With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
Currently I serve as program officer in the Mexican Forest Program for World Wildlife Fund, working to protect the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in central Mexico. The pine and fir forest region where I work is the winter habitat for the migratory North American monarch butterfly. These butterflies travel all the way from Canada and the eastern United States to find refuge here during the winter months. It is a spectacular migration and natural phenomenon. Given this area’s importance, the Mexican government set aside roughly 139,000 acres for protection. Without these forests our favorite orange butterfly could be lost to extinction throughout the eastern United States and Canada.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
We work with rural communities, the Mexican government, local organizations, and researchers to stop deforestation in the protected area. I review project proposals from local organizations and groups who seek financial support from WWF to advance our conservation mission. The day-to-day work is a healthy combination of addressing everyday emergencies and creative thinking to stop logging in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
Unlike most of my colleagues, I studied economics and history. We need more interdisciplinary thinkers in the field of conservation and forest protection. It can be lonely.
With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job?
I deal with many scientists and politicians, as well as a few scientists who have converted to politics. Interacting with the rural farmers who live in the protected area can be very rewarding. Our conservation program could benefit by reaching out more to the private sector such as sawmill owners, loggers, and anyone else who processes timber.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
A power boss who controls one of the illegal logging groups in the indigenous community of Crescencio Morales proved to be one of the most charismatic and humorous individuals I have ever met. We met repeatedly in my attempt to convince him and his indigenous community to participate in a conservation program. I remember thinking, if I were thrown into a Mexican prison I would like to share a cell with this outlaw. We would have a great time sharing stories, and probably get out quickly too. Not that I approve of his source of income, of course.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in the Bay Area in California, and now live in Mexico City.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
Back in college I took a summer internship with Nabisco in Barcelona, Spain. We sold Oreos, Chips Ahoy!, and other cookies, crackers, and biscuits to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The most accomplished salesperson was a woman who had sold millions of Oreo cookies in Iceland. Every time a major new order was made, the employee who sealed the deal ran over to ring a loud bell, which was always followed by cheers of congratulations from our coworkers. It then became clear to me that I wanted to do more than sell cookies; I wanted to make a contribution to our planet.
What’s been the best moment of your career?
In the spring of 2003, I traveled with a group of Mexican farmers from the state of Michoacán to the southern state of Oaxaca to visit projects run by indigenous communities who have succeeded in improving their well-being while also conserving their forest resources. Their success was amazing and admirable. They have even set up a nice-looking tourism business to show off their beautiful temperate forest to tourists who visit the city of Oaxaca. But the best part was seeing how rural farmers learned directly from their peers and were inspired to return to their homes to work on similar projects in conservation and economic development.
Ironically, this exchange of experiences between rural Mexicans was not even in our work plan, and yet it was one of our program’s most successful projects for the year. We couldn’t have brought these groups together without our support from the Dave and Lucile Packard Foundation, and while this may sound like a simple plug for our donor, it is not. I’ve worked with other donors, and it is not the same. The Packard Foundation has supported WWF’s conservation program for years, and the region where I work in Mexico would not be the same without their help. Any organization able to work with the Packard Foundation is extremely fortunate.
What’s on your desk right now?
A deforestation analysis put together by researchers at Stanford University with high-resolution IKONOS satellite imagery. Also on my desk is WWF’s June 2004 report on illegal logging in the protected area, and a proposal from a small organization that will review the effectiveness of forest plantations surrounding the protected area.
How do you get around?
Mexico City buses have a fine taste in music that includes cumbia, salsa, norteño, and merengue that are always worth a trip. The Metro works great as well. But mostly, I am able to walk.
What are you reading these days?
I recently finished La Reina del Sur by Arturo Perez-Reverté, which depicts the internal workings of organized crime in Mexico and Europe. The illegal businesses of drug trafficking, car robberies, and gambling are closely intertwined with politics and political campaigns as a singular and interconnected business. I found it interesting how much these organizations invest in buying off the law for legal protection.
What’s your favorite meal?
Pa amb tomaquet: Catalan for bread and tomato, usually accompanied with manchego cheese and Rosés Vila organic wine from Spain.
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I don’t own a car or television.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
The top of any mountain.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
Yes, why not?
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Travel outside the United States and listen to how the world perceives the stars and stripes.
A Bouquet of Honey-Rosés
What do you feel are some of the key elements that individuals and organizations must consider when developing strategies that will both preserve and protect the monarch butterfly, the forests and benefit the landowners and citizens of Mexico? — Don Davis, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
This is a very good question that gets at the heart of the challenge faced by conservationists in Mexico working to protect the monarch butterfly. From what I have experienced, the most important element that conservationists must consider when developing “sustainable development” strategies for the monarch butterfly area is interinstitutional collaboration.
Every year significant sums of financial resources are invested in the area. So it seems to me that more money is really not the answer. That is not to say that there aren’t plenty of worthy projects needing funding since there certainly are many well-run yet underfunded projects, but there is also lots of money being invested in less-useful projects. The combined sum of financial resources from governments, nongovernmental groups, researchers, etc. should be enough to make a major impact with a little more planning and coordination.
A recent initiative called the Monarch Butterfly Regional Forum is trying to tackle the issue of interinstitutional coordination. It is an ambitious undertaking, but the results could be long term. So far, government agencies and other groups are on board to improve the way they work in the area, so it is showing some promise. The second annual forum will be held Feb. 21 and 22 in Michoacán, Mexico.
How do you balance the pressures between economic growth (to support coffee farmers, cattle ranchers, and other industries) and conservation efforts? Is it hard to convince workers (who are struggling to buy daily necessities) that butterflies are important? — Name not provided
Economic growth or locally wealthy populations will not necessarily lead to the improved protection of biodiversity. On the other hand, if future generations live among deforested hilltops, eroded landscapes, and above dry aquifers, they certainly will be poorer. WWF works with local farmers who understand the value of the natural resources they harbor and who come to us for help to protect this natural heritage.
Based on my limited experience, those who benefit most from resource extraction are usually not the local people, but external interests that add value to what they are extracting. In the case of where I work, these are timber products. Locals would benefit if they controlled the extraction process sustainably to ensure a long-term income.
I am always very skeptical of those who promise greater things to come with economic development at the expense of our natural environment. Remember, money can’t buy rainfall or bring back an extinct species. And there are plenty of examples where coastlines have been developed, habitat has been destroyed, and the local people still live under great hardship. Acapulco is a great example. Tourism has generated millions of dollars since the 1950s and yet the local people are still poor. It makes you wonder where all the profits are going and at what cost to the local environment.
Do you think conservation and development go hand-in-hand or are they mutually exclusive? — Lindsay Mackenzie, Hamilton, N.Y.
They are definitely not mutually exclusive, and ideally they would go together. However, for the most part, development is usually given priority over conservation and environmental issues.
What effect will tourism have on the monarch’s overwintering colonies? For the survival of both the monarch and the ejidatarios [rural villagers or farmers], I wonder if an eco-tourism solution is sustainable. — S. Kronquest, Savannah, Ga.
While tourism is not the ultimate panacea, it definitely can help. As you probably know, many ejidatarios now depend on the income from tourism. The downside of tourism is erosion of the trails caused by too much traffic in the forest by humans and horses or the possible moving of the colonies due to human presence throughout the season. Still, it is uncertain how much visitors affect the colonies. The largest colonies are visited by tourists and yet have remained large, even after being opened to guests.
Another issue is the distribution of tourism income. There are 83 ejidos, indigenous communities or private properties, located within the 140,000-acre protected area. And yet only four of the 83 have a colony open to tourism, and at best eight receive any tourism income. Not only that, but many of the ejidos and indigenous communities that do not have monarch butterflies are the most conservation-minded, even if they don’t benefit as much from their conservation work.
I have heard that the butterfly population is decreasing — is this true? — Adele Kushner, Alto, Ga.
This year WWF has taken on more responsibility than ever before to monitor the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) colonies at their overwintering sites in Mexico. The monitoring in Mexico is important because the entire eastern population of North America concentrates into a few acres during the winter months, making their stay here the best opportunity to measure the butterfly populations. Soon WWF will be releasing the results of the data from the 2004-05 overwintering season and post it on our website. We have also posted press releases concerning freeze-related mortality from 2002 and 2003. More data is available on the Journey North and Monarch Watch websites.
I’m leading a group of 13 people down to the El Rosario, Chincua, and Piedra Herrada Butterfly sanctuaries this February. My group will be with a professional tour company, but it would be great to get your advice for tourists there to see the monarchs. I want our presence to help the local conservation efforts, not hinder them. — David Mizejewski, Arlington, Va.
Just going to visit the colonies is a great way to help the conservation efforts. If you want a T-shirt for a souvenir, I would highly recommend buying the “Chincua” brand, sold at the entrance of the Chincua colony. These T-shirts are made by youth from the ejidos of El Calabozo and Chincua. It is the closest thing to fair trade in the area and is a good alternative to buying the more commercial products manufactured elsewhere or abroad. The baskets woven with pine needles are also wonderful and locally made. They make them in the indigenous communities of Francisco Serrato and Donaciano Ojeda.
Chances are good that your guide will be Astrid Frisch, who is excellent and has many years’ experience taking groups there. If you are interested in learning more about the conservation aspects of the area, you are welcome to visit our Zitácuaro office at:
WWF Oficina Zitácuaro
Tercera Privada de Hidalgo Oriente 9
Col. Héroes Ferrocarrileros
Zitácuaro, Michoacán, 61506
Tel: +52(715) 15 34 503
Do you know any bushes or flowers I could plant in my backyard that would attract butterflies? — Faith Goodwin, Parish, N.Y.
Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants. These milkweeds are increasingly being torn up as weeds or killed with pesticides. There are excellent websites that can tell you more about monarch butterfly biology — Monarch Watch, Monarchs in the Classroom, and Journey North.
Going from European marketing to Mexican conservation organizations is quite a jump. What company or organization did you initially make contact with to find your job? — Elizabeth Layman, Texarkana, Ark.
The position at Nabisco was an internship during college so I was fortunate to realize early on that I wanted a career in something that would be personally fulfilling. Later I volunteered with Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco and Intermón-Oxfam in Barcelona.
Can you describe your experiences living abroad and learning about how the rest of the world views the United States? — Name not provided
While everyone’s experience is probably different, I have found that it is an unpleasant time to be an American abroad. See Thomas Friedman’s recent piece from the New York Times, “An American in Paris.”
How has your interdisciplinary background helped you succeed in your current endeavors? Any advice on how eager environmentalists can take whatever background they have and apply it to the movement? — Name not provided
Every discipline has something to contribute to environmentalism. While the conservation of biodiversity is mostly filled with ecologists or biologists, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for others. The most important interdisciplinary skill is to be critical and analytical. My writing and language skills have also been very valuable.
Have you had any luck working with your “outlaw” friend? Are you suggesting that the environmental groups might accomplish more trying to work with what is considered the opposition? — Jerry Broadbent, Bucoda, Wash.
In this particular case no real progress was made during his term as community leader. It would be hard for me to generalize about working with groups that are engaged in environmentally destructive activities. Still, I’d say that much can be accomplished through negotiations as long as you stick to your core principles and don’t take their money.
What’s the origin of your name? — Name not provided
It is a coincidence, really. My father is of Irish-Scotch origin. They must have been bee keepers. And my mother is from the northeastern region of Spain called Catalonia, giving me Rosés. Contrary to popular belief, I am not an aspiring poet or long-haired hippie.