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Difference Maker

Saving monarch butterflies stirs the 'poetical soul' of Homero Aridjis

Homero Aridjis, one of Mexico's top environmentalists and poets, has led the battle to save the habitat of monarch butterflies, Pacific gray whales, and sea turtles.

By Gary G. Yerkey/ Correspondent / June 6, 2011



Mexico City

Drug wars make headlines. Butterflies do not. Yet even as the drug-related violence in Mexico continues seemingly unabated, each year millions of monarch butterflies perform a mysterious and incredible feat overhead.

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Every fall they propel themselves from the United States and Canada to a patch of high forest in central Mexico – and then back in the spring. It's not clear how they find their way, or how long they have been at it.

But what is clear is that they are under threat.

Homero Aridjis, arguably Mexico's most prominent and articulate defender of the monarch butterflies, says standing up for them has been the "environmental cause of my life."

Mr. Aridjis literally grew up with the beautiful orange-and-black insects, climbing the hills in his native Michoacán State as a boy to see them "explode from the tree branches when the sun hit them," he says.

He also has been a pioneer defender of the environment in general, raising public awareness and speaking out with the authority of an award-winning poet and novelist on everything from sea turtles to gray whales to air pollution in Mexico City.

"I believe that ... human beings bear a huge responsibility to all other species to preserve our planet's biological wealth," he says in a recent Monitor interview.

No one in Mexico has made a more important contribution to protecting that country's environment – "an effort that has had ripple effects throughout the world," says Lester Brown, the US environmentalist and founder of the Worldwatch Institute.

When Aridjis was 10, a shotgun accident left his life hanging in the balance. "My near-death experience permeates my life and sensibility as a writer," he said later. He lost interest in hunting birds as his budding conscience intervened and sparked a passionate concern for the environment.

"I understood that somehow my own survival was connected to theirs," he says.

Aridjis's work as the founder of the Group of 100 – an association of prominent artists and intellectuals that includes Octavio Paz and Gabriel García Márquez devoted to protecting Latin America's environment – has been particularly note-worthy, says Mr. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

In 1986 the group, led by Aridjis, persuaded Mexico's president to issue a decree creating the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, an area 60 miles west of Mexico City that hosts the majority of overwintering monarchs from the US east of the Rockies and Canada.

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