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Monarch Butterfly Conservation Perspectives
What Can Be Done to Stop the Illegal Logging?
By Jordi Honey-Rosés

February, 2004
Monarch season is in full swing in Mexico with tourists climbing up and down the Transvolcanic Mountains, journalists calling regularly for a quote on the latest controversy, and researchers avidly jotting observations inside the colonies with notebook, compass, camera, and GPS in hand.

A late January storm has caused some Monarch mortality in the colonies although much less than the severe freeze of 2002 and by no means should affect the visitors’ spectacular experience at the overwintering sites the remainder of the season. The biologists of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) will be finishing the count of dead butterflies and releasing the final mortality numbers soon.

The press in Mexico picked up on the mortality story immediately and along with the story came questions about the illegal logging inside the protected area. The questions about the illegal logging in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve are without a doubt the most difficult and complex to answer. However to ignore the illegal logging issue would be just as problematic. The organized and illegal extraction of trees is probably the primary threat to the habitat of the Monarch Butterfly in Mexico and not to address the issue would make any interdisciplinary and long term conservation plan incomplete and bordering on irrelevant.

To the Mexican government’s credit, they have recognized the Monarch region as one of the most contentious natural areas in the country. Mexico’s Minister of the Environment Alberto Cárdenas grouped the Monarch region in the same category as the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, which serves as campground and hideout for ski masked Zapatista revolutionaries. Cárdenas also included in this category the forests of Guerrero -- infested with drug traffickers and armed revolutionaries of their own. Not bad company for the Monarchs. We could call this trio, Mexico’s Axis of Illegal Logging.

So clearly the Mexican authorities recognize the magnitude of the illegal logging in the Monarch Butterfly Protected Area. And also to their credit, money is being channeled into the region accordingly. The Mexican Park Service (CONANP) has more than doubled the budget of the Protected Area since 2000 under the leadership of Ernesto Enkerlin. This increase of funds has been noticeable in the area and executed through the hard work of the Reserve Director Marco Bernal and Subdirector Eduardo Rendón.

Still, the illegal logging continues and is self evident. To better visualize the dimension of the illegal logging, a group of Mexican decision makers, researchers and journalists participated in aerial flights above the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere reserve this past January 21st and 22nd. The flights were possible thanks to the non-profit organization Lighthawk and its network of volunteer pilots. Passengers included Michoacán State Delegates of SEMARNAT (Secretary of Environment) and PROFEPA (Environmental Attorney General’s Office) as well as the Regional Director of the CONAFOR (Mexican Forestry Service) and the Municipal Presidents of Angangueo, Ocampo and Senguio.

The flight passengers saw not only the dire effects of the logging, but also witnessed the logging occurring in real time, where at least four trucks were seen inside the Monarch Biosphere Reserve driving through a devastated area of what only two years ago was dense oyamel forest. These powerful aerial images were shown later that night on Mexico’s national news channel Televisa. The news clip on the illegal logging also featured an interview with the long time researcher Dr. Lincoln Brower. The prime time news report denouncing the illegal logging created quite a controversy and was followed up by an opinion article written by Mexican poet and conservationist Homero Aridjis and published in Mexico’s most widely read newspaper Reforma also denouncing the continued illegal logging in the protected area. (“Crespúsculo de la monarca” Reforma, Febrero 1, 2004)

So all of this brings us to the most important and difficult question: What can be done to stop the logging? And more specifically what can independent and non-governmental organizations do? Aside from the police and judicial work in the hands of the Mexican authorities, the appropriate actions to halt the illegal logging can be broken down into three groups

    1. Empower local community efforts
    2. Document the illegal extraction, and
    3. Denounce the facts to the press.

Empower Local Community Efforts
First and foremost, the agrarian communities that own this forest need to be empowered to protect what forest they have left. In the long run only a strong local commitment for protection will stop the illegal logging. External efforts will never be a substitute for this local commitment. Fortunately, within each community there is always a group who would like to stop the logging, but who don’t have the means to do so, or who feel powerless before the network of illegal loggers. These individuals need to be empowered. Local community forest watch groups need to be better equipped, and if they are doing a good job, they should be paid for their time spent protecting the forest. Interestingly, field research in the forest could be an indirect way to support the community forest watch groups. It has been seen that illegal loggers are less likely to enter an area if there are people present in the forest. Lastly, when local community members request forest protection help from the authorities, independent groups can follow through on their request to be sure that the correct action is taken.

Document the Illegal Extraction
Second, conservation organizations and researchers can and must document the status of the logging. The use of aerial photography and high resolution satellite images have recently allowed specific areas to be identified for action. Also, written documentation must be gathered that describes the logging activities and what is being done (or not) to stop it. The analysis and conclusions generated, such as the most affected areas, the access points for loggers, and the patterns of illegal activity should all be shared among conservation organizations and authorities to find more effective means to stop the illegal activity.

Denounce the Facts to the Press
Lastly, there comes a time when the illegal activities needs to be made public and denounced in the press. Going to the press can help pressure for a deeper political commitment at a higher level of government but also risks a negative twist in the message by the press, or generating ill will from local government agencies. Criticism should be used carefully so as to address specific problems and not fall into sweeping statements or condemnation about the status of the Reserve as a whole.

All three courses of action require close coordination between conservation groups, researchers, local communities and the government authorities.

The Forum will bring most of the major Monarch conservation groups to the table to share their workplans and map them in a Geographic Information System and database. Hopes are high that this latest effort may help diminish the illegal logging.

For years the discussion on illegal logging has lacked site specific evidence to focus the debate. Finally, new technology is allowing this debate to become more specific and quantitative. Conservation organizations, researchers and the public at large are not the authority to direct confront the illegal logging, but there are specific actions that may be taken. The time has come for a more open dialogue with Government agencies in Mexico to jointly find solutions in order to ensure an intact and permanent habitat for the Monarch butterfly.

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