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Humans Are Competing With Butterflies in Mexico Reserve

As officials work to save monarchs and their habitat, villagers threaten to resume logging. Some critics say it never stopped.

January 08, 2006|Hugh Dellios | Chicago Tribune Staff Writer

SIERRA CHINCUA SANCTUARY, Mexico — Dressed in black like commandos, assault rifles over their backs, the officers revved up their new all-terrain vehicles and roared into the woods in search of illegal loggers.

"There are well-armed mafias out there," said Elias Martinez, 22, as he bounced over the gravel road. "But since we've been patrolling, we haven't seen any of that activity."

These are the butterfly police, part of Mexico's latest effort to protect the forest sanctuaries where millions of monarchs are arriving after a wondrous and little-understood annual migration across thousands of miles from southeastern Canada.

The government says deterrents such as the new patrols have nearly eradicated the logging that denudes hillsides where the butterflies nest. But critics say the logging continues unabated, and leaders of a key village threatened to start cutting trees again this year if the government did not come through with alternative sources of income.

When Mexico's Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve was created 19 years ago, about 10,000 villagers were asked to give up logging in exchange for tourism-related jobs and a special compensation fund. But some complain that the money runs out soon after the tourist season between November and March.

"You can't eat butterflies," said Abel Cruz, 44, leader of Rosario village, which is host to the most monarchs and monarch watchers every year. "If the government doesn't comply with what they promised, we are not going to comply either."

Reserve officials think the threats are partly a strategy to get more money. But the tension illustrates Mexico's difficulty in finding a balance between protecting a globally valued natural treasure and the needs of impoverished people who have lived on the hillsides for generations.

The goal is to make partners of the insects and the people, rather than rivals over use of the woods about 100 miles west of the capital.

"We've got the eyes of the world on us," said Eduardo Ramirez, director of the reserve. "If you have a 3-year-old crying with hunger, what are you going to do? That's the challenge, and why we have to keep pushing to convert these threats into proposals."

Officials say they expect a big rebound this year in the number of monarchs arriving here. Last year saw a precipitous fall when 22 million showed up, down from 112 million in 2003-04.

Such periodic drops can be due to cold spells. But experts fear that the long-term survival of the monarchs is threatened by pesticide use in the U.S. and Canada and the loss of nesting habitat in Mexico.

A visit to one of eight sanctuaries inside the reserve can be awe-inspiring. At the height of the season in January or February, the forests can turn orange with monarchs on the branches of every tree, accompanied by a symphony of fluttering wings.

Scientists don't know exactly how the young monarchs find their way 3,000 miles from Canada without ever having been in Mexico before. After breeding, they will die on their return trip north through the United States. Their offspring, who are born up north, will make the trip south the next winter to the same Mexican hillsides.

Mexican officials say the biggest local threat to the insects are armed logging gangs with ties to organized crime. But they say they have eliminated 85% of the gang logging through police work and checkpoints.

The government of Michoacan state recently announced the creation of the 26-member forest patrols.

"We have effectively disarmed the bands," said Francisco Luna, the Michoacan delegate to Mexico's federal environmental enforcement agency.

But environmentalists and tourism operators say that assessment is too optimistic. They say gangs continue to thrive because of corruption and the lack of resources to effectively patrol the 185,000-acre reserve.

"The foreigners go into the sanctuaries and listen to the chain saws and say, 'I thought this was a sanctuary!' " said Pablo Span, a hotel owner in the area. "Every single day these forests are being logged."

The dispute with Rosario village has brewed since 2000 when the government expanded the reserve and limited residents' use of the forests. That cost the village $1 million, say leaders who want permission to cut again three miles from the butterflies' nesting areas.

They also complain about not receiving money from the $6.5 million Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund, which was created to compensate villages for not cutting trees. Officials said that Rosario was one of seven villages that chose not to join the program when it was started in 2002; 31 others did. They said they expected Rosario to apply now.

"There was a little mistrust, people saying, 'They're going to take my land,' " said Juan Antonio Reyes, who coordinates the conservation project for the World Wildlife Fund. "Now that a few years have passed, we're reaching out to them again."

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