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Two deaths trigger alarm at Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve

Monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico. Image by Rafael Saldaña via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

  • The body of Homero Gómez González, passionate defender the monarch butterfly and a Mexican reserve designed to protect it, was found on Jan. 29, two weeks after his disappearance was reported.
  • Three days later, Raúl Hernández Romero, a tourist guide in the area, was also found dead, with evidence of violence.
  • Homero Gómez, like other land-collective members in the area, collaborated in the creation of a model that seeks to help communities make sustainable use of forests.

Homero Gómez González took a circuitous path to becoming an advocate for butterflies. After strongly opposing the creation of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, he became one of its most enthusiastic promoters, as well as an advocate for local forest conservation and the sustainable development of communities in and around the town of El Rosario in the state of Michoacán, Mexico.

On Jan. 13, when Gómez’s family reported his disappearance, the 260 members of the land collective he belonged to in El Rosario organized themselves to find their partner. Two weeks later, on Jan. 29, his body was found in an agricultural well. His death outraged his family, fellow collective members and everyone who knew his work as a defender of the sacred fir, or oyamel (Abies religiosa) forests and the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).

Then, three days after Gómez’s body was found, another death triggered alerts on the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Raúl Hernández Romero, a tourist guide in El Rosario who had been reported missing days before, was found dead with visible traces of violence.

Homero Gómez González, defender of the oyamel forests where the monarch butterfly hibernates, was found dead on Jan. 29, 2020. Image taken from his Facebook page.

The state prosecutor’s office in Michoacán is still investigating the deaths. Land-collective members and environmentalists are concerned that illegal loggers and avocado growers may have had a role. These groups are vying for control of the forests in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, as they are elsewhere in Mexico. The 56,259-hectare (139,000-acre) reserve is an emblem of environmental cooperation in North America.

The deaths of Gómez and Hernández are a reminder of why Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries for environmental defenders. In 2019, organizations including the Irish NGO Front Line Defenders recorded the murders of 24 human rights advocates, most of them focused on environmental and territorial issues.

Accepting a reserve

Each winter, millions of monarch butterflies migrate 4,500 km (2,800 mi) from the temperate forests of the United States and Canada to hibernate in their wintering grounds in the Mexican Neovolcanic Axis. This mountain range runs west to east across the states of Mexico and eastern Michoacán, in the center of the country.

In 1976, the Canadian zoologist Fred Urquhart reported the location of the hibernation sites in the forests of Michoacán, where for generations the Otomi and Mazahua indigenous communities have witnessed the winter stay of these butterflies. Urquhart’s studies prompted the creation of a protected area in 1986 and, 14 years later, of the biosphere reserve. The reserve became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.

Out of 22 monarch colonies in the Neovolcanic Axis, the largest are found at three sites, which form the core zones of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.

In the beginning, Homero Gómez González was a staunch opponent of the reserve’s creation, which was imposed on the mountains of eastern Michoacán by the Mexican government. Like many members of the region’s land collectives, known as ejidos, Gómez’s idea of ​​development was not far from the old rentismo system, common in Mexico through much of the 20th century, that gave the forest to industry in exchange for money.

It was not easy to convince the populations affected by the presidential decrees of 1980, 1986 and 2000 that shaped the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Communities were forbidden from carrying out activities that had been their livelihood for many decades: logging, hunting, and plant gathering.

For some time, Homero Gómez González managed the El Rosario butterfly sanctuary within the much larger Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Image taken from his Facebook page.

Eventually, however, Gómez not only came to believe that protecting the forest would benefit the communities but became an outspoken advocate for the reserve. His leadership, as well as the support of various institutions, including the international NGO WWF, a conservation incentive program called the Monarch Fund and Mexico’s National Forestry Commission (Conafor), allowed the communities to find sustainable ways to live in the forest and, at the same time, conserve ecosystems vital for the future of the monarch butterfly and other species.

Gómez, age 50 when he died, was an agronomist and traditional leader who defended the communities’ right to use the forests. The first victory the communities achieved was to be paid for the timber they would not be able to exploit.

Then, when those programs expired, the Monarch Fund payment scheme was created for the entire core zone of ​​the protected area. For the past 10 years, that scheme has been the reserve’s axis of stability, said Rafael González Franco, a consultant hired by the Mexican government to serve as the liaison with the communities.

Currently, the community in El Rosario, one of the monarchs’ largest hibernation sites, makes its living from ecotourism, trout production and sustainable management of pine and oyamel.

Homero Gómez González, age 50 when he died, was an agronomist by training and a leader of his community. Image taken from his Facebook page.

Communities that defend the forest

The communities in the region survive among cartels locked in a violent contest for control of Michoacán. Unlike people in other parts of the state, such as the Purépecha plateau, residents of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve region have managed more successfully to avoid the changes in land use imposed by avocado harvesting that are already affected their borders. On the other hand, criminal drug gangs have progressively gained control of illegal logging in the area.

Miguel Ángel Cruz Domínguez, one of the ejidatarios, or ejido members, who participated in the search for Gómez, said that El Rosario, along with 58 other ejidos, 13 indigenous Mazahua and Otomi communities, and 21 small properties, form a “polygon of protection,” carrying out forest protection and conservation activities.

“We have been planting many thousands of trees,” he said. “We deny illegal loggers access to the area. We have permanent guards in shifts of 10. Nobody enters the sanctuary without us knowing.”

The conservation of monarch butterfly habitat has led communities to opt for sustainable management of the forest. Image taken from Homero Gómez González’s Facebook page.

For these communities to access the resources of the Monarch Fund, they must commit to maintaining the integrity of the ecosystems.

González, the consultant, who has worked for the Monarch Fund in the area for more than a decade, described the important role women have played. Women joined the discussion processes and pushed traditional leaders, such as Gómez, to abandon the rentismo relationship with the government and instead focus on improving the health of their forests, he said.

Convincing the farmers that their future lay in conservation “was a complicated job but I can say that there was a strong commitment from many institutions,” he said.

The news of Gómez’s death hit the ejidatarios hard. In early January they had celebrated a massive arrival of monarch butterflies to their forests.

Every year since 2004, with support from WWF and the Mexican telecom company Telcel, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve has monitored the forest area occupied by the hibernating colonies. Additionally, an extensive tri-national monitoring system records the sites the monarchs fly to when they migrate to Mexico. In the past 20 years, the monitoring has registered a decreasing trend in butterfly occupancy.

However, Cruz, the ejidatario, said that between 2019 and 2020 the trend seems to have reversed — figures that current monitoring should confirm.

The Michoacán prosecutor’s office is investigating the cause of Homero Gómez González’s death. Image taken from his Facebook page.

Demands for a thorough investigation

Cruz, like other ejidatarios of El Rosario, said he hopes “the authorities will clarify Homero’s death.”

After the discovery of his body on Jan. 29, the prosecutor’s office in Michoacán stated there were no traces of violence and that they were going to ensure the investigation remained open into issues such as kidnapping, extortion and threats.

Gómez’s death also sparked outrage among environmentalists from Mexico and many other parts of the world. Various organizations and agencies, including WWF and the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, issued statements about the death, and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador sent condolences, albeit without specifically committing to clarifying the matter, which is the responsibility of the Michoacán prosecutor.

On Jan. 30, the day after Gómez’s body was found, a large crowd of El Rosario residents accompanied his coffin during his funeral procession.

Gómez’s Facebook page is crowded with remembrances and photographs of him among the oyamel trees and surrounded by butterflies. There are bleak messages, too, including a request on that people avoid buying “blood avocados,” also known as the “green gold” that destroys the Michoacán forests.

Banner image: Monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico. Image by Rafael Saldaña via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). 

This story originally appeared in Spanish on Mongabay Latam on Feb. 3, 2020.