Butterflies & Their People​

Creating Jobs, Protecting the Forest

Many people care deeply about the monarch butterfly migration. Numerous conservation projects are working to ensure its continued existence. Despite the high level of interest abroad, the Mexican forests where the eastern monarch migration spends a third of every year are inconsistently protected. Conservation efforts fail to include the monarchs’ Mexican neighbors, and poverty pushes many into illegally logging the butterfly forest. We were continually stepping over freshly toppled trees when we took tourists to see the butterfly colony on Cerro Pelón.

The solution is simple: give locals an economic alternative to illegal logging. The idea for the project came from my father-in-law’s career. Melquiades worked as a forest ranger on Cerro Pelón for more than 30 years. I could see the difference in the part of the sanctuary that he patrolled: the State of Mexico side boasts a more intact forest than the Michoacán side. I could also see the difference that a regular paycheck made for his family, the first in the village to produce college graduates. More area families deserved this opportunity.

This image shows the difference that the presence of forest rangers made on Cerro Pelón. The left side of the image is in Michoacán, and the more thickly forested right side is in the State of Mexico, where three rangers employed by that state (an agency called CEPANAF) have worked since the late 1970s.

Joel and I founded the non-profit Butterflies & Their People in 2016. We hired our first three employees, Oswaldo, Jose Carmen and Francisco, in late 2017. Leonel joined their ranks in the spring of 2018, Emilio in late 2019 and Joaquin in early 2020. Three workers hail from Michoacán side of the Cerro Pelon Sanctuary and three from the State of Mexico. Half of them used to dabble in illegal logging when they got desperate: they no longer do. Since starting work, Oswaldo invested in a flock of sheep, Jose Carmen and Leonel enlarged and improved their houses, and Francisco sent his daughter to college. Emilio is a newcomer, but his neighbors have remarked that he already looks better fed and more relaxed since he started working. Full-time, steady employment is a rarity in this region, where many must leave their families and migrate for work.

Francisco, Jose Carmen, Oswaldo and Emilio in El Llano de Tres Gobernadores, Cerro Pelón Sanctuary.

Clandestine logging dropped precipitously during the forest guardians’ first year on the job. By early 2020, decreased state support for environmental protection and a deepening recession precipitated a new spike in logging. Authorities mostly deal with the problem by denying that there is one, but a recent exposé by the Voice of America showed the extent of the damage to Cerro Pelon’s core protected area.

I’m concerned that the post-pandemic slowdown in butterfly tourism will lead to even more tree harvesting. Butterflies & Their People is entirely supported by individual donations. Each worker earns around $6,000 USD/year, a small sum next to the inestimable value of the natural wonder that is the monarch migration. You can learn more about our latest fundraising campaign here.

And more about the nonprofit in these two videos:

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