the Izta-Popo and Zoquiapan national parks, told Tierramérica.
Just outside the Izta-Popo Park, the community of Atlautla, set on the slopes of Popocatépetl volcano, kept the presence of the monarch butterflies in the area a secret. But the local residents have now decided to take advantage of the situation to develop eco-tourism, and are now spreading the word about the butterflies and beginning to organize - with the support of park director López.
It is a mountainous area, near a crater surrounded by ‘oyamel’ fir trees. It is a two-hour hike along a winding path that starts in Atlautla, a town of 6,000 people. The route is normally used by the local farmers and woodcutters.
The monarchs have been migrating to this site, 50 km east of the capital, for as long as anyone can remember, but only now is their number and behavior the subject of research.
Based on what locals have said and on the evidence gathered, the monarch population in Atlautla is much smaller than in the sanctuaries, where the butterflies number more than 100 million.
"There may be fewer, but we are going to defend them and take advantage of their presence here," said José Manuel Riva Palacio, an Atlautla youth who is working on a construction project that is part of the eco-tourism initiative.
Atlautla is not the only location outside the preserves where there are monarch colonies. The WWF maintains that there are likely many more sites, but they have yet to be discovered.
"If we find the monarch, as we expect we will, we will not reveal that fact without first taking precautions and entrusting the local community with managing the matter," Miguel Angel Rodríguez, director of the Laguna de Zempoala park, some 60 km from the capital, told Tierramérica.
The spotlight is a long way from Zempoala and Atlautla, but loggers are active nearby. However, deforestation does not pose as serious a threat in these two areas as it does in the famous sanctuaries, which thousands of tourists visit each year.
López, director of Izta-Popo Park, has asked for help from the military and the Environmental Protection Office to fight logging in the area. Meanwhile, in other areas thought to provide wintering grounds for the monarchs, such as in the southern state of Oaxaca, local authorities warn that deforestation is on the rise.
At the end of each year, millions of monarch butterflies make the long journey towards the south, arriving in Mexico in November and December.
Offering a colorful spectacle as they rest in the branches of the oyamel trees, their sex organs develop and they mate. Then, in March and April, after feeding on pollen, they take off again, forming enormous clouds as they head back to the United States and Canada.
This natural phenomenon could be interrupted in the near future if the destruction of the forests in the monarch sanctuaries continues, warns Mexican poet and environmental activist Homero Aridjis, head of the non-governmental Group of 100, an organization of Mexican cultural figures.
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent.