The body of 50 year old Homero Gómez González was found floating in a shallow pond in the community of El Soldado de Ocampo in Michoacán, Mexico this week. He was last seen on January 13th, 2020. We visited the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary above Angangueo, Michoacán on January 18th. The area residents expressed grave concerns as to the whereabouts of Homero during our visit. An autopsy revealed a head injury and asphyxiation. Greenpeace Mexico has declared his death a murder. Homero Gómez González was the chair of the El Rosario reserve’s management council. On February 3rd, the body of Raúl Hernández Romero, 44, a guide in the El Rosario Sanctuary was also discovered.
These deaths are the tragic reality of a form of violent eco-terrorism; perpetrated by those who desire to destroy established ecological sanctuaries and the tourism economy they engender. The two recent murders identified above were perpetrated during the height of the tourist season – when the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Reserve in Michoacán attracts thousands of tourists from around the globe to witness this unique natural wonder. As this article illuminates, well established competing economic interests have been, and currently are, opposed to maintaining the established habitat these ecological sanctuaries for the Monarchs represent in Mexico. In Mexico’s state of Michoacán, the cartels have been infiltrating the industry of avocado cultivation for years, extorting existing growers of established avocado growing operations, and encroaching into areas where logging was banned, clear-cutting the forests and planting avocado orchards. Avocado production is deemed “green gold” by the cartels. Mexico’s Monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacán are now under siege by organized crime in Mexico, in pursuit of the money generated by both logging and avocado production. The cartel’s strategy is simple; murdering those who are dedicated to the maintaining these sanctuaries will cast fear and distinctly impair the established tourist economy, providing them with the insidious opportunity to expand their vile economic ambitions.
The larger Monarch butterfly sanctuary area in Mexico is referred to as the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. It is located in the eastern region of the state of Michoacán. Part of it resides within the state of Mexico. The vast expanse of this protected area (within the federal state of Mexico) includes the municipalities of Villa de Allende, Temacalcingo, San Felipe del Progreso, and Donato Guerra. In the state of Michoacán it includes the areas in close proximity to Angangueo, Aporo, Contepec, Senguio, Ocampo, and Zitácuaro. This biosphere and the associated Monarch butterfly sanctuaries are one of Mexico’s national treasures. In 2019, the Monarchs comprised 14 colonies in the oyamel fir forests in both the states of Michoacán and México. The largest colony is in El Rosario in Michoacán measured recently as 2.46 hectares (or approximately 6 acres). The Monarch biosphere in Michoacán protects 8 of these colonies and an estimated 70% of the total of the Monarch butterfly’s migratory population.
Every year, billions of Monarch butterflies make the 5,500-kilometer (3,400-mile) migratory trek to the forests of this biosphere from eastern Canada and the United States. They seek the climate and protection of these forests to protect them from the seasonal threats to survival. They return to their breeding grounds in the U.S. and eastern Canada in the spring. This migratory miracle remains a scientific mystery. They are a threatened species – as this video illustrates.
Homero González was raised in the El Rosario area. His family was in the logging business and he became worried about the long term impacts of logging on the lives of the residents of this region. He studied agricultural engineering at Chapingo Autonomous University where he earned his degree. He became an activist against deforestation in the region. It was his idea and efforts that led to the designation of this region as a sanctuary for the Monarchs. He served as mayor, manager and the primary spokesperson for El Rosario. His work with the scientific community and the World Wildlife Fund resulted in the designated sanctuary status for the Monarchs in this biosphere. It is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As part of this process, logging became illegal in this area, This created tremendous conflict between the established economic interests in the area (logging) and ongoing conservation efforts. The Monarch butterfly sanctuaries continue to be threatened by the dual threats of pervasive poverty and gang violence in the region. Unauthorized logging and the penchant of some to expand avocado cultivation remain persistent threats.
Activism and advocacy in Mexico is a dangerous business. It is frequently fatal for far too many. According to one source, “London-based Global Witness counted 15 killings of environmental activists in Mexico in 2017 and 14 in 2018. In an October 2019 report, Amnesty International said that 12 had been killed in the first nine months of that year.” There were a reported 35,588 homicides in Mexico in 2019 - a record. Furthermore, as of September 2019, Mexico surpassed Syria to garner the title as the “deadliest country for journalists.” (Committee to Protect Journalists NY, NY).
According to a recent study by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and INTERPOL entitled The Rise of Environmental Crime – A Growing Threat To Natural Resources Peace, Development And Security, environmental crime is increasing at a rate of 5-7% annually; 2-3 times more that the growth rate of the global economy. Worldwide, environmental crime is estimated to have a value of between US $90-250 billion dollars.
The world is a better place due to the life’s work of Homero Gómez González and guides like Raúl Hernández Romero. One can only hope that the Mexican federal government and the global environmental activism community can carry on effectively in his absence – and establish the essential support, monitoring and protection network that the activists and guides who take up their work shall require.
Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has termed the death of Homero González death “lamentable and painful.” Two word political utterances are insufficient from the elected leader of Mexico. Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is not solely a national treasure – it is unequivocally a global one. It is Mexico’s responsibility to deploy and maintain the additional, essential resources to protect and preserve this fragile treasure for Mexico – and the world – and interdict and dismantle the forces that threaten its survival… and the lives of those dedicated to its ongoing preservation.