A win for monarch butterflies at Mexico summit?

To those watching for concrete results from the North American summit, an announcement about butterfly conservation may have been symbolic of a meeting that offered few tangible results.

Larry Downing/REUTERS
US President Barack Obama (r.) joins Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto (c.) and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper before a trilateral meeting in the Courtyard of the Palacio de Justicio at the North American Leaders Summit in Toluca, Mexico, February 19, 2014.

Somewhere in their discussions of trade-facilitating measures, energy integration, and border infrastructures, the three North American leaders found time in their summit Wednesday for the butterflies.

Flanked by US President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced at the conclusion of the trilateral meeting here that the countries agreed to set up a task force to devise a plan for saving the continent’s endangered migration of monarch butterflies.

“We have agreed to conserve the monarch butterfly as an emblematic species of North America which unites our three countries,” Mr. Peña Nieto said. 

To those watching for concrete results from Wednesday’s summit, an announcement about butterfly conservation may have seemed symbolic of a meeting that offered few tangible results. If anything, the headlines out of Toluca – at least for the American press – were more about Mr. Obama’s warnings to Ukraine’s leaders about the repressive violence engulfing the country, and his swipes at Russian President Vladimir Putin over Russia’s support for anti-democratic regimes like Syria.

But for scientists and environmental advocates who have pressed for urgent action to address the continent’s precipitously dwindling monarch populations, the announcement was welcome news.

“Today’s pledge gives us renewed hope that we can save the monarch migration for centuries to come,” said Carter Roberts, president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund, in a statement.

It is not just appropriate but necessary, scientists say, that a campaign to preserve the monarchs’ 2,500-mile-long migration from the American Midwest and parts of Canada to wintering sites in Mexico be a trilateral effort. Any successful plan for conserving the monarch migration will have to include habitat-retention plans and a change in agricultural practices in all three countries, they say.

It will also have to cover every phase of the monarch’s annual cycle, which includes migration, hibernation, feeding, and rest.

Yet despite Peña Nieto’s announcement, few details were offered about the planned task force. Moreover, the absence of the new working group from a fact sheet of summit “deliverables” the White House issued Wednesday night casts doubt on the amount of attention the US intends to put on the issue.

The White House list did include several steps taken at the summit that, if actually fulfilled, would add new elements to the gradual economic integration of the continent that began 20 years ago with the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Those steps include a plan for a North American “trusted traveler” program to allow vetted citizens to travel more easily among the three countries; an increase in student exchanges to help foster a North American “21st century workforce;” and various border infrastructure  and customs initiatives to bring NAFTA up to date.

By leaving the monarchs task force off the “summit deliverables” list, the White House only raised questions about its interest in the initiative.

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