Monarch Butterflies Drive Environmental and Social Metamorphosis in Mexico

The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is perhaps North America’s queen of the butterflies. This honor is due not only to its outstanding beauty, with striking black, orange and golden-yellow patterns on its wings, but also to its strength, resistance, and longevity. While most butterflies live only 24 days, the monarch can live up to nine months and its lightweight, delicate wings are capable of flying nearly 2,500 miles on its migratory route.

Every year from October-November until March, some hundred million monarchs undertake an enormous journey from southern Canada and the United States to central Mexico, to the forests of the eastern part of the state of Michoacán and the western part of the state of Mexico. There they take refuge, escaping the frosts, rains, and snows of the North American winter and find suitable conditions for maturing and mating before returning home.

Photo by www.mexico.a-holic.comThose territories comprise what is now called the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, 217 square miles of forest that a decade ago suffered from alarming levels of degradation, a clear threat to the survival of the species. For this reason, the World Wildlife Fund-Mexico (WWF) developed its Monarch Butterfly Program with the Federal Government of Mexico, the state of Mexico, and civil organizations, with support from private sources.

The Monarch Butterfly Program is a titanic effort that was launched in 2000 with a vision to conserve the forests in Mexico where the butterfly hibernates. The was a complex goal, as the territories that make up the Monarch Butterfly Reserve were not government property; instead they belonged to some 100 ejido owners (ejidos are rural lands for collective use) and local communities poverty and unemployment are quite high. Many local residents were literally depending on the Reserve for survival by extracting fungi, mosses, timber, hunting, and other natural resources.

Program Coordinator Eduardo Rendón remembers that they first went to the reserve’s area with “the romantic idea of conserving the forests to protect the monarch.” Immediately, the local inhabitants said that they were not willing to protect an insect, which certainly must be a pest, if this meant that they would not be able to feed their own children.

“This alarmed us, but right then we got the message. The project would only be successful if it had social significance,” recalls Rendón. “These people were the real conservation target and our efforts should be focused on them.”

WWF adjusted its goals and decided that the Monarch Butterfly Program should be expanded to encompass four conservation goals: water recharge zones (springs and aquifers), forests, the monarch butterfly as a priority species, and other species and ecological groups.

Photo by Enviva MagazineThese goals helped local people identify with the cause, as it addressed their needs and offered opportunities and benefits. The Reserve supplies water to local communities and meets 37% of the water consumption needs of Mexico City. These forests are their source of wood and other resources, and they are essential for carbon fixation to help fight climate change. Biodiversity protection is vital to ensuring their food sources and at the same time, the conservation of the monarch butterfly offers scenic beauty – a treasure that they can explore through sustainable tourism development.

“They understood that if their resources were endangered, they and their children were also endangered,” explained Rendón. With this shift, the monarch butterfly became the flagship species for a series of strategies linked to each conservation target. For the thousands of inhabitants of the Reserve, their lives were transformed with training, employment, tourism, and even the possibility of having their own businesses.

Rendón points to three outstanding achievements. First, they implemented an economic incentives scheme through the Butterfly Conservation Fund (supported by WWF and the Mexican Fund for Nature Conservation. Incentives were given to forest owners who had lost their use permits in the Reserve’s core zone and included payments for environmental services, per hectare, within the core zone.

The program helped these landowners find alternative subsistence activities, converting forest conservation into economic benefits. Today, WWF supports six sustainable forest management programs underway, in addition to innovative oyster mushroom cultivation, handicrafts, farming, and centers to process sustainably harvested wood. More than 3.5 million trees have been planted to reforest some 8,400 acres (3,400 hectares) in the Reserve.

Photo by WWF-MexicoThe second major achievement is a community forest nursery. Eight well-run nurseries are providing seedlings for the Reserve’s reforestation needs, while employing dozens of people and reporting successful sales. This has been the case with the “Las Novias del Sol” forest nursery, managed by the San Juan Xoconusco indigenous community in the Donato Guerra municipality, located in the state of Mexico. They produce and sell 1.3 million plants for reforestation in the Reserve and for other projects run by the National Forest Commission (CONAFOR), an institution with which they have signed a contract and, according to Rendón, has said that Las Novias del Sol produces the best plants in the country.

The Regional Monarch Butterfly Forum is another noteworthy accomplishment. It was formed over five years ago and has coordinated regional territorial management among 27 municipalities that now comprise the “Monarch Nation.” The Forum has also crossed borders to collaborate with the Environmental Cooperation Commission (CCA) for North America, with which it has started three initiatives to conserve monarchs, and protect them from their starting points in Canada and the United States throughout their migratory route to Mexico.

No less important are the major efforts that promote sustainable tourism in the area. Thousands of tourists now enjoy an improved Reserve thanks to land management, architectural projects, improvements to infrastructure (informative signs, rehabilitated trails and roadways, and remodeled structures), and well-trained tour guides, all as a result of WWF’s work.

Rendón adds that all this has been possible due to the economic support and solid commitment of private businesses such as Telcel, a private telecommunications company in Mexico; Altos Hornos de México, the largest iron and steel company in the nation); Yves Rocher México, a French cosmetic line; and the Carlos Slim Foundation. These companies support day-to-day activities and participate in broader initiatives such as the popular Papalotzin initiative, a project of the WWF-Telcel alliance and the Government of Michoacán. Papalotzin is the name of an ultra-light aircraft painted to resemble a huge monarch butterfly, which flew along the monarch’s migration route from Canada to Mexico distributing information about the monarch migration and filming a documentary about the challenges the butterflies confront during their trip.

Photo by Andrew Donaldson-WWFThese activities are complemented with environmental protection projects executed by new community brigades that have been created, trained, and equipped by the program; species research and monitoring projects that local residents have learned to carry out with experts; training on topics including forest management and recycling; and an extensive environmental education campaign for primary and secondary schools, tourists, and local people.

The program’s most important achievement is that these successes can be attributed to the very same inhabitants that first viewed the monarch as a mere insect, says Rendón. “They have appropriated the vision, processes, projects, and the companies. They now know that they are environmental and moral leaders and an example for other conservation initiatives.”

The program is a permanent initiative, and while challenges continue, forest degradation in the Reserve’s core zone has abated — degradation was reduced by 47% last year, according to the Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund.

Contacts: Eduardo Rendón, Monarch Butterfly Program Coordinator, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Mexico. Avenida México No. 51, Colonia Hipódromo, 06100 México, D.F., México. Tel/Fax: +52/5-286-5631, Extension 211. erendon@wwfmex.org, www.wwf.org.mx.

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