Op-Ed: The Parallel Struggles of Human and Monarch Migration
In July, the monarch butterfly was added by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to its Red List of Threatened Species, a recognition that the insect’s continued decline could lead to extinction. Although the monarch population increased by 35% from December 2020 to December 2021, its overall numbers have declined sharply over the past three decades. The IUCN listing is an alarm about the need to reassess monarch conservation policies in North America.
As a woman born in Mexico and now living and teaching in Canada, I know that nothing is ever easy for anyone living across borders. I have conducted research in the United States, Mexico and Canada, following the struggles of humans and insects migrating across North America. Both have been adversely shaped by the erasure of indigenous knowledge that has sustained populations of many species for millennia, and by the policies of globalization, border security, and toxic agribusinesses that have transformed the landscapes of North America. Ecological justice for humans, monarchs and other species will only come when we prioritize community livelihoods and ecological decision-making across borders.
The decline in monarch habitat began in the 19th century, as settlers transformed the open prairies into what is now the “corn belt” of the United States and Canada. Monarch caterpillars only eat one thing: milkweed, which once grew abundantly in these landscapes. But settlers pushed out indigenous peoples, whose agricultural practices embraced biodiversity, and introduced monoculture, planting single crops over large areas and uprooting milkweed.
In the modern era, one of the main culprits for the decline of the monarch was the agrochemical giant Monsanto, now part of the German company Bayer. The company’s Roundup herbicide decimated the monarchs by killing their host plant. His pesticides damaged the growth of the caterpillars.
Monsanto was also a major producer of genetically modified corn seeds, which had devastating effects on rural Mexican livelihoods. Corn strains traditionally grown in Mexico cannot genetically or economically compete with GM corn, which is more disease resistant. Imports of genetically modified corn from the United States have made growing corn in Mexico less profitable, forcing workers to seek other crops or migrate north, often risking their lives to cross a border that has become a hostile political terrain.
Insect and human migrations are also affected by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, updated as USMCA). The agreement opened the doors to trade in manufactured goods and products, but under the pact the US-Mexico border, once an interconnected habitat with plenty of monarch food, became industrialized and fragmented, while practices traditional farming and land management practices across the continent have declined. Despite these negative effects, NAFTA leaders appropriated the monarch as a symbol of trinational trade relations.
The construction of the US-Mexico border wall has further exacerbated these effects. More directly, when the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas opposed an attempt by the Trump administration to extend its border wall across the conservation area, fringe groups baselessly accused the center of facilitating illegal immigration and human trafficking. The center closed for several weeks after threats from QAnon. It has since reopened, but with tighter security (The New York Times reported that the executive director now carries a handgun), and he remains embroiled in legal action over the plans.
Ironically, some conservation efforts can also have negative effects on monarch habitat, as they often disregard traditional agroforestry knowledge. Conservationists sometimes refer to small Mexican farmers as “loggers”, to label them as villains who steal from protected forest areas. But the truth is more complicated. These communities of forest farmers care deeply about the butterfly. According to their traditions, the monarchs return just in time for the Day of the Dead, carrying the souls of their ancestors. In these areas, the monarch’s winter home, people have long practiced sustainable agroforestry. They grew mixed crops, including maize, at lower elevations, while gathering other foods and hunting in mountain forests. As monarchs came to the attention of conservationists, large areas were designated as “no people nuclei” in an effort to protect the butterflies. These actions have harmed both humans and insects by shutting down a system of coexistence – and have caused people to engage in logging, often to create space for avocado fields, which are become a tempting business due to the growing demand for fruit in the United States since NAFTA. New conservation boundaries have diminished humans’ relationship with the forest and their ability to protect butterflies.
It doesn’t have to be like that. Long before Mexico, the United States and Canada existed, monarch butterflies made their annual migratory circuit, nourished by numerous milkweeds with the help of indigenous agroforestry practices. Likewise, our own species has been on the move throughout its history, and this has contributed to our survival.
How do we reimagine North America as an abundant homeland for all? In the United States and Canada, “butterfly enthusiasts” — lay enthusiasts who create habitats to support monarch butterflies — have filled their yards with milkweed and built elaborate hatcheries in their homes. Some call themselves “crossovers”. Yet these backyard ecosystems are not enough.
Creating islands where monarchs have what they need is only a partial solution to a web of economic and political barriers that have made it difficult for them to survive. The monarch is a metaphor for the right to live through “two houses”, as many migration activists claim. But it shouldn’t just be a metaphor, it should be our reality. If we want to keep monarchs, we need to rethink North American ecologies as safe places for migrating humans and migrating butterflies.
Columba Gonzalez-Duarte is an assistant professor at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, Canada. She is writing a book about humans and monarchs. This article was produced in partnership with Zócalo Public Square.