The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is a protected area known throughout the world because the monarch butterfly comes to spend the winter in its forests after a long journey of 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles). Within this territory, 260 ejidatarios ("cooperative farmers") who are part of El Rosario, one of the 57 ejidos and 13 indigenous communities of Michoacán and the State of Mexico, carry out surveillance patrols in order to keep the trees that inhabit their lands standing.

But the conservation of these forests - which are much more than butterflies, they are the territory on which the life and future of ejidos and communities depend - face increasing challenges: the ejidatarios who own these lands have seen how extreme weather events increase, how native trees around the reserve are replaced by avocado plants, and how the presence of organized crime groups is increasingly evident.

In the region, the presence of groups dedicated to drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping and illegal logging has become even more visible. In January 2020, for example, ejidatario Homero Gómez and tourist guide Raúl Hernández were reported missing; their bodies were found days later. For this reason, indigenous communities in the area have created their own community police.

In November 2000, the Mexican government expanded the Biosphere Reserve to 56,000 hectares (in 1986, only 16,000 hectares had been protected) in order to guarantee the conservation of the forests where the monarch's main hibernation sites are located. The ejidos and communities in the core zone were prohibited from cutting down trees, even if they had permits and respected the forest management plans. This prohibition provoked anger and resistance.

To economically compensate the ejidos and communities that could no longer carry out forest management (logging) because they were within the core zone, the Monarch Conservation Fund was created, one of the first payments for environmental services in the country; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation of the United States contributed five million dollars for this purpose, to which were added resources from the federal, State of Mexico and Michoacán governments.

From the 70 ejidos and communities with territory within the Biosphere Reserve, only 32 receive the Fund's resources: those that are within the core zone and have taken care of their forests. Beginning in 2009, the National Forestry Commission (Conafor) added another annual payment - the same amount that the Fund grants - to the communities that comply with conservation actions.

There are approximately 27,000 people living in the reserve; of these, only those who are ejidatarios receive the Fund's resources. For example, in El Rosario, only 260 ejidatarios receive this payment for environmental services. Shortly after the Monarca Fund was created, WWF-Mexico began annual monitoring to identify areas where there is forest degradation caused by fires, illegal logging or drought. High-resolution aerial photographs are taken and analyzed by specialists from UNAM's Institute of Biology.

The most updated data show that between March 2019 and the same month of 2020, illegal logging was recorded in 13.3 hectares of the reserve. That figure is four times the area recorded during the 2018-2019 season, when it was 0.43 hectares. Clandestine logging is concentrated in San Felipe de los Alzati, Nicolás Romero and Crescencio Morales; communities located in Zitácuaro, Michoacán, a municipality where the expansion of avocado crops is increasing.

Jorge Rickards, general director of WWF-Mexico, recognizes that "if today we have forests in good condition it is because it has practically been the decision of the communities. There would not be enough money to conserve any natural area without the commitment and will of the communities". Dr. Alfonso Alonso, of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Center for Conservation and Sustainability, explains that the monarch butterfly will continue to arrive in the forests of central Mexico, as long as they have healthy trees and available water sources.

"The fact that the butterfly continues to go to the oyamel forests of the State of Mexico and Michoacán is because it finds the microclimatic conditions necessary for its survival. If we change these forest conditions, if we cut it down or if we change the microhabitat that the monarchs need, the butterfly will migrate to other places. Dr. Alonso emphasized: "The monarch butterfly is not in danger of extinction. What is at risk is the migratory phenomenon".

If the monarchs no longer come to these forests, it would cause other problems: "local communities would no longer have benefits such as income from tourism. This would have very drastic consequences for the reserve's protection". Any impact on this forest territory will not only affect the future of the monarch and the communities in the area, but will also be felt in the cities, because these forests represent one of the main sources of water for the Metropolitan Zone of the Valley of Mexico.

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve

The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is located in the municipalities of Temascalcingo, San Felipe del Progreso, Donato Guerra, and Villa de Allende in the State of Mexico, and Contepec, Senguío, Angangueo, Ocampo, Zitácuaro and Aporo in the State of Michoacán. It covers 56,259 hectares and is an area destined for the migration, hibernation, and reproduction of the Monarch butterfly. In this sense, the region was declared a Protected Natural Area on October 9, 1986. Later, in 2008, due to its enormous importance, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.

The migration of the species is extremely important for the regions in its path. In its adult stage, the butterfly becomes an important pollinator. In this way they mobilize the pollen they find on their way and redistribute it in various regions. Thanks to this, the enormous genetic diversity of the plants grows. Also, in its caterpillar stage, the butterfly feeds on the cotton mealybug, a pest that attacks an enormous amount of plants.

During the last decade, according to the website "Soy Monarca", the populations of the species decreased drastically. In 2013, the lowest population was registered for the whole decade. This decline is largely due to the deterioration in environmental quality and, of course, has serious ecological consequences.

Source: El Popular