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The End of the Monarch Butterflies

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In case climate change wasn’t stressing the world’s species enough, human politics and failure to govern is driving many of them to extinction. The story of the monarch butterfly, an iconic species in the U.S. that unfortunately also has to cross human borders, is probably going to go extinct soon and a big part of that is because of the conditions of Mexico in their breeding grounds.

Michoacán’s El Rosario reserve attracts millions of monarchs annually and tens of thousands of butterfly tourists. But the reserve has also proven attractive to illegal loggers, who covet the fir trees and the land beneath. The butterflies, oblivious to human inequality, travel between the wealth of the United States and the destitution of one of Mexico’s poorest states; Michoacán’s GDP is about $4,700. As one anonymous Mexican conservationist observed, “Around here a tree is worth more than a human life.”

Until his assassination in January, Gómez González managed the El Rosario reserve. Gómez González was a logger from a long lineage of loggers. Initially, he viewed the butterfly-induced protection of the forests as an affront to indigent locals seeking to survive. But slowly his politics turned and—with World Wildlife Fund patronage–—he became a vocal advocate for monarch-driven ecotourism as an alternative path out of poverty. He led a reforestation program. He launched patrols day and night on the lookout for illegal incursions. And he took to social media with videos of himself haloed with hovering monarchs. After two years of his charismatic leadership, the rate of deforestation fell to almost zero. But he was accumulating enemies, among them not only loggers but those wishing to plant clandestine avocado orchards, a lucrative crop thanks to soaring U.S. demand.

Gómez González was last seen alive on January 13 at a local fair. When the ransom notes arrived, his family paid. It took two weeks to find his corpse. The autopsy determined the cause of death as “mechanical asphyxiation by drowning of a person with head trauma.” Gómez González had long known that his life was on the line. In a showdown between organized crime and organized butterfly protection, there was only likely to be one winner.

A day after Gómez González disappeared, Hernández Romero vanished as well. He was last seen en route to work in a village called El Oyamel, named after the conifers he adored, the Abies religiosa, or sacred firs in English. The pilgrim butterflies prize them but so do human pilgrims: Mexican loggers fell large numbers of the sacred firs to adorn churches each Christmas.

Hernández Romero had denounced illegal logging before he was tortured and knifed to death. He worked as an ecotourist guide in a section of the vast Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve that UNESCO declared a world heritage site in 2008. Hernández Romero put his body on the line trying to reconcile his passion for the monarchs’ splendor with local skepticism that ecotourism could fill the stomachs of the poor. He believed, despite the odds, that such a reconciliation was possible.

This is hardly the only issue, with environmentalists along the border being targeted by Trumpian fascists with rape threats for opposing the border wall in order to maintain habitat. And of course then there is climate change and everything else.

In conclusion, like with COVID-19, environment and people combine to create disasters that redefine the planet.

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