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

“In Michoacan, a tree is worth more than a human life,” one former state official said.

“Homero Gomez was in conflict with these loggers,” said Homero Aridjis, an environmentalist and poet, who is a longtime defender of the monarch butterfly sanctuaries. “They’ve always been a very dangerous group, because there are always politicians, businessmen involved in deforestation.”

Aridjis said his own activism against illegal logging, the planting of avocado orchards and the proposed construction of a mine near the sanctuaries has brought threats.

He largely stays away from the butterfly sanctuaries due to security concerns.

However, others suggest that Homero Gomez might have fallen foul of a backlash to his buccaneering self-promotion and questions over his role as the former leader of El Rosario community, which is run as an ejido — a traditional Mexican collectivist arrangement where residents share ownership of the land and its bounty.

“In this system it’s easy for a leader to become abusive with the community’s income,” said a Michoacan conservationist who was familiar with [Homero] Gomez and the sanctuary, but did not want to be named.

The conservationist insisted it was still safe for butterfly guardians to do their work.

“He was an outspoken person, he drew a lot of attention to himself. I don’t know why he was killed, but because of the non-transparent management of the ejido, he had a lot of enemies. It’s difficult to say this in Mexico because the press has portrayed him nearly as a saint,” the conservationist said.

Regardless, Amado Gomez’s fears that “large groups” might seize the sanctuary are not without foundation.

Criminal groups have already moved in on resources such as water, forests and minerals — most famously in the indigenous Purepecha community of Cheran, where locals rose up in 2011 to halt illegal loggers, backed by a drug cartel, from clear-cutting their forests.

The demise of Homero Gomez also highlights the misery suffered by Mexico’s beleaguered environmental defenders, who have been murdered with impunity in shocking numbers.

Fourteen defenders were murdered in Mexico in 2018, the international non-governmental organization Global Witness said.

Security concerns are rife in the region and many prefer silence.

“It’s very difficult [to speak out] and even more so for those who live here,” said a local researcher, who preferred to remain anonymous.

While the reasons for the deaths of the two men have yet to fully emerge, concerns are already swelling that the incidents would hurt tourism. The fragile security situation across Mexico has been blamed for a quiet winter for visitors in one of the major sanctuaries, Sierra Chincua, even before the deaths.

NORTH AMERICA

The monarch butterflies themselves are also coming under growing pressures. A historic low in overwintering populations was recorded in 2013 and 2014, amid a longer-term slump that has prompted mayors in cities across North America to promise remedial action.

It is suspected that butterfly numbers have been winnowed away by the use of toxic pesticides, and the razing of critical monarch habitat in the US and Canada.

The decline was reversed somewhat last year, but scientists warn the annual monarch migration faces an existential threat due to the climate crisis.

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