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Deforestation and mining threaten a monarch butterfly reserve in Mexico

  • Despite their declining number, the annual spectacle of the monarch butterfly migration continues to captivate tourists. Tens of thousands visit Michoacán and the State of Mexico every year to see the sight.
  • Extreme weather, deforestation, and herbicides are all reducing the butterfly population in North America. Another challenge is local: Mexico’s biggest mining company hopes to re-open a mine within the Biosphere Reserve, jeopardizing ongoing efforts to preserve the butterfly habitat.
  • These latent threats feel far away as we walk through the Sierra Chincua butterfly sanctuary, but the Federal Police pick-up trucks parked at the sanctuary’s entrance are a constant reminder of the powerful interests that could target the monarch’s forest habitat.

ZITÁCUARO, Mexico – “As long as the butterflies keep coming, we’ll still have work here,” says Javier Ambrocio, looking out over the Sierra Chincua Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. A cold breeze blows across the steep hillside, over 8,000 feet above sea level.

Ambrocio works as a tour guide in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, which straddles the mountains between Michoacán and the State of Mexico. The hibernation season, when millions of butterflies come to the reserve, began in mid-November and will continue until next March.

The people of Ambrocio’s tiny hometown, Cerro Prieto, Michoacán, depend on the monarch butterfly for seasonal employment. But complex environmental factors have decreased the monarch butterfly population — and there is no assurance that Ambrocio and his neighbors can work among the butterflies for years to come.

Extreme weather, deforestation, and herbicide use are all reducing the butterfly population in North America. Another challenge is local: Mexico’s biggest mining company hopes to re-open a mine within the Biosphere Reserve, jeopardizing ongoing efforts to preserve the butterfly habitat.

Looking west from the Sierra Chincua butterfly sanctuary, the deep green forest cover yields to agricultural land and greenhouses. Since 2012, illegal deforestation in the nuclear zone of the reserve has been nearly eradicated. But deforestation continues in the buffer zone, and protecting the Biosphere Reserve is no small task in Michoacán, a state where cartels are often behind illegal logging.

“It’s people from outside the community who come here to cut down trees,” says Ambrocio. “Here we respect the forest.”

On a quiet Monday morning, Ambrocio leads me to the butterfly sanctuary in Sierra Chincua. Hand-written signs warn “Don’t make noise!” as you approach the clearing where the butterflies congregate. Hundreds of orange dots fly above us. Trees 20 meters away are tinged orange, their branches heavy with butterflies. A roped-off observation area keeps tourists at a safe distance from the monarch-draped trees.

Despite their declining number, the annual spectacle of the monarch butterfly migration continues to captivate tourists. Tens of thousands visit Michoacán and the State of Mexico every year to see the sight. Monarch butterflies come to these brisk forests, populated by oyamel fir (Abies religiosa), pine (Pinus spp.), and pine-oak (Pinus and Quercus), in search of safe habitat during the winter months.

Butterflies over-winter in eleven sanctuaries each year, according to World Wildlife Fund biologist Eduardo Rendón. He directs WWF’s monarch butterfly program, which is a partnership with the Mexican telecommunications company Telcel.

Three significant threats are decreasing the butterfly population in North America: Deforestation and forest degradation in Mexico have significantly reduced the habitat range for the butterflies, while land use changes and the increased use of the herbicide glyphosate has decreased milkweed availability in the U.S. The Center for Biological Diversity found that the recently-approved dicamba herbicide will also harm the monarch population. Both herbicides are toxic for milkweed, the Monarch caterpillar’s only food source. The last major threat is extreme weather, either in Mexico or the northern habitats of the butterfly. Sudden cold snaps, heavy precipitation, and snow can all impact butterfly populations.

The entrance to the El Rosario monarch sancutary in Michoacán. Photo by Martha Pskowski.

According to a 2002 study by recently deceased monarch expert Lincoln Brower, 44 percent of the high-quality forest habitat in Mexico was degraded by illegal logging between 1971 and 1999. In recent years, WWF and Mexican environmental authorities have turned the tide on illegal logging in the nuclear zone of the reserve, but deforestation continues in the buffer zone.

Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (Conanp) works alongside WWF-Telcel, in addition to the state governments of Michoacán and the State of Mexico, to protect the butterflies and their habitat. Rendón says that for these efforts to be successful, butterfly conservation and local development must go hand in hand. He adds that programs such as training communities to produce and market local mushroom varieties ensure that residents of the reserve don’t turn to deforestation out of economic desperation.

“We’re trying to create an integral project, that doesn’t just focus on the conservation of the monarch on its own, but to conserve the whole ecosystem,” says Rendón.

Yet conservationists did not always take a friendly approach to working with the local communities, who are descended from indigenous Otomí and Mazahua people. Not long ago, timber harvesting and mining were the economic engines of the mountainous region between the states of Mexico and Michoacán. As both industries dwindled, local communities chaffed against the restrictions of living within an ecological reserve.

Unlike federally owned national parks in the U.S., most of the reserve’s land is in the hands of local communities known as “ejidos.” The ejido was the vehicle of implementing Mexico’s massive agrarian reform in the mid-twentieth century. Large landholdings were broken up, and people who once labored on haciendas were able to petition to receive ejido land.

In the 1970s, researchers Fred Urquhart and Ken and Cathy Brugger were among the US and Canadians who sought to find where the monarch butterflies over-winter. In 1975, the Bruggers found the Cerro Pelon colony in Michoacán. While local communities had seen the butterflies, this was the first time it was proven that monarchs travel from the US and Canada to over-winter in the forests of Michoacán and the State of Mexico. Efforts to protect the area began after this discovery.

The area was named a “Reserve and wild refuge zone” in 1980 and in 1986 became a federally protected natural area. The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (RBMM) was founded in 2000 and spans 139,000 acres. Its nuclear zone was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.

The Biosphere Reserve is divided between 59 ejidos, 13 indigenous communities, and 21 private property owners. About 27,000 people live within its bounds.

The region comprising the RBMM has high rates of poverty, like much of Michoacán. The municipality of Ocampo, where the sanctuaries of El Rosario and Sierra Chichua are located, has a population of 22,600, according to the 2010 census, and three out of four people there live in poverty.

Isabel Ramírez, a geographer at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Morelia, Michoacán campus, writes that unlike other biosphere reserves in Mexico, the RBMM, “was created with a classic conservationist mindset that rejected any possibility of timber harvesting.”

She adds that public, private, and non-profit interests involved in the creation of the reserve, “did not consider the natural resources or the socio-economic relations of the area, let alone any participation for its inhabitants.”

Some ejidos within the RBMM, like El Rosario and Cierro Prieto (where Sierra Chincua is located), directly benefit from monarch tourism. But other communities do not have a monarch sanctuary and see no direct benefits from tourism.

Monarchs gather around a stream in El Rosario. Locals are concerned that mining could deplete the water sources the butterflies depend on. Photo by Martha Pskowski.

Even within the communities that benefit from tourism, stark divisions remain. Typically, only ejidatarios have the right to work in the sanctuaries and receive income from tourism. While many original ejidatarios have passed away or are elderly, their sons inherit the designation. Those who are not descended from ejidatarios see fewer benefits from tourism.

In the case of El Rosario, an ejido that was founded in 1936, the 240 ejidatarios take turns participating in the butterfly sanctuary management. Each year, 80 ejidatarios work in the sanctuary. This means every three years, an ejidatario will directly benefit from the admission fees and tips from visitors who come to see the butterflies. One study found that they earned on average 20,000 pesos (1,000 USD) during each year they participate. The sanctuary receives about 150,000 visitors a year.

WWF-Telcel has invested in improving the tourism services offered at El Rosario. Guides receive training on how to meet the needs of Mexican and foreign tourists. Since 2005, WWF has also helped community nurseries produce native pine species and reforest over 6,000 acres of forest.

Javier Ambrocio’s hometown of Cerro Prieto received its land title in 1966, with 36 ejidatarios. Today, it is home to 850 people. The residential area of the ejido is separate from the forest where the sanctuary is located, eight miles away. Residents share rides to reach the sanctuary.

Ambrocio’s father was a founding ejidatario, and therefore he is entitled to work at the sanctuary. However, he laments the limited economic options in Michoacán. When butterfly season ends, he heads to Mexico City to find temporary construction jobs. In the early 2000s, he lived for five years in Florida, working in construction, which he says allowed him to build a better house for his family and pay for his daughter’s college education.

As economic problems persist, some residents think that mining could provide relief. In Angangueo, a picturesque town squeezed into a canyon near the State of Mexico border, the mayor has advocated for a long-closed mine to re-open.

The first Spanish-owned mine opened in Angangueo in 1766. The town’s well-preserved architecture reflects both colonial influence and the British and American mining magnates who settled here. The American Smelting and Refining Company operated the Angangueo mine until 1953, when 25 miners died in an accident. The state then took over the mine. Production declined until it closed in 1991. To spur tourism, Angangueo was named a “Pueblo Mágico,” or Magic Town, in 2012, part of a national initiative. However, tourism remains low during the butterfly off-season.

Grupo México, Mexico’s largest mining company, bought the stocks of the Angangueo mine in the 1990s. The company hopes to re-open the site to mine copper, silver, lead, and zinc. While Grupo México received an environmental permit in 2005 to re-open the mine, the company hasn’t cleared other bureaucratic hurdles. The Mexican Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) has yet to issue a permit to modify land use in a forested area that is essential for the mine’s operations.

Angangueo’s mayor, Leonel Martínez Maya, is in favor of the mine, telling a local news outlet, “The only solution to reactivate Angangueo’s economy is the mine.”

Possible impacts of the mine’s re-opening include deforestation, water contamination, increased vehicle traffic, and depletion of water sources for the monarch butterfly. Grupo México proposes various mitigation activities, from reforestation to installing mesh netting to prevent monarchs from entering the tailings pond.

But Eduardo Rendón of WWF says that mining is a false solution for towns like Angangueo. “The mining companies say that they will bring riches to the town, but it’s proven that doesn’t happen,” he says. “The water that the mine uses would dry out the woods where the butterflies live. That wouldn’t be good business for anybody… …I have faith that mining is not going to happen in the reserve.”

Grupo México has a checkered track record; a massive spill in Sonora, Mexico dumped 11 million gallons of copper sulfate solution into local waterways. Semarnat declined an interview request regarding the status of the Angangueo mine. Grupo México also declined an interview request from Mongabay.

Monarchs fly between trees at El Rosario. Photo by Martha Pskowski.

As previously reported in Mongabay, mining concessions are permitted in protected areas under the Law of Ecological Equilibrium and Environmental Protection, as long as an environmental impact assessment is carried out. A 2015 study by Mexican biologist Elisa Jeanneht Armendariz-Villegas found that 10 percent of the surface area of natural protected areas in Mexico has been granted in mining titles.

Mexico’s new president, Andres Manuel López Obrador, inaugurated on December 1, has called for changes in mining regulations and re-evaluation of extractive projects that impact indigenous communities. In October, his political party, Morena, which also controls the Congress, presented a mining reform in the Senate.

However, the Mexican Network of Mining-Impacted People (REMA) released a statement calling López Obrador’s proposed changes to the mining law “cosmetic,” claiming that they will “allow continued mining activity, which has caused multiple and irreversible damages.”

Deforestation is an ongoing threat to the monarch butterfly. Conanp partners with the Federal Prosecutor of Environmental Protection (Profepa) to sanction illegal logging in the RBMM. The Federal Police’s Environmental Gendarmerie now patrols the RBMM to apprehend loggers. The enforcement strategy responds to the reality of deforestation in Michoacán: often it is heavily-armed criminal organizations carrying out logging, not local communities.

Forest degradation in the nuclear zone of the RBMM has been all but eliminated. Between February 2017 and March 2018, WWF detected 16.5 acres of forest degradation in the nuclear zone. Most of the loss of tree cover was attributed to drought, and only 3.5 acres were linked to illegal logging. However, illegal logging continues in the buffer zone, though neither WWF nor Conanp keep data on buffer zone deforestation.

“We don’t have a study on land use change in the buffer zone,” says Eduardo Rendón of WWF. “We’d like to be able to do that type of study, but it’s a question of funding.”

Conanp declined an interview request from Mongabay.

One indication of the scale of the problem is that, since the Environmental Gendarmerie began operating in the RBMM in 2016, they have seized 1,136 cubic meters of timber and closed 34 unauthorized sawmills.

Avocado production is another driver of deforestation across the state. The exponential increase in demand for avocados worldwide has been a bonanza for Michoacán producers. Yet, according to Guillermo Vargas Uribe of Michoacán University, nearly 25,000 acres of forest are lost to avocado plantations every year in the state.

Avocado production in Michoacán is concentrated to the east and south of the monarch reserve. But in February, the Federal Police detected 7.4 acres of avocado production in the pine forest of Zitácuaro, in the reserve’s buffer zone. A few miles outside the reserve in Valle de Bravo, State of Mexico, authorities found in 2017 that 91 acres of pine forest were cut down to plant avocado.

A Monarch rests in on a leaf in the El Rosario sanctuary. On sunny days, the butterflies spread out across the reserve. Photo by Martha Pskowski.

These latent threats feel far away as we walk through the Sierra Chincua butterfly sanctuary, but the Federal Police pick-up trucks parked at the sanctuary’s entrance are a constant reminder of the powerful interests that could target the monarch’s forest habitat.

Javier Ambrocio looks out across the forest with pride. While the search for work has taken him to Mexico City and as far as Florida, he says the city life doesn’t suit him; he’s happiest in the forests of Cerro Prieto. Ambrocio is proud that his daughter chose to study environmental science at the university in Zitácuaro. But forces outside his control could change the landscape he cares for so much.

“There are a lot of people who want to make money off this forest,” says Ambrocio. “But here in Cerro Prieto we have learned to care for it.”


• Armendáriz-Villegas, E. J. & Ortega-Rubio, A. (2015). Concesiones mineras en Áreas Naturales Protegidas de México. LA JORNADA ECOLOGICA. numero especial. 11-13.

• Brower, L. P., Castilleja, G., Peralta, A., Lopez‐Garcia, J., Bojorquez‐Tapia, L., Díaz, S., … & Missrie, M. (2002). Quantitative changes in forest quality in a principal overwintering area of the monarch butterfly in Mexico, 1971–1999. Conservation Biology, 16(2), 346-359. doi:10.1046/j.1523-1739.2002.00572.x

• Vidal, O., López-García, J., & Rendón-Salinas, E. (2014). Trends in deforestation and forest degradation after a decade of monitoring in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico. Conservation Biology, 28(1), 177-186. doi:10.1111/cobi.12138

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