Eduardo Carrillo checks the dense clusters of monarch butterflies roosting in a high-altitude pine tree forest. Thousands more blanket the forest floor, as he points to two that are mating. This is the Joya Redonda Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in San Miguel Atlautla, Mexico, some 50 miles southeast of Mexico City. Nestled in the foothills of the towering Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl volcanoes, Joya Redonda used to be a volcanic crater. Now the circular sanctuary has transformed into a grassy clearing some 8,000 feet above sea level where countless butterflies zip around endangered oyamel fir trees. Despite the radiance of the scene, Carrillo warns that “in five years, we won’t see butterflies here.”
Every winter, hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies migrate from Canada and the United States to central Mexico where they hibernate. For decades, deforestation, herbicides, and pest diseases in the United States and Mexico have threatened butterfly habitats. During the 2022-2023 season, the hibernating population dropped by 22%, according to the World Wildlife Fund Mexico. But individuals like Carrillo are working to protect butterfly habitats.
Every Wednesday morning during the November to March migration season, five members of the Atlautla Monitoring Brigade pile into the bed of Carrillo’s truck. They journey an hour up a rocky dirt road from their small, farming town to the sanctuary where they’ll camp until Sunday. Under Carrillo’s leadership, the brigade, which was founded in 2015, tracks the butterflies’ arrival, their numbers, and protects their colonies from disturbances, like logging. Over the past two years, with Carrillo as director, Joya Redonda’s butterfly colonies have increased tenfold, recovering from a paltry four colonized trees in 2021-2022. During the following season, butterflies occupied 42 trees. “We’ve demonstrated what we can accomplish by monitoring human activity in the sanctuary,” says Carrillo.
Monarchs have not always come in such large numbers to Atlautla. However, in the early 2000s, more butterflies began to establish colonies in Atlautla as deforestation to the northwest destroyed old hibernation grounds. Alejandro Bautista, a member of Atlautla’s elected Communal Land Council, remembers a much smaller migratory butterfly population fifty years ago: “When we’d go up to Joya Redonda, we’d see one or two.” Townspeople called the monarchs “moths” and “attached little importance to the butterflies,” says Bautista. But that was not always the case. The original Indigenous inhabitants of this valley believed monarch butterflies carried the souls of the deceased, arriving in time for the annual celebration of Día de los Muertos in early November.
When Carrillo first encountered the migrating butterflies, he was working for the National Parks Service. One day, he says, “I had the great surprise of seeing the butterflies emerge from an enormous colony in a tree.” Thousands of black and orange wings took flight around him. “It was something I had never seen before. From that point, I fell in love with the monarch butterfly.” While Carrillo never finished high school, he avidly studied the insect. “I began reading and requesting information,” he says. When he had the opportunity to join the Atlautla Monitoring Brigade in 2015, he jumped at it.
The Joya Redonda Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary sits on the communal land of San Miguel Atlautla, established in 1969 by presidential decree. The Agrarian Reform Law, passed after the 1910 Mexican Revolution, made thousands of these communal properties possible. In Mexico, communal lands may be used for public or private purposes, but only registered members (or comuneros)—531 in the case of San Miguel Atlautla—and their heirs can own and manage the land. For that reason, state institutions cannot manage the Joya Redonda Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, as only communal landholders possess that right.
Despite that fact, federal institutions still help oversee the conservation of the sanctuary. In 2015, the National Commission for Protected Areas (CONANP) began to fund the Atlautla Monitoring Brigade. Carrillo joined that same year and expanded the brigade’s activities. “I became concerned with air temperature,” which affects the survival of the insects. He approached his childhood friend, David Bautista (no relation to Alejandro), who had worked for the National Forest Service, for help. David Bautista joined the brigade and, with his aid, the group began carefully monitoring temperatures in Joya Redonda.
The most time-intensive task of the Atlautla Monitoring Brigade is limiting human and animal access to areas where the monarchs hibernate. The brigade spends five nights a week in Joya Redonda to watch for illegal loggers that enter at night. Camping also helps them save on the cost of gas, as brigade funding lasts only for four months. Every fall, the group prepares for the monarchs’ arrival and oversees tourist activity through the winter holiday season. While funding ends in December, the monarchs continue to hibernate in Joya Redonda until March, requiring three more months of vigilance. Many brigade members continue on a voluntary basis: “Monitoring is what is required to protect the butterfly,” Carrillo says. Joya Redonda has long been a multi-use community space. People light bonfires, play soccer, and let their cattle graze in the crater—activities that are prohibited during the butterfly migration season. In preparation for the monarchs’ arrival in November, the brigade puts up yellow caution tape to prevent visitors from disturbing the butterflies. This has created challenges for community members who rely on the forest.
These conflicts are not unique to Atlautla. Conservation efforts often pit the needs of the butterflies against the needs of the community. But research shows that the two have not always been at odds. Anthropologist Columba González-Duarte wrote for The Los Angeles Times that, prior to the passage of free trade agreements, traditional agroforestry knowledge allowed both humans and butterflies to thrive. But forbidding human trespassing in sanctuaries has put at risk both the butterflies and the surrounding communities. González-Duarte and journalist Manuel Ureste wrote in NACLA Report on the Americas that “unpeopled lands like nature reserves are fertile ground for criminal activities.”
In the massive, 348-square-mile Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR), some 80 miles west of Mexico City, criminal organizations have funded illegal logging, expanded avocado groves, and established drug laboratories. Environmental activists have been targets, including Homero Gómez, the caretaker of the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary who disappeared in January 2020. His body was later discovered in a well. While Joya Redonda has not witnessed such violence, there are nonetheless conflicts over how to use the communally-held space.
While assessing tree development during a round of observations in February 2023, Carrillo and David Bautista found cow dung on the ground. Someone had let their cattle pasture in Joya Redonda on Monday and Tuesday, the Brigade’s off days. “Joya Redonda doesn’t have much time left,” Carrillo says with frustration. David Bautista agrees but adds, “We try to look strong. But it hurts.”
Below, in the town center, community leaders share concerns about livestock grazing and illegal logging activities, but they marvel at the changes in the sanctuary. On weekends, locals join national and international visitors to see thousands of butterflies flying in the pine tree forests of Joya Redonda. Members of the Communal Land Council charge 100 pesos (around $5.50) for access and are pleased to see tourism growing. However, others worry about how more visitors will affect the environment. Former director of the Atlautla Monitoring Brigade, Tomás Bautista (no relation to Alejandro or David), sees “irresponsible tourism” as “one of the region’s biggest problems.”
In 2016, Atlautla resident Tomás Bautista set out to educate his neighbors about monarchs and became a founding member of EcoMonarca, a local non-profit organization. Each year, EcoMonarca organizes the Monarch Butterfly Festival for Environmental Education which features talks and workshops about caring for water, forests, and monarch butterflies. Every March, the streets of Atlautla fill with color as EcoMonarca commissions new murals. Schools host workshops and the community receives dozens of visitors. People of all ages participate in the community-driven project, and children who take part walk away with a newfound appreciation for their role in helping to protect the butterflies.
For Atlautla resident Lucía Villanueva, the monarch butterfly remains part of the Día de los Muertos ritual, representing her lost loved ones. “As Mexicans, we have been taught to make our altar so that the spirits of our dead will come to eat and visit us. My grandparents said that when there was a butterfly close to the altar, it’s because the dead had just arrived.”
In a short period of time, monarch butterflies have become an important part of Atlautla’s community and identity. Isabel Gallegos, a member of the Communal Land Council, expressed that caring for the monarch reconnects the community to traditions “that used to unite us as a people” and honor the interconnectedness of people with nature.
In Atlautla, protecting the monarchs’ habitats while honoring the community’s right to the forest is a delicate balancing act. But for Carrillo, the butterflies embody the hope that the two can coexist. When he looks at the dense clusters of monarchs in the pines, he says, “I feel satisfied; I’m happy that they come. To me, it is incredible that an insect that weighs half a gram [0.01 ounces] migrates more than 5,000 kilometers [around 3,000 miles]. Sometimes I simply can’t believe it.”