Interview by Katiana Murillo, Rainforest Alliance
“Our slogan is not to give fish to the campesinos, but rather to teach them to fish. They know that Alternare doesn’t give them things, it teaches them and requires efforts from them for improving quality of life.”
The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve of Michoacán, Mexico, is one of the principal sites for monarch butterfly hibernation and local water collection. Every year, tens of millions of monarch butterflies fly from Canada in a stunning migration that scientists do not yet fully understand. The reserve is also home to 250,000 campesinos, poor farmers who survive on subsistence agriculture and, until the protected area was created in 1985, on logging. With the reserve’s establishment, the campesinos lost their right to log the forest, which for generations had provided them with firewood, construction material, and a means of making money. The ban was in response to rampant deforestation. In the last few decades alone, some sixty percent of the forest has been cut, threatening to destroy the wintering and reproduction lands of the monarch.
Alternare, a nonprofit organization founded in 1998, works to help local residents find sustainable, income-producing alternatives to logging. Thanks to the innovative techniques that Alternare has taught to the campesinos for growing food, for constructing their homes and for supplementing their income, they have learned that it is possible to live off a hectare of land without destroying the forest.
Guadalupe del Río Pesado, President of Alternare, explains how the organization is now working with local residents to sustainably manage the Monarch Reserve’s natural resources and how the group won the confidence of campesinos who once considered the reserve an enemy.
Question: What is the reserve’s ecological importance?
Del Río: The reserve is very important because it is a place of climatic transition. Endemism is high, which means that various species of amphibians and migratory and resident birds are found only in this particular region. Rainwater catchments in the reserve also make it an important site for water collection, even for parts of Mexico City.
Q: Is this the most important area in Mexico for the butterfly’s reproduction?
Del Río: Not exactly. The butterflies come to several places, all of them in the area between Michoacán and the State of Mexico. Essentially, this is the area where they hibernate from November through March. At the end of February and early March, the butterflies copulate. The males die after copulation the males die. The females begin their journey north at the end of March, but die after laying their eggs. Their development from the larvae to the adult stage occurs over a period of one or two months. Each new generation of butterflies continues its migration northward until August. The August generation is the one that flies from Canada to Mexico. Those born in August are the only butterflies that live for seven months as adults because they have not yet obtained sexual maturity. They mature here in Mexico.
Q: What is Alternare’s conservation strategy for the reserve?
Del Río: First, we are teaching the people how to produce enough organic vegetables on a hectare of land for their own consumption. For those who have more than one hectare, we show them how they can reforest the extra land using techniques for soil and water conservation, crop rotation and organic fertilizer production.
Second, we aim to reduce pressure on the forest by teaching the campesinos to make adobe to build their houses instead of wood, and to use wood stoves, which are more efficient than fires for cooking food. The stoves that we make, called lorenas — made mainly from adobe and wood — use 50 percent less firewood than is used in open cooking fires. The smoke goes out the top, which benefits the natural resources, and the people, who are no longer breathing smoke or in danger of falling on the open coals.
As for house construction, the campesinos traditionally built three small rooms and because the trees are not very tall or thick, use up to 15 trees to make a house. Because they do not preserve the wood, it is destroyed within 15 years. An adobe house, on the other hand, lasts a lifetime and holds the heat more efficiently than wood construction. We also show them how to establish nursery collectives where they can produce their own trees from seed.
Third, we are working with the campesinos to create small businesses. We are starting with four groups: some sell honey, others make pomades from medicinal plants, and others make organic fertilizer.
We are also building a training center so we will no longer have to rent space. Thanks to a donation, we were able to buy the land and begin construction last year. The idea is to have it be a center of operations for the Alternare staff and for teaching people in a practical way that they can support their families with what they produce. It is also a space for researchers who come to study the butterflies or sustainable development with the campesinos. Over time, we want to expand our efforts to offer more education and training services.
Q: How do you choose the people with whom you will work?
Del Río: Alternare works in groups. Those who are interested must form a group of 10 to 15 people. We began our work in 1997 with 29 families and five groups, and now we are working with 17 work groups and more than 160 families.
We train the groups, beginning with soil and water conservation. From there, each group forms a committee with a president and decides which day of the week they will do their manual labor. Alternare accompanies them on this work day to check on and correct the techniques learned in the course and to reiterate the importance of resource conservation.
Q: And how do you encourage the groups to stay interested in this work?
Del Río: By the campesino-to-campesino method. We are convinced that campesinos listen to one another better than to an outsider. This also helps us to expand our efforts. We ask that each group choose one or two people to be instructors in the Alternare center. This is how we ensure that knowledge remains with the people and can continue to grow, even when Alternare is no longer present. The instructors learn communication and environmental education techniques, as well as biology, photosynthesis, diagnostic analysis, etc.
We now have three generations of instructors: the first trained six local instructors and Alternare hired five of them to be part of the staff. There is a new generation of seven that is beginning to use the techniques and is forming work groups, and a third generation of around eight that began in January.
We always ask the work groups to choose who should come to the training center to be prepared as an instructor. For the first generation there was a man whom we liked a lot, and we thought that he would be a great instructor, but the group did not choose him. This surprised us, and we thought that there had been some interference from the group. He said that he wanted to be prepared as an instructor anyway, even though he wasn’t chosen. We told him alright, if the group would accept him. But this man left the instructor training program within the year while two other people chosen by the group continued. This is a lesson to us that the people know better who has the right stuff to be an instructor and who does not.
The campesino-to-campesino method is important because sometimes there is a very large communication gap that we are not aware of. I recall a meeting about the monarch butterfly where one of the government personalities spoke to the campesinos. I thought this person had spoken to the people very well, but one of the villagers who works with Alternare told me later that in truth, the people had been insulted. I was very surprised to learn this. What happened was that this speaker mentioned to local residents that he knew what it was like to live as a campesino and this was insulting to them, because they know that this person, although he might have lived among campesinos for five or ten years, actually has another life.
Q: How have you helped to change peoples’ attitudes toward conservation?
Del Río: It was very difficult for us to enter an area where the people had some aversion to the butterflies. Because of the butterflies, they could no longer make use of the forest. We have been able to get the people to understand that, thanks to the butterfly, there are more resources and other means of extraction that will benefit them, the butterfly and the planet. Having achieved this change in attitude is the most important part of our work.
Education is a long, evolving process. We see changes in the groups we work with. There are local people who are convinced of the importance of conservation and they are going to influence the decisions made about their community and their forest. Brigades have also been formed to safeguard the forests.
The reserve’s principal problem is clandestine logging. We believe that the only way to control this is to work with the communities, because once they are convinced, they are not going to allow anyone to come in and cut their forest.
Q: What impact has tourism had on the reserve?
Del Río: There is a lot of tourism, and this is another problem. There are 34 indigenous communities and communal lands in the area, but only eight communities benefit from tourism. Alternare works with the eight neediest communities that do not gain benefits from tourism.
Q: Do you really think Alternare will be able to conserve the monarch butterfly and the reserve’s resources?
Del Río: I believe that the only way to conserve the natural resources is through environmental education and by changing peoples’ attitude. If are not able to achieve this, people will continue to cut trees.
Q: With all that you have achieved to date, do you think that you have passed the critical stage?
Del Río: The reserve has 250,000 inhabitants, and we hope to work with all of them. But even if we only work with one-third of the population, that will have a great deal of influence on the campesinos’ overall decision-making.
Our slogan is not to give fish to the campesinos, but rather to teach them to fish. They know that Alternare doesn’t give them things, it teaches them. This has been difficult because many government programs have given them things and paid them, and they have come to expect this. Many communities have told us: “Well, if you are not giving us money, we are not interested.”
The project is difficult because we are telling people to change how they use resources and to work in an organized way in order to improve their quality of life.