ANGANGUEUO, MEXICO — As it does every year, a warm orange snowfall has blanketed a few wooded mountain crests of central Mexico. The translucent orange snow-flakes whirl and flutter in the sun, lending to the mountain calm a light whooshing sound and then the ping! ping! ping! of snow falling on tree branch and bush.
The orange snowfall is the spectacle of a few hundred million monarch butterflies congregating for winter in the oyamel fir forests of Mexico's Michoacn state.
By March, when the monarchs return north toward summer homes in Canada and the United States, they will cling to the branches of trees in sight of the food stalls and trinket stands that serve thousands of tourists. This visual confrontation of man and nature captures the dilemma facing those who would preserve a unique insect migration that was only "discovered" by the outside world 25 years ago.
The North American monarch butterfly winters in a rural yet heavily populated region of central Mexico whose woods are craved by loggers, furnituremakers, and families shivering in cold huts. In order to convince local communities that the survival of the monarchs is in their interest, the government and sustainable-development groups are promoting butterfly tourism.
Jobs for reserve guides, tourist transporters, and hotel chamber maids should convince the locals that their survival depends on the butterflies' survival, officials argue. But those jobs will have to be enough to outweigh the economic benefits of the logging - much of it illegal - that continues to ravage the 2,700 acres of monarch reserves.
Ironically, the uncontrolled arrival of tourists - along with their noise and trash - in what were once isolated mountaintops also threatens the monarch sanctuaries.
"We have to be realistic and attend to the economic needs of the people who live in this region where the monarch winters, and one of the answers to that is ecotourism," says Roberto Sols, director of the monarch butterfly reserves for the Mexican federal environment secretariat. "But the impact of the tourists' visits is also great, so one of our big challenges is to develop an ecotourism that is a positive feature and not a threat."
The Michoacn mountains have gradually become the scene of conflict between those local authorities and campesinos (laborers) who understand the monarchs' economic benefits, and those who do not.
I recently toured the El Rosario monarch reserve - one of five declared by the Mexican government and the most "developed" in terms of ecotourism. Since the monarchs were concentrated in the reserve's highest points, it was a long steep climb up a dirt path, but by noon, the path was a steady stream of tourists. A sign says all visitors must be accompanied by a guide, to keep people on the paths, encourage a quiet hike, and stop people from bothering and even killing the butterflies. But so many groups arrive, especially on the weekends, that the majority of visitors make the walk unattended - opening the way to all kinds of abuse and deterioration.
Despite signs asking for silence, many visitors yelled and laughed. Once among the butterflies, some children stomped on the insects as unfazed parents looked on. Candy wrappers and empty water bottles were left along the path.
But the local residents with employment connected to the reserve seemed to take seriously the lifeline between the butterflies' well-being and their own. "The butterflies are really our only source of income now, so we want to see them cared for," says Jos Ramrez Franco, who drives tourists 40 minutes up a bumpy road from the mining town of Angangueuo to the reserve. Mr. Ramrez used to work in the silver and quartz mines, but this year a workforce reduction left him jobless. "I used to do this on the weekends for a little extra money," he says, "but now it's all I've got."
Because of experiences like his, more of the local population is aware of the need to preserve the monarchs' winter home, Ramrez says. "Some of the guides in the reserve were loggers before," he says. "Although I do know that some of them switch right back to illegal logging once the butterflies are gone."
Our guide, Maximo Domnguez Gonzlez, says categorically that illegal logging has practically stopped. "You can face five years in prison and $50,000 pesos [about $5,300] for cutting a tree illegally in the reserve," he says, "so nobody does it."
But they do. Profepa, Mexico's attorney general's office for environmental affairs, said in April 1999 that four ejidos, or communal land holdings, were guilty of cutting more than double their allotted board feet of timber from the part of the reserves under their care. The four ejidos include El Rosario.
"There is a terrible crime of plundering going on in the reserves, and no one is doing a thing to stop it," says Homero Aridjis, a noted Mexico City environmentalist and poet who is president of PEN International. "The crime is all the more irresponsible, because it does nothing to solve the campesinos' poverty."
Reserve director Sols acknowledges the overcutting that Profepa has audited, but he says something is being done about it. "There is going to be much heavier vigilance of the violating ejidos, and the amount of wood overcut will be discounted from subsequent years' allotments," he says. "This heavier control will remain for the eight to 10 years it takes for the forest to recover." He also says that the continuing arrival of the butterflies - their highest numbers since 1996 - is evidence that the reserves are being adequately maintained.
"This is nothing less than the saving of a masterpiece of nature," Aridjis says. "If the Sistine Chapel were deteriorating and facing destruction, there would be an international outcry. There should be nothing less for the monarch butterflies."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society