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.

Shenka Gutierrez/Newscom
Homero Aridjis has taken up the cause of the monarch butterfly, which has faced rising dangers both in the US, where it spends summer months, and in his native Mexico, where it winters.

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.

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.

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

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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