Michoacán: Rise up in arms to conserve the monarch butterfly forests

Ricardo Salgado fires his semi-automatic rifle into the air and causes a deep echo in the oyamele forest. “It is an M1, with which the Second World War was won,” he says, showing the weapon, which has a gleaming wooden body. An AR15, America’s best-selling assault rifle, hangs from one of his teammates’ shoulder, and the others carry hunting shotguns. No one is perturbed when the detonations go off without warning: they are to warn the loggers that the Crescencio Morales community forest guard has arrived.

The group of thirteen men, all indigenous Mazahua, advance silently up the hill. Behind him he leaves on the road immense logs cut from the base, the most visible scar from the battle that is being fought in these mountains of Michoacán. Salgado knows that the price that must be paid in Mexico for defending the territory is high. On October 1, an armed group ambushed him as he was coming down from the hill and he came out miraculously alive. “That is why we cannot come to watch the forest with sticks and machetes, they bring high-caliber weapons.”

‘They’ is a fuzzy pronoun, encompassing an interconnected network of enemies. The most defined, with whom they come face to face, are the tree-cutters. Those who arrive, cut pines and oyameles, and leave with their trucks loaded with illegal wood without any authority seeming to notice. ‘They’ have names and surnames, but they do not say each other to the press, because they are their own neighbors. Inhabitants of Crescencio Morales who found in illegal logging a juicy business with which to make easy money.

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Remains of felled trees in the forests of Crescencio Morales.
Remains of felled trees in the forests of Crescencio Morales.Teresa of Miguel

But that ‘they’ also points to more powerful forces. Those that allow, for example, that this wood passes the checkpoints and reaches the market without problems. Or those that offer protection and weapons to loggers. – The Michoacan family? The Jalisco cartel? -. They shrug their shoulders. It is not wise to point out. Organized crime has taken control of the sale of illegal wood both here and in the rest of the country, and this is recognized by the National Forestry Commission in its latest report on the state of the forests.

The document cites a study by the UNAM that states that 70% of the wood sold in Mexico is of illegal origin. Impunity for this type of crime is almost total: between 2000 and 2018, barely a hundred investigations were opened for illegal logging throughout the country, according to data from the Attorney General’s Office. The ejido leader of Crescencio Morales, Erasmo Álvarez, translates these abstract data into tangible facts: he filed dozens of complaints against the loggers, but never received a response.

Given the inaction of the authorities, last year he proposed creating a community forest guard that would go up every day to monitor its more than 6,000 hectares of forest, of which 2,000 are part of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. One day it would be up to a group of 20, the next day another 20, and so on until it reached its 15,000 inhabitants. “Let the Government know that we do not want to walk like this. But if nobody cares for us, as if we don’t exist, what are we going to do? What they want is our land, but we are not going to give it to them. We are going to defend it to the end. “

Members of the Crescencio Morales community forest guard, on December 9.
Members of the Crescencio Morales community forest guard, on December 9.Teresa of Miguel

And is it worth risking your life to conserve the forest? To answer the question, Erasmo Álvarez goes back a couple of decades. Between 1995 and 2009, uncontrolled logging deforested thousands of hectares on their land. “The water that rained, there were no trees to distribute and recharge it in the subsoil. The streams all dried up, there were no lizards. It was a lesson we learned ”. And without water in the streams, the corn and avocado crops in the lower areas of the town were left dry. “We are not going to let that happen again.”

Those years of massive logging dealt a severe blow to the most distinguished species of these lands. The monarch butterfly, which annually travels 5,000 kilometers from Canada and the United States to hibernate in the forests of Michoacán and the State of Mexico, found fewer and fewer trees to perch on. Deforestation is one of the causes that, along with the use of pesticides and climate change, has caused the population of monarchs to plummet 80% in the last three decades, says Eduardo Rendón, of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Mexico.

“The pressure on the reserve is increasing. If things continue like this, with degraded forests, it will become an important factor in the death of butterflies ”, laments the biologist. That pressure you are talking about does not refer only to clandestine logging, but also to the increase in land cultivated for avocado, the coveted Mexican “green gold”. Rendón hopes that the community protection and reforestation initiatives that are taking place in the area will be able to curb the loss of the monarch’s habitat.

Monarch butterflies perched on the branch of an oyamel in the forests of Crescencio Morales.
Monarch butterflies perched on the branch of an oyamel in the forests of Crescencio Morales.Teresa of Miguel

At the top of the Crescencio Morales hills, after walking a kilometer along a path, Marcial Pérez points towards the top of the oyamel trees. Thousands of butterflies hover there, forming clusters so dense they are difficult to distinguish. Its orange wings with black lines peek through the flowers and Pérez takes the phone out of his pocket to photograph the show. At 59 years of age, he is the one who knows the best of the entire forest guard the paths that lead to the monarch. He says that for twenty years they have hardly been seen there but now, little by little, they are returning.

The ejidatario stops to talk with three women who are on the road, who are clearing the brush from a gap against fires. Carmen, who prefers not to give her real name, says that she has learned to use the shotgun for when it comes to surveillance. The woman hopes that one day Crescencio Morales will become a tourist place where visitors from all over the world come to appreciate one of the most famous migratory phenomena in the country. For now, however, the insecurity makes it difficult.

Organized crime is not only visible among the fir trees, but has started to penetrate the community about three years ago. “The criminals were charging up to 100,000 pesos per hectare of avocado cultivation per year,” says a neighbor on condition of anonymity. Extortions, robberies, kidnappings, drug sales. And the neighbors said enough. In January of this year, Crescencio Morales and other Mazahua populations such as Donaciano Ojeda established armed checkpoints at the entrance to their communities.

Three armed men guard the entrance to the Crescencio Morales community on December 8.
Three armed men guard the entrance to the Crescencio Morales community on December 8.Teresa of Miguel

In October they took another step: they decided to follow in the wake of Cherán, the pioneer town in self-government in Mexico. In an assembly, a majority of the inhabitants agreed to abide by customs and customs, take control of their budget and remove the municipal police and political parties. It is a divorce from the municipal presidency of Zitácuaro, on which these populations depend. “Our desire is that our municipality remains in unity, but we are very respectful of the internal life of the towns,” Juan Antonio Ixtláhuac, the mayor of Zitácuaro, tells EL PAÍS.

On December 9, a day after Michoacán’s electoral authorities gave the go-ahead to self-government, Erasmo Álvarez went to guard the hill as usual. Upon returning home, he encountered a roadblock formed by opponents of the self-management process. The fight ended with machetes, with several policemen injured and five of their relatives hospitalized. Despite everything, Álvarez is optimistic about the future. “Years ago, 70% of the community thought about destroying. Now 90% want to protect and 10% to destroy. They are not going to beat us ”.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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