The Monarch Versus the Global Empire

Preserving the monarch butterfly surely is the most popular, widely supported international conservation effort on behalf of any insect that has ever happened. The campaign to save the monarch has transformed the butterfly into an internationally recognized symbol, and won the establishment of a preserve to protect its wintering grounds in the Mexican mountains. In spite of this heroic effort, today, the butterfly is threatened throughout its range.

The extraordinary conservation campaign began shortly after scientists located the monarch’s Mexican winter forests, in 1975, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources named the migratory North American monarch as the number one priority in world butterfly conservation. Scientists, politicians, and citizens in North America and around the world mobilized to protect it. The effort has included three major international conferences in Mexico and the United States. It has engaged the energies of the World Wildlife Fund; Monarca AC, a Mexican monarch conservation group; The Monarch Project of the Xerces Society; the Societas Lepidoterological Mexicana; the International Lepidopterists Society; and it has won the support of three Mexican presidents and spawned numerous initiatives at every level of the Mexican, Canadian, and U.S. governments.

Today, environmental groups throughout the U.S. claim they are saving the monarch and raise money under its banner. A host of national and international education and conservation programs teach hundreds of thousands of school children in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico about the butterfly, its migration, and its threatened state. Most often these groups and programs focus on the oyamel forest in Mexico.

But the oyamel forest in Mexico is not the only place the migratory monarch is imperiled. Everywhere in the butterfly’s continental habitat — almost the entire temperate zone of North America — more and more land is either losing the capacity to sustain this insect, or becoming its killing ground. The threats began to build slowly, generations ago. The herbicides and pesticides that are poisoning the monarch’s milkweed and nectar plants in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico have been accumulating since the rise of the modern agrichemical industry after the end of World War II.

About thirty years ago, however, a fundamental restructuring of the global economy began to change the ways North Americans use and manage the land. Between 1970 and 1998 the number of transnational corporations increased by eight hundred percent, and their investments in operations in the developing world increased by fifteen hundred percent. These corporations became the driving force behind “globalization,” the international free-trade economy that is bringing rapid industrialization to developing nations and accelerating it in the industrialized world. On this continent, the resulting changes in land-use practices now threaten the extinction of the migratory monarch.

How this process works is illustrated by two reciprocal economic disasters that occurred in 1996: a peso and food crisis in Mexico, and a farm crisis in the U.S. The simultaneous cycles of escalating economic distress and habitat destruction these events unleashed in North America are the same forces that are threatening farmers, forests, and natural systems across the globe. If conservation itself is to survive in the twenty-first century, these are the forces it must address and overcome.

What’s happening to the monarch on this continent is happening to uncounted millions of other species on hundreds of millions of hectares of farm and forest habitats all over the world. By saving the monarch in North America, we will learn critical lessons about how to control the forces that are dismantling Gaia.

IN 1996 U.S. FARM PRICES WERE FALLING to a historic low when Congress passed the Omnibus Farm Bill. The bill represented a deal between Congress and the farm lobby: farmers gave up a cumbersome system of farm subsidies in exchange for a government promise of increased farm exports. The bill passed with strong support from the agrichemical industry, which viewed it as important for the continuing industrialization and globalization of U.S. agriculture. The administration (and agribusiness) was confident that farm exports would increase, that U.S. trade negotiators would prevail against the “reluctance” of European nations and Japan to relax protections for their farmers.

The trade talks didn’t go as expected. European negotiators sided with their public’s distrust of American beef and genetically modified foods, and Japan, leery of risking its national food security, steadfastly maintained protections for its rice farmers and consumers. U.S. income from exports to Europe and Asia declined, and exports to Mexico and Latin America did not make up for the losses. Two years after the Omnibus Farm Act, corn and wheat prices had dropped by half. The price of a bushel of corn was half that of a box of breakfast cereal.

As the farm crisis grew to a disaster, Congress passed the Freedom to Farm Bill, which authorized assistance payments to failing farmers. Supporters in Congress and the government described the payments as a “safety net” for farmers. A study by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based research organization, reports otherwise. The safety net was heavily weighted to favor large farms. The top ten percent of all recipients — 144,339 farmers, investors, or corporations with the largest farm holdings — received average payments of $95,875 each, for a total of sixty-one percent of all subsidies paid. The bottom ninety percent — 1,299,050 smaller farms — received average payments of $6,941 each, for a total of thirty-nine percent of all subsidies paid.

Between 1994 and 1997, 42,000 small farms in the U.S. disappeared, and suicide rates among American farmers spiked. However, during this same period, nearly 20,000 newly consolidated large farms were created. The net loss, 22,000 small farms, meant that when Congress voted for additional farm subsidies through the Market Loss Assistance Program in 1999, it actually increased the payments to large industrial farms.

The farm crisis of the mid-nineties, which continues today, has brought the industrialization of American agriculture yet another leap forward. For decades, the de facto national farm policy has been to reduce the number of farms, farmers, farm-related jobs, and the farmers’ proportional share of agricultural profits, and to structure government farm support programs that encourage and reward the growth of big farms. These are consolidated, capital- and chemical-intensive corporate and factory farms that participate in and complement the methodologies of the food and fiber industry, which since the early nineties has been dominated by five or six multinational corporations.

In spite of its contradictions and failures, this farm policy, which costs taxpayers $28 billion in the current year, continues to receive enthusiastic bipartisan Congressional support. Republicans support it because most of the money goes to districts that elect Republicans to Congress. Democrats support it because several farm states — Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois — are important swing states in national elections. In a December 2000 New York Times article, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman candidly admits, “Maybe it is time we had some honesty in farm policy.” To put honesty in this policy would mean acknowledging that this policy exists to serve electoral politics; that the so-called rural economic development program subsidizes the loss of farms; and that it promotes agriculture’s spiraling dependency on toxins that damage the human and ecological health of the nation. These are precisely the same effects that agricultural industrialization has had on Mexico and other developing nations. The agrichemical corporations that support the current U.S. farm policy with campaign contributions to candidates in farm state elections also are the primary investors in and beneficiaries of the imposition of similar policies around the globe.

Large, capital-intensive, highly mechanized farms are the major consumers of farm chemicals, herbicides, and pesticides, and, more recently, of genetically modified crops. During the U.S. farm crisis, manufacturers pressed the sale of Bt corn and herbicide-immune field crops, while the government cooperated — for example by adjusting regulations to raise the allowable amounts of Round Up that could be used on crop fields, and by approving the use of Bt corn without testing its effects on butterflies.

Pushed to the wall by falling prices, both U.S. and Canadian farmers use their local political influence to protect their slim profit margins — often shielding their use of farm chemicals. In the U.S. this protection commonly takes the form of the deliberate underfunding of state agencies charged with monitoring the use of agricultural toxins, frequently attended by local political encouragement for a winking underregulation of their use. In Canada, farmers and their allies, using NAFTA rules as justification, convinced the Alberta legislature to pass a law that sheltered this kind of corruption by removing the right of citizens to sue environmental officials who failed to enforce the law. The U.S. Congress put similar protections into effect by limiting the ability of local governments to regulate the use of pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides.

In the late 1990s, agribusiness seized upon the farmers’ financial plights as an opportunity to promote and expand the practice of contract farming, in which the farmer is paid to produce a corporate-owned crop according to the contract’s specifications — which may include the use of pesticides and herbicides. The use of agrochemicals and genetically modified crops continues to increase as U.S. agriculture steadily moves toward an allegedly globally efficient form of farming — growing the raw material for the cheapest possible food products in chemical-dependent, genetically pure monocultures.

Farmland occupies forty-nine percent of the surface of the U.S., and along the monarch’s migration routes there is a better than even chance that a butterfly fluttering down for the sky will land on a farm. Every year more and more of that farmland is managed by an agriculture that defines and attacks milkweed and butterflies in cropfields as “infestations.”

THOUGH THE BUTTERFLY’S ADVOCATES HAD BEEN FIGHTING for a preserve in the monarch’s winter forests since 1979, the Mexican government did not agree to create it until increased international pressure was applied during negotiations leading to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The GATT was the lynchpin of a U.S.-led plan to secure a North American presence in the global marketplace and to open Mexican and Latin American markets to agricultural exports from the U.S. Mexico entered into the agreement in 1986, the year the butterfly preserve was established. Three years later, negotiations began to expand GATT trade provisions into the North American Free Trade Agreement between Mexico, the U.S., and Canada (NAFTA), which went into effect in 1994.

For Mexico, the first decade under GATT and NAFTA brought the most rapid social and economic transformation since the land reforms that followed Mexico’s revolution in 1917. The acquisition and industrialization of vast tracts of forest-, range-, and farmland by foreign corporations affected not only the butterfly’s preserve but the thousand or more miles of Mexican countryside that every butterfly zigzags across as it migrates to and from the preserve.

The industrialization of Mexico’s agricultural and manufacturing economies had begun decades earlier. The first maquiladoras, the (largely U.S. owned) assembly plants in the economic development zone south of the U.S. border, were opened in the 1960s. Large industrial-style farms were already producing almost half of Mexico’s domestic food crops in 1986. However, these economic successes were achieved through policies that favored cities and the small but politically powerful middle class to the detriment of the rural poor. After the trade agreements went into effect, Mexico continued many of these policies, now to favor foreign investors and wealthy Mexicans, in an accelerated, internationally financed program of industrialization. The results were devastating to poor people and the rural hinterlands. By the end of Mexico’s most transformative decade in eighty years, more than two million farmers had been forced off their land. Their displacement began with changes in Mexico’s property laws.

The rights of peasants and indigenous people to ejidos, communally owned land, were first promulgated by Emilano Zapata and later codified in the Mexican Constitution of 1917. The constitution also contained provisions that prevented large concentrations of land in a few hands, and prohibited domestic or foreign “mercantile societies” from owning land. Under NAFTA, ejidos and the prohibition against foreign ownership were considered “nontariff barriers” that prevented foreigners from receiving the same treatment and economic rights as Mexican citizens. The government removed the trade barriers by repealing and weakening these laws. All over Mexico, the alteration in property rights brought sweeping changes in the nation’s land use. The agricultural sector was hit first.

Before NAFTA, two to three million Mexican peasant farmers were growing corn, primarily to feed their families, on small parcels of land, the majority five acres or less, often on ejidos. Remarkably, these small farmers produced a surplus each year that supplied about forty percent of Mexico’s domestic commercial corn market, enough to keep the nation close to food self-sufficiency.

By 1996, Mexico had lost more than half its small farms. Thousands of tiny parcels that once grew corn for Mexicans had been consolidated and converted to the corporate production of berries, baby lettuce, mesclun mix, and asparagus for export. The domestic consumption of corn and other basic food had dropped by twenty-nine percent. The monthly cost of feeding a family of five approached three times the legal minimum monthly wage. Sixteen of every hundred Mexican children were malnourished and eighty Mexican children under the age of one year were dying each day.

What happened in Mexico during its first decade of globalization follows a pattern that is being repeated in developing nations all over the world. When a developing agrarian nation like Mexico, the Philippines, Kenya, or Sri Lanka that is feeding itself with food grown on small farms decides to join the global marketplace, the first steps the government is asked to take are 1) reduce tariffs that protect small farmers, 2) open its domestic market to imported food, which the trade agreement defines as less expensive, and 3) encourage foreign investments that will convert its small-scale agriculture to the production of more lucrative export crops. Time and again, the consequences of these concessions have been the collapse of the nation’s domestic agriculture, increasing dependency on more expensive imported food, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of farmers and farm workers. The Philippines lost 350,000 agricultural jobs last year, mainly through reductions in its traditional corn, rice, and sugar crops. Sri Lanka lost 300,000 jobs. By the end of Mexico’s fifth crop-year under GATT and NAFTA, the toll had risen to the livelihoods and cultivated land of 1.8 million small farmers.

BETWEEN 1980 AND 1995, Mexico’s poor rural farmers accounted for more than ten per cent of the nation’s economically active workforce, and their small surplus crops comprised almost half the nation’s domestic corn market. When these people lost their land and livelihood, the nation forfeited a substantial portion of its domestic economy. In a paper presented in December 2000 at a seminar organized by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Aileen Kwa describes the economic collapse that predictably follows when a developing nation loses a significant number of rural farmers:

When rural masses are so poor that they do not have purchasing power, they do not constitute an important market for domestic industry. This in turn means that domestic markets are too small to stimulate economic activity, so that production is largely directed toward foreign markets and urban elites. When this happens there is a lack of structural incentives at the national level to provide better living standards for the poor. Poverty then becomes a vicious cycle that is itself an obstacle to development.

The lesson Kwa draws is that efforts to globalize a nation’s economy “will be successful only if there is firstly a strong and vibrant local economy as well as existing government institutions which take on substantial responsibility in building physical and human capital.” After seventy years of rule by a party that catered to the urban middle classes at the expense of its rural poor, Mexico lacked the experience, the institutions, and the political will to meet Kwa’s criteria for readiness. By the same measure, U.S. farm policy is also an example of a nation abrogating these responsibilities. When any nation neglects the human and physical capital represented by its farmers, farmland, and the human and natural communities that sustain them, it sets in motion the vicious cycle that inevitably leads to the devastation of natural systems.

THE ECOLOGICAL CONSEQUENCES ON NORTH AMERICA of the regime of international trade represented by NAFTA — the disastrous deterioration of the monarch’s continental habitat — has taken the familiar debate about whether economic growth is good for the environment and turned it on its head. For more than half a century in the U.S., the relationship between the environment and the economy has focused on the consequences of development and economic growth. As more and more rural agricultural communities in the U.S. sink into economic decline and international trade destroys the economies of Mexico and other developing nations, conservation must shift its focus to the ecological consequences of economic collapse.

Mexico is one of five nations with the greatest biodiversity in the world, and the bulk of that diversity is in its great forests. With its trade deficit soaring, agricultural exports falling further behind food imports, and millions of workers looking for work in a country too poor to create jobs, the country was helpless to resuscitate its economy except by expanding international trade. Harvesting its forests was one way to do that. The changes in laws that enabled the consolidation of peasant farms into corporate farms also enabled the consolidation of holdings in the nation’s largest and richest forests, eighty percent of which were or are on ejidos and indigenous reserves. The armed rebellion of the Zapatistas began largely as a result of the foreign acquisition of Chiapas’s forests, which had been owned by ejidatarios and indigenous people.

During the GATT and NAFTA negotiations, Mexico had established new federal laws for the protection of its forests and other natural resources. These laws, created in part to satisfy demands from U.S. environmental and labor interests, were to be models, setting standards for legislation by the states, which have the legal responsibilities for establishing and enforcing environmental laws. However, once the trade agreements went into effect, and states began to compete for foreign investments in their forestlands, almost no states enacted new legislation. In a few cases the national government assisted the states, most often by repealing parts of its model legislation, such as a restriction against the large-scale importation of nonnative forest species — a concession to a U.S. wood products company bent on new plantations.

Writing in 1998, Victor Menotti, director of the Environmental Program at the International Forum on Globalization, reports that since NAFTA, fifteen U.S. companies have begun operations in Mexico. They have made investments in regions that hold some of the continent’s largest remaining intact forests. Logging and large forest plantations of pine and eucalyptus are planned or underway from northern Mexico to the Guatemalan border.

Mexico’s need for wood and wood fiber is not driven by exports alone. The maquiladoras south of the U.S. border expanded rapidly under NAFTA, and by 1996 were producing fifty-four percent of Mexico’s exports. Keeping them productive, however, requires a steady supply of cardboard. Every switch, toy, appliance, window shade, or lawn sprinkler “Assembled in Mexico” is shipped north, or to Europe or Asia in a cardboard box. The maquiladoras eat Mexican trees like there is no tomorrow.

Monarch advocates tell me they have observed giant trucks leaving the butterfly preserve loaded with wood chips. Perhaps those trucks are on their way to the nearby wallboard plant, which consumes 400,000 cubic meters of wood each year. But no one has been able to tell me for sure (and I doubt that President Fox could tell me) that the box of rough, crudely pressed, dark-brown cardboard that contained the remote control device “Assembled in Mexico,” which came with the Canadian-made garage door I bought last winter, is not made of oyamel fiber from the trees of the monarch’s winter forest.

WHEN MEXICO ESTABLISHED THE BUTTERFLY PRESERVE in 1986, it took most of the land in the preserve from local ejidos. The ejidatarios had been asking the government for compensation for a decade when, in 1996, advocates of the monarch preserve also began pressing for compensation, as well as for stronger enforcement of environmental regulations. But by then the government had other priorities — putting down the rebels in Chiapas and encouraging additional investments in its forests. Both efforts involved undermining the ejidos and the rights of indigenous peoples, and reducing environmental protections. To make concessions to butterfly advocates or the ejidatarios in the preserve and to increase enforcement there would weaken the government’s pro-trade, hardline position on these issues.

In 2000, however, the Mexican government announced that it would triple the size of the preserve. The announcement came in response to political pressure from Mexicans in and outside of the government, and a report detailing the extent of the damage being done to the monarchs’ preserve by logging, uncontrolled tourism, and new agricultural plots. A representative of the World Wildlife Fund says an unnamed international organization has pledged $5 million to establish a trust fund if the communities within the preserve agree to “some kind of deal…so that they can benefit from conservation.” According to various estimates, between sixty and seventy-five thousand people live in the preserve’s present sixty square miles. (For comparison, this is a population density eighty times greater than that of New York State’s Adirondack “wilderness” park, in which more than half the land is privately owned.) For the sixty or seventy thousand ejidatarios, a $5 million trust amounts to $83 per person, and advocates for the preserve doubt that this will be enough. As new wood product plants and fish farms appear in the vicinity of the preserve, they grow skeptical of the government’s motivation and ability to protect a larger area.

ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATORS URGE AMERICAN SCHOOL CHILDREN to write letters to the Mexican government to ask what it is doing to protect the butterfly and its winter-sheltering oyamel forest. Why are these educators not asking them to write to the fifteen U.S. corporations that dominate the market for Mexican wood fiber? Why not ask them to write to the U.S. Congress, urging legislators to stop the poisoning of their own country’s farmland? Why not ask President Bush how he plans to protect the monarch as he begins an expansion of U.S. trade with Mexico?

What is killing the monarch is the U.S. economy. The force that drives the globalization of agriculture and international trade on this continent is U.S. consumerism — including its obsessions for cheap food, cheap wood, cheap gasoline, and the mythic lifestyle these promise. That, and the moral bankruptcy of U.S. electoral politics.

The monarch cannot be saved without saving the biodiversity of Mexico’s great forests, and that can’t be saved without recognizing that more than half the Mexican population lives in extreme poverty, and without protecting the rights of poor Mexicans, and all people, to food, health care, decent wages, and education. As part of this effort, the citizens of wealthy nations have a responsibility to understand the degree to which their lifestyles and financial security are dependent upon and contribute to the devastation of tropical forests and the oppression of the forests’ peoples.

Unchecked, the current regime of international trade has the capacity to unleash a biotic holocaust unparalleled in human history. Virtually every original forest on the planet is on the block, up for bids. Against this annihilation of species and natural systems, conservation’s only sure defense is to expand its boundaries and broaden its goals to include the protection of human rights.

Peter Sauer is a contributing editor to Orion. His writings have appeared in the magazine since 1992. He watches the world from a safe distance in Salem, New York.