Monarch on the left
Illegal Loggers Destroying Lacandon Rainforest in Mexico
When butterflies and tourists leave, the loggers move in
Surging demand for wood puts Mexico's most famous national park in jeopardy
Ginger Thompson, New York Times
Copyright The New York Times
Sunday, June 6, 2004
San Luis , Mexico -- The illegal loggers smeared mud on their faces to hide their identities. Then they smashed a camera they feared would expose their pillaging.
The evidence, however, was everywhere. Two trucks rumbled down the mountain with illegally cut wood. The mud-smeared loggers had fresh blood under their fingernails from loading. In a federally protected forest that is a winter haven for the monarch butterfly, the landscape was as barren as the moon.
This is Mexico's most famous national park, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a 10,000-year-old evergreen forest set aside by presidential decree and supported by millions of dollars in international aid for colonies of orange and gold butterflies that migrate annually from the United States and Canada, in clouds that look like fire in the sky.
But when the butterflies leave each spring, and the hundreds of thousands of tourists go home, this reserve stretching west from the suburbs of Mexico City to the mountains of Michoacan becomes a symbol of the rapid destruction of the nation's forests, and is overtaken by organized crime and mob justice. Heavily armed mafias chop down the trees at an alarming rate -- about 70 mature trees each day, or a small forest a week, Mexican authorities say.
The mobs ambush the police and terrorize village leaders who threaten to stop them. Left alone to defend their property, some beleaguered villages take the law into their own hands to fight back against the loggers, often using the same violent tactics. Most villages surrender and sell their trees.
The illegal logging, peasant leaders say, is driven by a surging demand for wood, by the crushing poverty of the Indians who live in communal cooperatives, called "ejidos," and by the lingering resentment over the government's decision 18 years ago to turn the precious forests into a reserve for insects that their people refer to as "worms."
Indeed, the mud-smeared men of San Luis spoke with contempt for a society they say cares more about the butterflies than about their families. This land belongs to them, they said, and they would not surrender their rights to a presidential decree, much less forsake the needs of their children for bugs.
"Everyone worries about the butterflies," said one illegal logger, the brim of his baseball cap pulled to his nose to hide his face. "What about us?"
Then the loggers lashed out against a group of journalists. They smashed a photographer's camera, punched a radio reporter in the face and threatened to hold the group hostage, accusing the journalists of being government spies.
The smell of alcohol made their voices sound menacing.
"We are not going to hurt you," they said. "We are thieves, not savages."
Police and government environmental inspectors have also been attacked, and rarely venture into villages like San Luis unless they do so en masse and in military style. Officers and inspectors have been detained for hours by criminal mobs that set their vehicles on fire. The loggers have staged roadblocks to take back trucks of wood that had been confiscated by police and have stormed jails to free their leaders.
Inundated by pleas from communities like this one and by calls of outrage by international environmental organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund, President Vicente Fox sent the army into the forest in May to restore order.
"We are at war," said Gabriel Mendoza Jimenez, deputy secretary of public security for the state of Michoacan. "This is not only a problem of cops and robbers. This is a fight for civil order over impunity."
Diana Ponce, a deputy prosecutor for Profepa, the agency charged with protecting Mexico's natural resources, said peasants are ravaging forests from Chihuahua to Chiapas. She estimated that the country loses about 1.3 million acres of forests each year, the fifth worst deforestation rate in the world.
Some 70,000 acres are cut down each year from the Lacandon Rainforest, home of the Zapatista National Liberation Army and the hemisphere's most biologically diverse jungle after the Amazon. Environmentalists predict it could disappear within the next two decades.
The old-growth pine forests in the northern Sierra Tarahumara and its rich diversity of wildlife face threats from drug traffickers who burn down trees up to 200 years old to plant marijuana. Villagers who stand against the traffickers have been killed. Two peasant leaders, Isidro Baldenegro Lopez and Hermenegildo Rivas Carillo, were arrested last year without warrants. Amnesty International considers them prisoners of conscience, comparing their arrests to the government's abuses against the forest crusaders Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera of the state of Guerrero.
But no forest's plight draws more attention these days than the monarch butterfly reserve.
Homero Aridjis, a poet, author and leading Mexican environmentalist, said: "The federal government has no control. The state government has no control. The forest has become a no-man's-land."
The World Wildlife Fund reported two years ago that some 40 percent of the butterfly reserve had been destroyed from 1971 to 1999. Last month, the organization reported that more than 50,000 acres have been lost in the last three years. Aerial photographs, the group said, showed that the villages of Francisco Serrato and Emiliano Zapata had lost all of their forests.
"I have climbed the mountains to ask my people why they are cutting the forests," said Alejo Claudio Cayetano, an Indian leader in the ejido of Cresencio Morales. "They tell me that if they do not cut them, others will, and then they will have nothing."
People in the ejido of El Paso fight hard to hold on to their forest. The camp of plastic tents beneath their towering pine and Oyamel firs is their battle station; they are manned by grandmothers and sons, who leave their homes five days a week to help guard the trees.
Last year, the leader of the ejido, Armando Sanchez Martinez, discovered a truck loaded with wood that had been illegally cut from their forest. He set it on fire.
Then a couple of months ago, after gunmen fired on his truck, Sanchez bought a handful of rifles and handguns and recruited the other ejido residents to serve on civilian patrols. Their support, he said, was unanimous.
"The illegal loggers wanted to shoot one of us to frighten us and take our forest," he said. "Now they are going to have to shoot us all."
Deforestation of monarch butterfly habitat continues despite crackdown
Wednesday, January 28, 2004
By Morgan Lee, Associated Press
MEXICO CITY — A recent crackdown on illegal logging has not slowed deforestation threatening the winter refuge for monarch butterflies, according to a scientist who has been studying the insects for 50 years.
In an effort to protect hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies that migrate to Mexico from the eastern United States and Canada each fall, police and environmental prosecutors in November closed down illegal sawmills, arrested 28 people, and confiscated illegally harvested lumber in central Mexico.
"In my opinion the Mexican law enforcement effort to protect these butterflies is not effective," said Lincoln Brower, an ecologist who may be the foremost expert on the 3,000-mile (4,800-kilometer) monarch migration to Mexico.
Mexico's Environment Department did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Brower said when he flew over legally protected butterfly areas this month, he saw working logging trucks, suggesting that illegal timbering continues to encroach on highland fir forests that are essential to the monarchs' survival.
"You can go up in a 20-minute flight and see what's going on," he said. "It's obvious that there is massive deforestation on a grand scale. It is obvious from talking with local people that they are scared and angry because these (loggers) are analogous to the mafia in the way they treat the law and the land."
Environment Department representatives and officials from cities located within the monarch habitat area also have participated in observation flights this month sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund. Designed to provide a bird's-eye view of the effects of logging and erosion, the flights were provided last year to Mexican communal landowners, said WWF spokesman Jordi Honey-Roses.
The monarch butterflies return each year to carpet fir trees in Michoacan and neighboring Mexico state, an aesthetic and scientific wonder that attracts about 200,000 visitors annually.
The butterflies represent a seasonal economic boon to the landowners, known as ejiditarios, who manage four main butterfly sanctuaries in the 56,000-hectare (138,380-acre) Monarch Butterfly Biosphere.
Criminal penalties were attached to laws against illegal logging in 2001, allowing for sentences of between three years and five years in prison, according to federal prosecutors. But the demand for wood continues to fuel illegal logging in forests across the country.
During a four-month stay in Mexico, monarch butterflies remain susceptible to the wet and cold. Even small holes in a forest canopy can expose butterfly colonies, each containing millions of insects, to the fatal chill of a clear winter night, Brower said.
"If the canopy is closed, it's like a blanket," Brower said. "It's really important that the forest be intact all the way down the valley.... It's a very limited system that the monarchs are capable of living in, as far as anybody knows."
Since the 1970s, Brower, a professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia and at the University of Florida, has been traveling to Mexico to conduct field tests related to seasonal monarch colonies, helping to unravel the scientific secrets of how monarchs absorb poison while feeding on milkweed to later discourage predatory birds.
The 72-year-old scientist increasingly has focused on deforestation and the threat it poses to the monarch butterfly.
On this year's trip, Brower was accompanied by two graduate students with aerial mapping expertise. The team was assisting with a forest mapping project in cooperation with Mexico's National Autonomous University and the World Wildlife Fund.
Brower's team did find that a healthy number of monarch butterflies reached Mexico this year, although a rain storm and cold snap in January left a 4-inch (10 centimeter) layer of dead butterflies in one location. But Brower said the rate of deforestation is more rapid than ever and the logging appears to be more brazen.
"You can't tell me that you can have (logging) operations of that magnitude without people knowing what's going on," Brower said. He called recent police raids on lumber yards a "show" and called for a sustained law enforcement presence.
"They do care," Brower said of Mexican environmental authorities. "But it's got to be a consistent presence of an incorruptible police force."
Copyright 2004, The Associated Press
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