Monarchs and Maize in Mexico: New Actions to Protect Threatened Butterflies and Corn Diversity Go Hand in Hand

Reported by: Gary Nabhan and Laura Monti

How is the decline of monarch butterflies and its relation to the management of corn seen from south of the Mexican border with the U.S.? Recently, we went to the cradle of origin of maize in Oaxaca not to do our own research, but to simply listen to Mexican researchers, farmers, artists and chefs. Because both the monarch and maize have been iconic symbols of life in Mesoamerica for millennia, we wanted to hear how Mexicans perceived issues surrounding their conservation from scientific, cultural and political perspectives.


Monarch on marigolds at the Oaxacva Ethnobotanical Garden.
Picture by: Gary Nabhan


Fortunately, we arrived in Oaxaca City the very week that Mexican officials released their plan of action to recover monarch butterfly populations, and the famed artist Francisco Toledo hosted a celebration of native maize to contrast its value with transgenic corn. At the downtown event that attracted the likes of Archbishop Jose Luis Chavez Botello, over a thousand participants signed petitions urging the Mexican government to do more to stop the spread of transgenic maize into their country. They celebrated native maize food traditions by sharing 4500 corn tamales made from the local heirloom variety of bolita maize prepared by Oaxaca’s finest chefs and indigenous cooks.

The distinguished Director of the world class Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca, Dr. Alejandro de Ávila, explained to us how the relationship between maize and monarchs may be perceived by many Mexicans: “We see the defense of native maize and the defense of monarchs against the intrusion of transgenic corn into Mexico to be one and the same thing. Those who are here eating tamales and signing today and those who are protecting monarchs are of the same social movement.”


Oaxacan artist and civic leader and Archbishop giving away 4500 GMO-free corn tamales.
Picture By: Gary Nabhan


The very same week that Dr. Ávila offered this insight, Luis Fueyo, Director of the Mexico’s Commission of Protected Areas (CONANP) called out a very specific link between monarchs and maize in a press conference regarding the new plan of action for monarch butterfly recovery under his jurisdiction. He did something no high-ranking U.S. official would ever do publically: he pointed to the use of herbicides and pesticides used on corn crops in Canada and the U.S. as the major cause of monarch declines that are affecting the populations that gather to overwinter in Mexican forests:

“To reproduce, these butterflies of contrasting black, orange and amber must have access to milkweeds during their travels, both for obtaining food and for ovipositing. But these algodoncillos [milkweed species] have diminished greatly due to the use of pesticides and herbicides in the cultivation of corn and soy in Canada and the U.S.”

In addition, Fueyo made these important announcements:

1. That it will take governments and civil society working together to recover monarchs.
2. That the loss of milkweeds must be halted, and efforts to enhance surviving populations must occur wherever monarchs breed.
3. That for the first time, the priority areas for conservation are not just the overwintering grounds in Michoacan and Mexico, but include the migratory corridors to the north of them.
4. That climate change could exacerbate the declining availability of food and shelter for monarchs due to agrichemical use, affecting both the migratory corridors and overwintering grounds for monarchs.

In Oaxaca, the threat of genetic contamination of native maize varieties by transgenic corn and associated herbicides is of utmost concern, given that this state lies in the centers of origin and diversity for maize and its wild relatives. According to the Oaxacan agronomist Flavió Aragón, 70% of the extant maize diversity left in Mexico as a country occurs in Oaxaca, and some of its most distinctive heirloom varieties persist in Oaxaca and nowhere else. Hiking into the canyons of the World Heritage Site of Guilá Naquitz, an archaeological area where some of the oldest crop remains in the New World have been recovered, we encountered two species of milkweeds as well as adult monarchs. Thousands of years after maize agriculture was introduced into the Guilá Naquitz landscape, butterflies continue to gather in and around cornfields of the Zapotec farming communities. As we heard and read over and over again in Oaxaca, the defense of native maize against transgenic corn is not merely an issue of science policy, it is also an issue of cultural survival, ecological integrity, and nutritional well-being. If monarchs are being threatened, it is because an enduring tradition of maize culture is also being threatened.


Anti GMO Poster from the Mexican Network min Defense of Native Maize. Picture By: Gary Nabhan
Anti GMO Poster from the Mexican Network min Defense of Native Maize.
Picture By: Gary Nabhan


In the safety of Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca, foreign visitors can still see monarchs moving through field plots of maize and other crops, a scene that has become increasingly hard to find in the fields of Midwest. Isn’t it time that American farmers humbly admit that they have something essential to learn from Mexican farmers in their management of corn and its associated biodiversity?

Ironically, the same week we were in Oaxaca, we learned that the U.S. National Park Service has approved funding for a binational effort to establish milkweed nurseries in the border states of the U.S. and Mexico to further foster such exchanges and on-ground solutions. The project will include Borderlands Restoration, Garden INC, the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, the Universidad de Sonora, Southwest Monarch Study and University of Arizona.

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