The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is the best known and most cared-for insect in North America. For millennia, monarchs have inhabited and moved between what are now the sovereign territories of three different nations, performing a 4000-km migratory loop that links distinct habitats. The monarch butterfly faces threats to its survival all along the migratory path—threats that have deepened since the signing of NAFTA due to the role of the agreement in facilitating the expansion of herbicides that are toxic to milkweed, a plant crucial to monarchs.
Convergent Migrations is a research project that follows the rough pathway through which the migrant monarch lives and dies and along with it, the trajectory of milkweed and how the presence or absence of both species speaks to an eco-social crisis in North America that is particularly visible at the sites of study. This multi-sited, multi-species ethnographic study connects sites along the generally north-south continental migratory routes of the monarch speaking to the political ecology that binds and unbinds North Americans.
The research has received funding from the Wenner Gren foundation, CONACYT, the University of Toronto and the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. The book is under revision by the author.
The story behind the original photo, and the art piece, is powerful: The person shown here is Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake, more commonly known by his Western name: Sitting Bull (1831-1890) He is wearing a British hat with a pinned monarch wing on it.
This research stream has provided the first step towards addressing the politics of monarch butterfly conservation across North America in relation to segregation of indigenous knowledge (IEK Map).
This line of research seeks to document the ways in which the ecological knowledge belonging to indigenous communities who share a habitat with the insect in Mexico (Jñato communities in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve) and Canada and United States (Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe) can be mobilized to rethink biodiversity conservation efforts for monarchs and humans exposed to ecological degradation on a transnational scale. In so doing it aims to disseminate, apply, and mobilize the experiences and aspirations of Canada, the United States and Mexico’s indigenous peoples in constructing innovative and inclusive environmental policies for people, land and monarchs beyond geopolitical borders.
In the immigration debate, monarchs are actively mobilized as a symbol of resistance to Trump’s immigrations policies particularly around the proposition of terminating DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). DACA was Obama’s already insufficient policy that substituted the Dreamers Act, it would have granted a path to citizenship.
Within this context, immigrant youth art collectives are using the monarch butterfly to claim their right to move freely or have “two homes” across the same borders that the monarch navigates. This research stream interrogates the political embrace of the monarch butterfly as a symbol of open borders by both national governments and Mexican immigrants in order to understand how monarch butterfly conservation efforts internalize and help to reproduce contradictory border dynamics of opening and closure, integration and segregation, especially in relation to labour migration within the NAFTA (today’s CUSMA) context.
Recent genetic analysis of the evolution of monarchs suggests that Danaus plexippus originated in the southern United States or northern Mexico from a common ancestor millions of years ago, which initially undertook a shorter-distance annual migration in that region. However, around 20,000 years ago the migration of milkweed (Asclepias), a rhizome root plant and monarch’s host organism, to northern territories generated a more extended migration of monarchs and consequently the differentiated generations (Monarch Generations Map) and the migrant monarch habitation in the Oyamel Forest in the winter and the plains of the U.S. and Canada in the summer and fall (Zhan et al. 2014).
This genetic analysis confirms the complete tuning of the monarch's annual migration to the migration of a rhizome root plant, an entwining that adds a layer of complexity to understanding monarchs through a theory of speciation as they rely completely on their relationship with a so called ‘weed’ that has also migrated across North America. Thus, this research stream thinks with milkweed and its current presence and absence within the North American landscape. This line of research proposes that the monarch conservation rhizome goes beyond milkweed roots; it stretches from cyberspace to milkweed roots.