[Marxism] Avocados Imperil Monarch Butterflies’ Winter Home in Mexico

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Nov 18 08:13:02 MST 2016

NY Times, Nov. 18 2016
Avocados Imperil Monarch Butterflies’ Winter Home in Mexico

APÚTZIO DE JUÁREZ, Mexico — The green volcanic hills that tower above 
Apútzio de Juárez have begun to fill with swarms of monarch butterflies, 
which return each year for the winter stretch of their celebrated — and 
imperiled — migration.

But downhill from the monarchs’ mountain roost, in the oak and pine 
forests that border this small farming town, there lurks a new threat to 
their winter habitat: a lust to grow the lucrative avocados that are 
being consumed at record rates in the United States.

Spurred by soaring demand for the creamy fruit, farmers here in the 
western state of Michoacán are clearing land to make room for avocado 
orchards, cutting oak and pine trees that form a vital buffer around the 
mountain forests where the monarchs nest.

“It’s scandalous what people are doing now to grow avocado,” said Arturo 
Espinosa Maceda, who has for years grown avocados, peaches and strelizia 
flowers at a farm some 12 miles north of Apútzio. “But it’s mega-business.”

Apútzio sits on the western edge of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere 
Reserve, a 135,000-acre protected area where the butterflies rest on 
oyamel, or native fir, trees. The butterflies’ numbers have dwindled 
sharply in recent years, as milkweed declined in the United States and 
deforestation affected their Mexican habitat. Each year 
environmentalists hold their breath to see how many butterflies will 
arrive in Mexico.

Omar Vidal, director general of the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico, said 
that conserving the winter sanctuary was “fundamental to the survival of 
the migration.”

Deforestation “has to be reduced to zero,” he said.

But the avocado boom could complicate that goal.

Americans ate a record seven pounds of avocado per capita in 2015, twice 
as much as in 2008, according to the Department of Agriculture. Nearly 
80 percent of those avocados came from Michoacán, the only Mexican state 
authorized to export the fruit to the United States by the department, 
which bans avocados from other Mexican regions over fear of pests. 
Michoacán doubled its avocado exports over the last seven years to 
770,000 tons — worth roughly $1.5 billion.

The bonanza has been brutal for Michoacán’s oak and pine forests, which 
grow at 5,000 to 7,000 feet — the same altitude as avocados. Between 
1974 and 2011, about 110,000 acres of forest across Michoacán’s central 
highlands were turned into avocado orchards, according to a study by the 
National Autonomous University of Mexico.

And deforestation is accelerating, experts said. Jaime Navía, president 
of GIRA, a nonprofit organization based in Michoacán that promotes 
sustainable rural development, estimated that 65,000 acres — most of it 
forest — had been converted to avocado growing since that study.

“The damage is irreversible,” he said.

Officials have blamed producers looking for a pretext to turn land over 
to avocado orchards for a spike in the number of forest fires in 
Michoacán this year. But forestry experts and farmers said that Mexico’s 
environmental watchdog, the Federal Attorney for Environmental 
Protection, often turned a blind eye to abuses. Officials are fearful of 
powerful interests, they said, especially given that organized crime has 
links to the industry, or bribes make the officials pliant.

To offset deforestation, the association has planted a half-million 
trees since 2009 and hopes to plant another half-million by 2018, he said.

Around Apútzio de Juarez, a town of 1,100 people surrounded by fields of 
guava and corn, scars on the hillsides and patches of young avocado 
trees signal the crop’s advance. Some here have farmed avocado for 
decades. But now, growers from other areas are buying land.

Davíd Romero Hernández, a stocky farmer who was trimming grass in his 
new avocado orchard on the edge of Apútzio one morning in October, said 
that the land had been covered with oak and pine. But the owner felled 
the trees a year ago and sold it to him.

Mr. Romero, 51, pointed to a shorn hill above his plot. That, too, was 
also covered in forest until a few months ago, he said. Then a farmer 
from another village bought it.

“It’s the ambition of avocado,” he said.

That ambition could soon increase. Zitácuaro, the municipality 
surrounding Apútzio, is in the process of seeking certification to 
export avocados to the United States — a fact that is on the lips of 
every farmer.

Certification is awarded municipality by municipality, and not all of 
Michoacán can export avocados. As it stands, some of Apútzio’s avocados 
are sold to buyers from Uruapan — a town 100 miles west that is the 
heart of the industry — who pass them off as having been grown there.

Deforestation in Apútzio is a recent problem and far less extensive than 
in other areas of Michoacán, experts said. But “it is becoming a 
significant problem,” given the area’s proximity to the monarchs’ 
habitat, said Edgar González Godoy, director in Mexico of the New 
York-based Rainforest Alliance.

Efforts to fight deforestation in the reserve focus on about 34,000 
acres around where the butterflies roost. Programs run by the World 
Wildlife Fund and other organizations have helped cut logging from 
hundreds of acres each year to just 28 so far this year, said the fund’s 
Mr. Vidal.

But the trees in the reserve’s outer ring play an important role, said 
Manuel Sarmiento, a biologist and member of the Alliance for the 
Conservation of Forests, Land and Water, a group of local farmers, 
environmental activists and residents.

For example, the trees cool the air from Michoacán’s warm western plains 
as it rises toward the oyamel forests in the center. If the temperature 
at the heart of the reserve, about seven miles from Apútzio, were to 
rise, the oyamel could suffer, and thus the butterflies would suffer, 
too, he said.

Mr. González worries that the lure of avocado will only grow if Mexico 
succeeds in opening new markets. He noted that deforestation is growing 
in Jalisco State, another area that hopes it will soon be able to export 
its crop to the United States.

“Just imagine what would happen if the Chinese started eating avocado,” 
he said.

In town, residents said avocado had put money into empty pockets. 
Workers make about $7.50 per day to tend the orchards, and twice that 
during harvests. A resident can sell an acre to an avocado farmer for 
about $4,300 — more than that seller would typically make in a year.

“People have more to spend and that lifts us all,” said Fernando Bernal, 
a butcher, as he hacked slabs of pork from a loin.

But like others in Apútzio, Mr. Bernal worries about water. Apútzio’s 
supply comes from springs fed by the hills east of town. Pine and oak 
help water filter through the earth and into the spring; avocado, on the 
other hand, has shallow roots and consumes a lot of that water.

If people keep cutting down the forest, “we’ll run out,” Mr. Bernal said.

And Apútzio isn’t the only community with much at stake. The hills that 
stretch north east of here collect water for the massive Cutzamala water 
system that supplies the thirsty Mexican capital, Mexico City, 100 miles 

Even Mr. Romero, happily tending his avocado bushes on land once filled 
with mighty trees, is saddened by the loss of forest. He said that his 
village, Zicata de Morelos, depends on water that comes from the hills 
near Apútzio.

“So we’re all affected,” Mr. Romero said. “But people don’t think about 
the future.”

Follow Victoria Burnett on Twitter @vsburnett.

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