As butterflies die, so goes a way of life

Logging in Mexico puts wildlife, livelihoods at risk

By Stephen Kiehl

Sun Foreign Reporter

July 29, 2007


The dead butterflies came up to his ankles, an ocean of orange and 
black that spread as far as he could see.

On a mountaintop in central Mexico, Bill Toone stepped lightly. He 
had helped save the California condor. He had protected species 
around the world. But he was not prepared for this. The piles of 
monarch butterflies - estimates would put the figure at 250 million 
dead - were so thick that they were composting at the bottom.

The butterflies in the El Rosario sanctuary froze to death that 
winter of 2002, victims of a cold brought on not only by the vagaries 
of weather but also, Toone says, by illegal logging that is 
systematically destroying their habitat.

The forest acts like a blanket, protecting the butterflies from 
extremes in temperature. Without it, they freeze.

But the forest, like the butterflies, is disappearing. More than a 
thousand acres were cut in the butterfly sanctuary last year, and in 
the last decade the number of monarchs migrating to Mexico declined 
from 900 million to 340 million, according to scientists and the 
World Wildlife Fund.

The butterfly is a harbinger of larger human troubles facing rural 
communities spread across the mountains of central Mexico: extreme 
poverty, a scarcity of water, a lack of jobs. The loss of the forest, 
and the monarchs, could also mean the end for these communities. The 
forest traps moisture and releases it into canals built along the 
mountainsides. The communities use the water for cooking, washing, 
drinking and irrigating crops.

There is no other source of water. As deforestation has accelerated, 
communities have seen their water supply cut by half or more. Canals 
that once gushed now trickle.

"There's this realization that the end is in sight," says Toone, a 
gray-haired 51-year-old conservationist from San Diego. "There's only 
so much land they own, and they're watching it go empty. This can't 
go on forever."

Several of the communities that make up the Monarch Butterfly 
Biosphere Reserve, a rugged 139,000-acre sanctuary, are waiting no 
longer for the government's help. They are arming themselves, forming 
patrols and standing up to the loggers who are taking their trees, 
and with them, their future.

Fighting back

On a bright morning this spring, Vincente Guzman Reyes gathered his 
horses and his guns. He packed soda bottles, tortillas, meat and 
vegetables into a bag. He tucked a 9mm under the waistband of his 
jeans. Then he climbed onto his horse and set off into the forest.

Every man over the age of 18 in his community, Donacio Ejido, is 
required to participate in the patrols. They are not paid. Several 
times a year, each man goes up the mountain in a group of seven. For 
30 hours, they watch over their 3,000 acres - looking for tire 
tracks, for cuts in the barbed wire fence that marks their land, for 
any sign of logging.

"If we stopped patrolling for a day or two, nothing would happen," 
Guzman says. "But if we stopped for a week, 100 trees would be gone."

A few years ago, because of a miscommunication, the forest wasn't 
patrolled for three days. In that time, an area the size of a 
football field was clear-cut.

One night on patrol this spring, the buzz of a chainsaw pierced the 
still, cold air. Guzman and six other men were warming themselves 
around a campfire, telling ghost stories. (One man insisted that if 
you point a gun at a coyote, it won't fire.) But at the faint sound 
of the saw, the storytelling stopped and the men listened.

"It's too far," Guzman said finally, meaning whoever was cutting 
trees in the dark of the night was not cutting their trees. There was 
nothing the men could do.

The lure of logging is easy to see. In the mountainous region between 
Mexico City and the Pacific, jobs are hard to find. Some people grow 
avocados, mangoes and corn, but the cost of getting the produce to 
market makes it almost impossible to turn a profit.

The tall fir and pine trees are more valuable and, at one time, were 
plentiful. But many mountainsides are now bare. From the road, they 
look naked and exposed against the blue sky. Communities sell their 
trees to paper companies, but also use them to build homes and for 
firewood. In the butterfly reserve, 100,000 trees are cut every year 
for personal use.

But there are only so many trees. The World Wildlife Fund reports 
that 183 acres were deforested in the reserve in 2001. That figure 
rose to 1,139 acres last year. In just the last six years - the only 
period for which there is data - more than 3,000 acres of the 
reserve's 33,000-acre core zone were lost to logging.

The loggers have become more aggressive - moving onto protected lands 
as other areas are clear-cut, and bribing officials to gain access 
and escape punishment, according to Toone and other advocates.

Donacio Ejido has taken the lead in protecting its forest. When 
Guzman became head of the community of 3,000 people several years 
ago, he banned logging and jailed those who continued to cut trees. 
He organized the patrols. And, with the other men, he dug ditches 
five feet deep in the roads that traversed the forest, so logging 
trucks couldn't pass.

The stakes, Guzman says, are high: "If we finish the forest, we 
finish the water."

He is a strong, compact man with the build of the jockey he once was. 
For years, he trained and rode horses at Mexican racetracks. He even 
cut trees once, from 1975 to 1985. The pay was good - sometimes up to 
$20 a day - and it helped him support his wife and nine children. But 
eventually he realized that short-term profit would mean long-term 

"I thought to myself: My children, how will they eat? How will they 
live?" says Guzman, 50.

Other communities are following Donacio Ejido's lead. They have 
planted thousands of trees. Several have begun patrols of their own, 
and at night the patrols from each community greet each other with a 
shotgun blast. Partly because of this vigilance, the acres of trees 
lost to logging fell to 603 for the last 12-month period.

Toone has also helped, using his San Diego-based EcoLife Foundation, 
to organize the communities to protest en masse and distribute 
efficient stoves that require less wood than traditional ones. Some 
communities at first distrusted outsiders, and some of the 200 stoves 
that were distributed were vandalized.

But now, Toone says, communities welcome the help.

"Every time a forest is cut to completion or a monarch butterfly 
colony disappears," he says, "it's a job that ends and it means that 
fathers will leave their families and children to make money 
somewhere else."

To protect the trees that remain, the patrols are essential. Guzman 
goes up the mountain every few weeks, to make up for five of his sons 
who are working in the U.S. He takes their shifts to keep them in 
good standing in the community.

The patrols begin with a three-hour horseback ride up the 11,000-foot 
mountain. At the top, the new group meets the departing patrol group, 
trades information and sets up camp. The men find a clearing, toss 
blankets on the ground and set a fire for lunch using fallen 
branches. They travel light: food, water, blankets, guns. No alcohol 
is allowed.

Monarch butterflies flutter around the men as they continue through 
the forest. Guzman, who grew up here and helped build the canals down 
the mountain, knows the land better than anyone. He points out orange 
flowers that smell like tobacco and make delicious tea, and red 
flowers with a fluid in the stalk that tastes like honey. He plucks 
them as he walks.

A hike of several hours turns up nothing suspect. In some places, the 
forest is so dense that Guzman and the others must crawl on their 
knees to pass under thick canopies of vegetation. In others, where 
there has been recent cutting, the trees are only as high as the 
men's shoulders, as vulnerable as children.

At night, the men gather around a campfire, warming tortillas on the 
embers and looking at the planes crossing overhead in the clear sky. 
The highest ones, they say, are going the farthest - to Washington, 
to New York, to San Francisco, cities that are only words to them.

Fragile beauty

Lincoln Brower remembers the first time he came upon a monarch colony 
in Mexico. It was 1977, and Brower had been studying the butterfly 
for two decades. When he learned that millions of them clustered 
together each winter in these mountains, he went to see for himself.

In 1974, an American businessman in Mexico read about butterflies 
sighted in the nearby mountains and passed word along to National 
Geographic magazine, which sent a reporter. The story ran in August 
1976, and scientists finally learned where the monarchs spend the 

"You just couldn't believe it," Brower says, describing the thick 
clouds of butterflies he encountered on his first trip. When the sun 
warmed them during the day, they would alight from the trees, the 
cumulative sound of their beating wings creating an audible buzz. "It 
was just the most incredible, amazing thing I had ever seen."

But to get to that colony, he had to drive up a logging road. And 
even then, 30 years ago, he could see that the forest was 
disappearing. Brower, now 75 and a professor at Sweet Briar College 
in Virginia, had been fascinated by the monarch's migratory pattern.

A complete migration - from southern Canada and the northern United 
States to the central Mexico sanctuary and back - takes three or four 
generations of butterflies. One of these is a "super-generation" that 
lives seven months - five times longer than the other generations - 
and travels 2,800 miles on the strength of its five-inch wingspan.

"There's nothing like it anywhere in the world," Brower says. "Unlike 
birds, the monarch is going back to the same exact spot, as if 
there's some kind of computer program in their brain."

But that amazing ability to return to the same place each year may 
also doom the butterflies because those places have fewer and fewer 
trees. "And then," Brower says, "they freeze."

He lobbied the Mexican government to protect the butterflies, and in 
1986 a presidential decree created the butterfly reserve, an area 
about the size of Chicago. In 2000, Brower helped revise the plan to 
protect the reserve. But he said enforcement has been lax.

"I frankly think the Mexican government has proven themselves over 30 
years of not being able to protect these butterflies," he says. "They 
have had 30 years to get their act together, and they just haven't."

The country's forestry police is stretched thin and susceptible to 
bribes, say local officials. The locations of checkpoints to stop 
logging trucks are widely known and easily evaded. The army is busy 
fighting the drug cartels.

The butterflies suffered two massive die-offs in recent years - one 
in 2002 where 250 million died and another two years later, when over 
100 million died. All of them froze to death.

Brower said a perfect storm of events - a poor migration year in the 
U.S., followed by a cold winter in Mexico and then dry weather for 
the migration back north - could wipe out the monarchs entirely.

'There is no forest'
A lifetime in conservation has taken Bill Toone from Antarctica to 
Paraguay to Papua New Guinea. He helped develop and run the San Diego 
Zoo's California condor recovery program, collecting eggs in the 
field and raising condors in captivity.

And ultimately, he realized that his work had to be about more than 
protecting animals and resources. "Conservation is about nothing," he 
says, "if it's not about people in the end."

The monarch butterfly is the perfect illustration of that belief. Its 
fight for survival is also the fight of the small communities 
clustered on the mountains.

Not all of them are winning. In Escovales, a few mountaintops away 
from Guzman's community, the swarms of butterflies that once came 
each winter are gone. Loggers took thousands of trees from this 
community in the past 15 years, without paying or asking permission.

"There is no forest," says Alejandro Salgado Flores, 48, "and there 
are no butterflies."

Salgado, who has lived in the community most of his life, says the 
butterflies were considered gifts from the spirits, and good luck. 
But they have vanished, and the water is going, too. Escovales is 
about halfway up the side of a mountain. Its water supply is dictated 
by the communities higher up. They take what they want, and when they 
cut trees, that means there is even less water to go around.

"There is going to be a war over the lack of water," Salgado says, 
"and it is caused by the logging."

Toone knew it wasn't enough to tell rural Mexicans to save the 
forests for the sake of the butterflies. They had to do it for 

The Eco-Life Foundation, founded in 2003, is helping in two key ways: 
First, it has set up a Web site ( in English and 
Spanish where residents, local governments and law enforcement 
agencies communicate with each other and organize.

Second, Eco-Life is paying for fuel-efficient mud and concrete stoves 
to be built and distributed. Two hundred have been delivered so far, 
at a cost of $150 each. Another 500 are due this year. The stoves are 
called Lorenas and come with a plaque that reads, "My name is Lorena 
and I'm a friend of the butterflies."

The stoves provide an immediate impact by significantly reducing use 
of firewood, Toone says. Urgent action, he says, is needed. The 
communities are realizing they must stop the logging without waiting 
for the government to step in.

"If we wait until all the social programs are in place to address all 
the social ills in this part of Mexico," Toone says, "the forest will 
be long gone."

[log in to unmask]
Stephen Kiehl traveled to Mexico on a fellowship from the 
International Reporting Project at the Johns Hopkins University.