A Delicate Balancing Act in Mexico


In a yearly ritual dating to prehistoric times, millions of monarch butterflies returned to this mountain forest last fall, surviving one of the world’s great animal migrations--a 3,000-mile journey fraught with storms, starvation and other dangers.

Now the question is: Will they survive the students of Actopan grammar school?

“I’ve got a live one!” yelped Oscar Dali, 8, stuffing an orange-and-black monarch into a glass jar on a recent morning. Abel Diaz, 7, snatched a butterfly from the ground and hurled it skyward, commanding, “Fly!” Susana Barrera, 13, gazed spellbound at the orange-flecked forest canopy. “It’s beautiful,” she sighed, tossing her Coke bottle into the underbrush.

The Doritos-chomping, war-whooping students represent a new front in one of Mexico’s most vexing environmental battles. To dissuade local peasants from chopping down trees in the butterflies’ ancient habitats, authorities have permitted them to develop a tourism industry. But, with crowds tearing through the fragile forests in pickups, on horseback and on foot, some fear the eco-tourism is backfiring.


The government is so concerned, it is drafting new rules to control visits. But it faces a dilemma increasingly common in poor countries: How do you balance the demands of nature lovers with those of peasants clamoring for development?

“People are walking on these very delicate mountain trails by the thousands now. . . . It’s a hell of a mess,” said Lincoln Brower, a prominent monarch expert who fears that the entire butterfly migration could collapse.

The butterfly colonies here form one of the hemisphere’s great nature spectacles, and one of the least understood. It was only in 1975 that scientists discovered the remote destination of the tens of millions of monarchs that migrate each winter from the United States and Canada--most of the species’ population east of the Rockies. (The smaller monarch population west of the Rockies migrates to coastal Central and Southern California.)

Scientists found to their astonishment that the butterflies all swarmed to a dozen mountain ridges in an isolated area of central Mexico. There, the monarchs cluster tightly on fir trees, with as many as 10 million squeezed into each hectare--an area about the size of an average Wal-Mart. In a phenomenon that baffles scientists, the monarchs return to the same mountaintops on the border of Michoacan and Mexico states, although they are three or four generations removed from the previous year’s visitors.


Logging Lets in the Rain and Cold

But some environmentalists fear that the 10,000-year-old migration is in jeopardy. The main culprit: logging. It leaves holes in the tree canopy--which acts like a blanket, keeping out rain and holding in warmth.

“It’s anathema to them. They freeze to death,” said Brower, a professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. “I don’t think this [butterfly migration] can last another decade at the rate things are going.”

The Mexican government passed a decree in 1986 that sharply limited logging in and around five butterfly habitats. However, the sanctuaries are located in areas granted to farmers under an old land-reform program. In a country where environmental laws are frequently ignored, many peasants continue to log--often with the connivance of bribe-taking local officials, according to activists. Already, scientists say, one butterfly sanctuary has been almost destroyed.

To protect both the forests and the peasants’ livelihoods, authorities hit on the idea of permitting tourism. Now, more than 200,000 people flock to the two sanctuaries that are open to tourists each year between November and March, said Roberto Solis, the federal Environment Ministry official who oversees the reserves.

People on all sides of the conflict recognize the benefits of those visitors. There are hundreds of new jobs for tour guides, forest rangers and souvenir hawkers. Without them, many local peasants would have to seek work in distant cities--or cut down the trees.

The tourists also have changed many peasants’ attitudes toward the forest.

Juan Vidal, for example, grew up accompanying his father to the forests of Sierra Chincua to cut down trees. Now, he works at protecting them, as a ranger.


“Tourism is important. Before, people cut down the trees. Now, we don’t cut them, because we want to keep the butterflies,” the burly 30-year-old said.

But tourism has its downside. That was evident on the recent day in Sierra Chincua.

In the cool morning, clumps of sleeping monarchs were packed so thickly on trees that they looked like gray Spanish moss. Shafts of sunlight began to pierce the forest. Suddenly, the butterflies took off in explosions of orange and black, the flutter of their millions of wings sounding like the patter of rain.

A group of adults watched quietly, breathlessly. But the roughly 100 students on a class trip from Actopan, in central Hidalgo state, got restless. Soon, Vidal and a fellow ranger were chasing them away from the clusters of butterflies, which visitors aren’t allowed to harm or capture. The children crashed through the underbrush, decorated one another’s hair with live butterflies, and tossed napkins and mango juice cartons on the ground.

“We like visitors to come,” Vidal said, sighing. “But they sure can cause chaos.”

A major problem with the tourist trade is the lack of control and infrastructure. The other reserve open to tourists, Rosario, is at the end of a spine-jarring nine-mile dirt road. On weekends, a parade of dump trucks, each packed with 20 or 30 visitors, huffs up the road. To reach the butterflies, the visitors then jostle up a path lined with 200 wooden stalls selling quesadillas, T-shirts and, ironically, toy logging trucks.

“It looks like a Mexico City street market--but in a sanctuary,” moaned Homero Aridjis, head of the Group of 100, a Mexican environmental organization.

Some local guides and vendors are worried that the noisy commercial activity may be the reason the butterflies have retreated deeper into the forest this year than in the past.


The greater damage, though, comes from the paths cut through the forests. At Sierra Chincua, visitors kick up so much dust that some wear blue surgical masks. When the rains come, scientists say, the soil easily washes away, damaging the trees.

“There is going to be massive erosion and damage to the whole Chincua system,” Brower predicted.

He and other environmentalists fear that the butterflies’ winter home could be so ravaged that the migration might end. Monarchs would not face extinction, as nonmigratory varieties exist elsewhere. But scientists would lose secrets of nature, visitors would be denied a magical sight, and the monarch population east of the Rockies could be decimated.

Tourist Numbers May Be Capped

Mexican government officials scoff at the environmentalists’ pessimism. Solis of the Environment Ministry noted that the same number of monarchs, about 10%, have died every season since monitoring of their Mexico habitats began six years ago. Most perish because of natural factors.

But even he is getting worried about the forest. Authorities are working on a new decree to protect the reserves. They plan to limit tourists to small groups, and perhaps even put a ceiling on how many visitors can come each year.

Such measures, set to take effect as soon as next year, seem sure to set off a new round of conflict with local residents.

At the moment, the peasants seem unaware of the government’s plans. In fact, they are gearing up for more visitors, building a large restaurant and hotel near the two reserves.

Rosa Maria Martinez, 56, who runs a souvenir stand at Sierra Chincua, said limiting tourism would push local peasants over the edge. She said her meager earnings--$20 on a good day--allow her and her 70-year-old husband to scrape by.

“This is the only hope for us,” she said. “We live by the will of God--and the help of tourism.”


Monarch Sanctuaries of Mexico

Five sanctuaries have been set up in isolated mountains west of Mexico City to protect tens of millions of monarch butterflies that migrate there each winter from the U.S. and Canada east of the Rockies.