Thu, Feb 13, 2020 - Page 9 News List

Fear in Mexico as twin deaths expose threat to monarch butterflies and their defenders

The apparent murders of two men known for promoting conservation of famed monarch butterfly reserves have drawn attention to a troubling tangle of disputes, resentments, illegal logging and violence roiling Michoacan state

By David Agren and Oliver Milman  /  The Guardian, OCAMPO, Mexico

Illustration: Mountain People

The annual migration of monarch butterflies from the US and Canada is one of the most resplendent sights in the natural world — a rippling orange-and-black wave containing millions of butterflies fluttering instinctively southward to escape the winter cold.

The spectacle when they reach their destination in central Mexico is perhaps even more astonishing.

Patches of alpine forest turn from green to orange as the monarchs roost in the fir trees, the sheer weight of butterflies causing branches to sag to the point of snapping.

Tens of thousands of the insects bounce haphazardly overhead, searching replenishment from nearby plants.

To witness this sight is as if to enter a waking dream.

“People have a spiritual and emotional connection to monarchs,” said Sonia Altizer, a monarch butterfly researcher at the University of Georgia. “Many people tell me that seeing them was a highlight of their life.”

However, the recent deaths of two butterfly conservationists in the region has drawn attention to a troubling tangle of disputes, resentments and occasional bouts of harrowing violence that has lingered over the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a sprawling World Heritage Site nearly 100km northwest of Mexico City.

Mustachioed and gregarious, Homero Gomez Gonzalez tirelessly promoted the El Rosario sanctuary, a section of the butterfly reserve that receives the bulk of tourists who come from around the world to see the monarchs.

He featured in mesmerizing social media videos — posing with butterflies fluttering around him — and called the creatures “a marvel of nature.”

THE DEATHS

Gomez, who was 50, disappeared on Jan. 13 after attending a patron saint festival in the municipality of Ocampo; his body was found two weeks later at the bottom of a watering hole.

His death has yet to be ruled a murder, although police say he suffered a blunt trauma to the head.

The incident raised fears that gangs, possibly tied to the illegal logging of the butterfly reserve, had targeted Gomez for his advocacy of ecotourism over the felling of trees in this rugged swath of Mexico, where communities, often beset by poverty, have traditionally relied upon the harvesting of timber, potatoes and wheat.

Those concerns were further heightened after the death of a part-time tour guide from another nearby butterfly sanctuary, Raul Hernandez Romero.

His body was found on Feb. 1 with injuries possibly inflicted by a sharp object.

“The panorama for the community, the forest and the monarch butterflies is now very complicated and uncertain,” said Amado Gomez Gonzalez, one of Homero Gomez Gonzalez’s nine siblings. “There are now these two crimes and it has spread fear. You find yourself thinking: ‘What if this is a group that is coming to try and take the sanctuary away from us?’”

Investigations into the two deaths are ongoing, but some conservationists fret they are a byproduct of the violence that has long troubled the state of Michoacan, which stretches from the mountains of central Mexico to the west coast.

ILLEGAL LOGGING

As they have done across the nation, organized crime groups linked to the drug trade have diversified into many other activities, including kidnapping, avocado cultivation, land theft and the lucrative market in pine, fir and cedar wood.

Logging is supposedly under tight controls, but high prices mean that lumber mafias often stray into protected areas — and are prepared to use violence.

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