Every autumn, monarch butterflies migrate magnificently from northern America and Canada down to the Oyamel forests of Mexico. The butterflies congregate on Oyamel fir, or ‘sacred trees’, so densely that their collective weight can break off branches. Protecting Oyamel forests is critical to protecting monarchs.
However, protecting the Oyamel forest protection is complicated, as illustrated by a study recently published in the journal World Development. The study investigated the complex and dark network beneath the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) by conducting semi-structured interviews with locals, government workers, and NGO workers. It found that cartel members often log trees from monarch habitat, then work in concert with corrupt government officials, who authorize the conversion of the newly deforested land into avocado plantations.
The study also highlighted a paradoxical and important concept in ecosystem conservation: that of socioecological frontiers, which are a novel system of human-environment interactions. The MBBR was established to protect Oyamel forest by making it a “people-free” zone, but this seemingly good intention has had negative impacts on local people. Their traditional ecological practices became prohibited, making the forest less healthy. Moreover, local people are caught in an oppressive web of market demands, government corruption, and cartel activity, which all dictate the use of a forest that was previously theirs to sustainably farm.
This study presents a nuanced look into the world of corruption in the MBBR. As an entity supported by UNESCO and the World Wildlife Federation, the reserve may seem innocuous and even admirable from the outside. However, even though it has good intentions, the MBBR may be allowing corrupt government and cartel members to work together to destroy monarch habitat, all whilst simultaneously marginalizing the Indigenous peoples within it.