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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.

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(As Mexico's ambassador to UNESCO, Aridjis later successfully lobbied that organization to designate the reserve as a World Heritage Site as well.)

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The group also persuaded the president of Mexico to impose a ban on the capture and commercialization of sea turtles. It was able to prevent the construction of dams that would have led to the destruction of important Mayan ruins. And it persuaded Mexico City to publish daily air-pollution reports and to enact a program of restricted automobile use.

An Aridjis-led effort to prevent Mitsubishi and the Mexican government from building the world's largest saltworks at the San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California – a breeding ground and nursery for the Pacific gray whale – was also hugely important, says Jacob Scherr, director of global strategy and advocacy at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"Homero understands that advocacy for the environment involves more than just science and economics," says Mr. Scherr, who calls Aridjis the "poetical soul" of Mexico's environmental movement. "He is able as a writer to reach us as human beings and to remind us of our responsibilities to protect nature."

The monarch has been an "emblem" throughout his life, Aridjis says. A former Mexican ambassador to the Netherlands and Switzerland, he also served for six years as president of International PEN, the writers' association.

But despite his efforts, the monarch butterfly is still under assault.

Illegal logging that depletes the protective forests in the monarch's Mexican wintering habitat, land development and herbicide use in the US that reduces the monarch's summer breeding habitat, along with severe weather in recent years, have combined to threaten the monarchs, says Lincoln Brower, a biologist at Sweet Briar College in Virginia who is one of the world's leading experts on the monarch – and a longtime friend and admirer of Aridjis.

"This decline calls into question the long-term survival of the monarchs' migratory phenomenon," Dr. Brower and other experts wrote in a recent paper. The area of Mexico occupied by monarchs migrating from eastern North America reached an all-time low in 2009-10, the paper said. Despite a modest increase in 2010-11, it has remained below average in recent years.

But Aridjis is unlikely to be discouraged.

His near-death experience as a boy makes Aridjis "fearless, a lifelong risk-taker, fiercely independent in the face of authority, stubbornly persistent and strong, alert to dangers, and very good in emergencies," attests his wife, Betty.

• E-mails to Homero Aridjis may be sent to

• To read other stories about people making a difference, go here.


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