COVID-19 in Mexico: Thoughts on the Conservation Crisis That Got Us Here

In March, this horse was still taking tourists up Cerro Pelon to see the monarch colony. A month later, his owner was using him to drag cut trees out of our adjacent forest. This area is not classified as part of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, but it’s certainly close enough to change the sanctuary’s microclimate if logging continues at this pace.
“You have to explain it to him,” Pato said again. It was almost sunset in our tiny farming community at the entry of one of the monarch butterfly sanctuaries. We were waiting for his uncle to emerge from his sprawling warren of a home. I was peering through the panes of their corner store, where bins brimmed with tomatoes, potatoes and tomatillos. Clearly the pandemic hadn’t stopped this family from traveling to Zitacuaro, the market town a half an hour away from us.

That’s what Pato was anxious about too. He’d stopped shaking hands with people, but this violation of basic social norms was causing problems. Only that morning a cousin had laid into him for believing the government hoax about the corona virus. Now Pato was worried that his uncle would also be offended by his refusal to participate in polite greetings. When the uncle appeared, I stepped up and offered him my elbow. Tio laughed and reciprocated the elbow bump. Pato looked visibly relieved.

You might ask what we were even doing standing within six feet of an 80-year-old in clear violation of social distancing. We were there to ask this retired forest ranger to participate in an oral history project about the conservation of the Cerro Pelon Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. COVID 19 hasn’t hit our area yet. But I fear that when it does, it’s going to be ugly. I’m hoping that we can get some of our forest’s history recorded while we still can.

There are many reasons why I think that this corona virus could devastate Mexico. The obligatory performance of polite greetings drilled into most Mexicans at a tender age is just one of them. There’s also the fact that so many Mexicans live together in large multi-generational families, a factor often cited in Italy’s high mortality rate. Another is the government’s belated and half-hearted recommendation that people stay home. Then there’s the reality that in an economy where more than half of people are informally employed, most people can’t afford to stay home. Although Mexico has a relatively young population, the number of people who suffer from diseases of poverty — obesity, diabetes, hypertension, asthma, heart disease — is shockingly high. Finally, there’s the whammy that Mexico’s healthcare system doesn’t have sufficient supplies to meet even normal demand. Our nearest city, Zitacuaro, pop. 185,534, is said to have two ventilators on hand.

Map of Mexico and its reported COVID-19 cases, gracias a Mexico Daily News.

While Joel and I canceled our plans and are now sheltering in place at the B&B, we are alone in our distancing and obsessive checking of the numbers every day. Mexico’s death count is still low. Suspiciously low. 13,842 infections and 1,305 fatalities as of this writing. As if by not counting the deaths or testing for cases, we can pretend there’s not really a problem.

It’s looking like it could be a slow season as far as monarch butterfly visitors. Who knows when it will be safe and ethical for any of us to travel again? Will there be successive waves of infection in Mexico as we make little to no effort to “flatten the curve”? Crime fear is already hurting the tourism industry, and the coming economic crisis certainly won’t help that situation. In fact, it feels like the global recession is already upon us — illegal logging of our surrounding forests is already on the rise.

I try to balance my fretting with what Papa Francisco called “the contagion of hope” in his Easter address. Here’s my hope: may hitting the pause button on the global capitalist juggernaut give us the time and space to re-envision our world. This withdrawal has shown us that change is possible. Birds are singing on Madison Avenue. Skies are blue over Los Angeles. Earth’s seismic rumblings are suddenly audible. The canals of Venice look clean. You can see the Himalayas from 200 km away for the first time in 30 years. We’ve been sent to our rooms, and all of nature is breathing a collective sigh of relief.

When it’s time to hit play again, let’s change the movie that we’re in — we already know that this one doesn’t end well. Recommendations for reorganizing society after this collective trauma include more medical preparedness, public health care for all, less relentless redistribution of wealth to the 0.1%, and the end of the illegal wildlife trade. These changes are crucial. But they will only be a band aid if we don’t address the underlying cause of pandemics in the first place: the destruction of nature.

Right before COVID-19 started dominating the news cycle, multiple scientific publications warned that the “insect apocalypse” could spell doom for humanity. Disappearing habitat, the doubling of pesticide use, and climate change have all contributed to an estimated 30-40% decline in Earth’s insect populations since 1970. I’m surprised that more commentators haven’t connected these studies and their dire predictions with what came next.

The pandemic’s origin story is murky, but one thing is clear. Once upon a time back in 2019, there lived a sad little bat. Humans had destroyed his forest and he was stressed out and hungry. Even though he burned with a 140° fever every time he flew out of his bunker in search of an ever-diminishing supply of bugs, that wasn’t hot enough to kill off one particularly pesky virus mutation. Somehow Bat Patient Zero encountered Human Patient Zero, and no doubt you can take it from there. Feel free to throw in an unfortunate pangolin intermediary if you like. The moral remains the same: when we fail to honor the interconnectedness of all life, connection itself becomes pathological.

About that elderly uncle I’m still trying to pin down for an interview. His story interests me because he was one of three men in our ejido of 2,000 who had the privilege of a full-time job and a pension, earned by protecting the Cerro Pelon Sanctuary for 30 plus years under the auspices of an agency called CEPANAF. In the years since, approaches to conservation in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve have focused on workshops and financial incentives, not on the provision of full-time jobs.

The author with two of the Butterflies & Their People forest guardians on Cerro Pelon in December of 2019.

Economic precarity is bad for the environment. When our neighbors get desperate, there are always trees for the taking in forest that surrounds us. CEPANAF continues to employ three forest rangers (my cuñado Pato is one of them). We’ve hired six more forest protectors through of our forest conservation non-profit Butterflies & Their People. But nine full-time workers won’t be enough to protect this 8,000 acre park if the Mexican economy continues to collapse.

Stock photo from the Coca Cola-WWF polar bear campaign.
Mexico boasts one of the highest per capita consumption of soft drinks in the world. Ten percent of the population suffers from diabetes.Once we’re able to come out of hiding and grieve our dead, reckon our losses and count our blessings, there can be no more “business as usual.” That’s what got us here in the first place. We need to look long and hard at all of our institutions and ask who they’re really set up to benefit anyway. What we’ve been doing to take care of the environment is not working. “Big Green” environmental non-profits that take money from the fossil fuel industry, the purveyors of pesticide and Coca Cola have just made themselves beholden to corporate interests, not more effective.

It’s time for a new approach. It will be awkward when you stop shaking hands with your corporate partners. But your life and that of our planet depends upon it.

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