Butterflies, organized crime, and “sad trees”: A critique of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve
Updated: May 25
How a conservation program and an economic policy are undermining social control of land.
The conservation of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is rearranging the rural landscapes of Michoacán and Estado de México, Mexico. Based on ethnographic and historical data, and combining insights from the green security and neoliberal conservation literatures, this paper examines how monarch butterfly conservation unfolds in an area shaped by a recent designation as a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve as well as increasing violence associated with the Mexican Drug War.
I argue that these processes are deeply interconnected. I show how the conservation program, and the broader neoliberal project of which it is part, have undermined social control of land by converting communally managed forests into a supposedly human-free reserve. This has transformed the region into a frontier zone that facilitates the increased presence of organized crime groups and devolves responsibility for forest security to local residents. I show how the monarch reserve’s core and buffer land boundary, and the human and nonhuman divide underpinning it, reconfigures authority in ways that deepen the control of organized crime, facilitate the expansion of il/licit economies, and undermine sustainable community forest management.
While international conservation actors view the reserve as the best strategy for preventing the disappearance of the monarch's migratory phenomenon, my analysis concludes that the MAB has increased the risk of disappearance of both its butterfly and human inhabitants. As an alternative to conventional conservation strategies designed to separate human and nonhuman nature, principles from nondualist traditional ecological ethics can inform better pathways for protecting both the region’s humans and nonhumans.
The entire article can be found here.