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
EL ROSARIO, Mexico
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
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.
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
"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
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
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.
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
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
"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
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
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
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 themselves.
The Eco-Life Foundation, founded in 2003, is helping in two key ways:
First, it has set up a Web site (morethanmonarchs.org) 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."
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Stephen Kiehl traveled to Mexico on a fellowship from the
International Reporting Project at the Johns Hopkins University.