For decades, deforestation has crept across the mountainsides where the Monarch butterflies spend their winters, as the 100,000 or so inhabitants of the communities in the region seek out a living from the natural resources that are their birthright. The people’s right to utilize the economic resources they own has become a source of contention for environmentalists who want to preserve one of the world’s most important natural spectacles–the wintering of hundreds of millions of Monarch butterflies in Mexico.
Since the government declared the mountain peaks where the Monarchs roost as protected areas, and made it illegal to cut the trees, it has only made it harder for local families to earn a living. The Mexican Government and large NGOs have worked to try to restore the forests in order to protect the environment for the butterflies. These efforts, no matter how well funded and noble, did not address the core problem, the poverty of the communities.
Jose Luis Alvarez, a Mexican tree nurseryman, who was selling trees for various reforestation projects, devised a bold and innovative way to restore the forests and at the same time give the people a source of revenue. He would help them plant woodlots that would become sustainable forests from which they would harvest to meet their economic needs, while providing wildlife habitat and protecting fragile mountain soils. The theory was that this would take pressure off the protected areas by providing legal alternatives. It would help the people to pull themselves out of the cycle of poverty in which they were trapped. In 1997, working as the La Cruz Project, Alvarez convinced five families from the Ejido of El Rosario, near the Monarch Sanctuary of the same name, to take a risk by planting trees instead of corn or oats on 3.5 hectares (over 8.5 acres).
In 1998, with the help of Robert L. Small, who organized the Michoacan Reforestation Fund and raised money for the La Cruz Project from his home in California, 40,000 seedlings were given to twenty families. A team of courageous and determined believers joined forces and began to build the project, including Jose Luis Alvarez, Lincoln Brower, Bob Small and Ed Rashin. Bob Small passed away in November of 2004.
The enthusiasm of the participating communities around the lakes and in the monarch area has been gratifying. The growth of the project is not limited by a lack of willing participants or the availability of tree seedlings, since the program’s nursery is capable of producing 1 million tree seedlings annually.
This showcase program restores healthy forests on the mountainsides of Central Mexico’s highlands. The restoration of forests reduces erosion and protects the watersheds. It also provides wildlife habitat and a source of firewood and income for the local people.
Since the reforestation project was started in 1997, we have helped many local communities convert corn and oat fields back into forested land, a difficult task due to the degraded soil conditions and highly exposed nature of the sites on steep mountainsides. Participants receive technical assistance for sustainable management of their reforested lands, enabling them to have wood for their daily needs.
In addition to reforesting farmland that was cleared decades ago, many seedlings are planted by communities to restore forests degraded by fires or logging. Once the seedlings become established, they grow rapidly, reaching a height of one meter in a year. The trees continue to grow rapidly, attaining a basal diameter of 16 inches in 15 years, thereby constituting a valuable timber resource that can be used as income by the landowners or communities. On the other hand, some communities do not want to harvest trees at all, having experienced mudslides and loss of spring flow due to forest and watershed degradation. They wish to restore the forests to protect their homes and water supply.
La Cruz Habitat Protection Project, Inc. is a U.S. non-profit organization that partners with La Cruz Habitat Protection Project – Mexico to support the planting and management of sustainable new forests in Michoacan, Mexico and beyond.