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Dead butterflies may be ill omen in Mexico

Deforestation saps the monarchs as well as the only source of water for mountain communities.

August 12, 2007|Stephen Kiehl | Baltimore Sun

EL ROSARIO, MEXICO — The dead butterflies came up to his ankles, an ocean of orange and black that extended 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 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 in the mountains of central Mexico: extreme poverty, scarce water, few jobs. The loss of the forest, and the monarchs, also could 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 at least half. Canals that once gushed now trickle.

"There's this realization that the end is in sight," says Toone, a 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 not waiting for the government's help. They are arming themselves, forming patrols and confronting the loggers.

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 older than 18 in his community, Donacio Ejido in the central Mexican state of Michoacan, 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 chain saw pierced the 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 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 scarce. 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.

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 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.

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.

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