SCIENCE DESK | July 9, 2002, Tuesday

Aid for Farmers Helps Butterflies, Too

Late Edition - Final , Section F , Page 1 , Column 4

ONACIANO OJEDA, Mexico — Standing in the small kitchen of her rustic house in this remote community of Mazahua Indians, Celia Isidoro is singing the praises of her new, efficient wood-burning stove.

"It's much easier to cook on," she says, pointing out the large surface of the enclosed stove and recalling how she used to cook while kneeling over an open, smoky fire on the floor of the same room. "We had to cut four horseloads of wood a week. Now I can burn scraps, anything."

But this is more than a tale of a happy housewife in this village 100 miles west of Mexico City. Mrs. Isidoro is one of some 200,000 people living in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a stretch of mountain forests that includes the protected areas where millions of monarchs migrate each winter. Her stove uses half the wood of an open fire, a potentially huge benefit here, where forests are quickly disappearing and where researchers estimate that two-thirds of the logging is illegal.

Introduced by a small group known as Alternare (from the Latin for alternative), the increasingly popular stoves are just one part of a quiet revolution to teach rural farmers how to tread more lightly in this delicate environment.

Working in eight different poor, rural communities around the butterfly's roosting grounds and with nearly no talk of monarchs, Alternare is succeeding by providing villagers with knowledge they actually want. The group is teaching farmers how to build a house of longer-lasting adobe using one tree rather than a faster-decomposing home that requires 25, how to farm without chemical fertilizers and how to keep this rugged land productive so farmers need not continually move to newly logged territory. While improving the farmers' lives, Alternare, by no coincidence, is improving the situation of the butterflies as well.

"For the butterfly to live you have to have integration with human beings," said Guadalupe Del Río, president and co-founder of Alternare along with fellow biologist and co-founder Ana María Múñiz. "We're proving that this can be done."

Many are applauding Alternare's efforts, including the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which has provided financing for the group since it began its work five years ago. But there were those, particularly in the beginning, who had their doubts, including the farmers themselves.

Walking from his now flourishing pumpkin fields to his huge composting pit, dressed in a Coca-Cola T-shirt and cowboy hat, Santos Espinoza speaks earnestly.

"I wasn't sure at first," he said, referring to Alternare's suggestion to switch from the standard half ton of chemical fertilizers on every acre of farmland to the untested novelty of using compost made from what he used to burn as garbage —— corn stalks, grass, horse manure, leftovers. "We didn't see any difference in the first two years."

Mr. Espinoza had reason for concern. Here, in the Chivati-Huacal monarch sanctuary, one of the most severely devastated of the monarch roosting areas, government programs and international groups have arrived with great fanfare to dictate to these subsistence farmers how they should and shouldn't live for the good of the world's beloved monarch. Over the years, these communities, many of which own land in the reserve, have had their logging rights eliminated or drastically reduced.

"They think they have been really discriminated against and that people are more concerned about butterflies than them," Mrs. Del Río of Alternare said. "People here are tired of others telling them what to do."

So the founders, two Mexican biologists, teamed with Gabriel Sánchez and his wife, Elia Hernández, farmers who shared the women's vision but who could prove, on their own land, that implausible ideas —— like having one family live on the harvests of just two and a half acres —— were possible.

Now Mr. Espinoza speaks like a convert. "Now the plants are stronger and give more fruit," he said, running his hands through his compost. "I'm completely convinced that the earth needs this nutrition to give more food."

And so it went, in one heartfelt testimonial after another. Farmers working under Alternare's tutelage explained how they were taking simple steps to improve their farms and their lives.

"We couldn't grow anything here before," said Perfecto Espinoza, yanking a huge beet from his garden. "It was pure rocks." Now his land bursts with color, as do other gardens in this village where monocultures and fallow fields are being replaced by broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, cilantro, garlic, radish, onions and the all-important chiles.

"Before, the fields were corn, corn, corn," said Mrs. Del Río. "Nutrition here has been really bad."

Two women display herbal medicines they are learning to make: eucalyptus leaves and lime rind for coughs and a fever-reducing medicinal made from a plant called cow's tongue. Erasmo Cortes, who has recently built himself a new adobe house, gives a tour of his rustic nursery in which he is raising seedlings of native trees to reforest around his home and which villagers plan, in the future, to use to reforest the protected areas of the butterfly sanctuaries.

Another man explains how he learned to enclose his chickens and cows, making it possible for him to locate his animals easily and to collect valuable eggs and manure. Others point out how they now dig canals and terrace the land to prevent erosion and preserve the soils. And all around there is great excitement about toilets - a novelty here - soon to be brought by Alternare. These special devices separate solid from liquid waste and allow collection of both to be used, ultimately, as fertilizer for the soils.

The farmers are used to discussing their work. Once people have been trained in particular techniques or skills, they begin training others, in the farmer-to-farmer method of conversion which has worked so well for Alternare.

Despite the local enthusiasm, Alternare has its detractors, some of whom complain that the work is not really about butterflies.

"Some people say this is social development," said Mrs. Del Río, shaking her head. "No, this is conservation."

She insists that every step, whether as indirect as teaching farmers to organize so they can work together more effectively or as direct as teaching reforestation, makes the farmers less dependent on cutting the forest to make their way.

Then there are those who worry that Alternare's process of changing rural traditions one farmer at a time moves too slowly to save the forests of the monarch butterfly. One study found that in the last 30 years, nearly half the intact forest in the wintering areas had been degraded or destroyed.

Mrs. Del Río acknowledged that Alternare did struggle even to move at its slow pace. The group only recently was able to patch together enough funds to buy a reliable truck, critical for reaching one remote village after another on these rugged roads. And Alternare does need to extend its reach. Organizations within Mexico and from other countries, including Guatemala, have asked to be trained in Alternare's methods, but without a training center that has been impossible.

Despite the pace, Mrs. Del Río, who is trying to raise $150,000 to build a training center, said she believed there was no other way.

"No law can change these things," she said of ending the logging. "You can't conserve anything if you don't have enough to eat."

At the end of the day, in the dining room of one of the newly built adobe houses, a group of farmers sits down at a rough wood table to a feast of chicken, spicy green salsa and freshly cooked tortillas, all the work of their own hands using farming methods recently put into place and all piping hot off a new wood-burning stove.

But as distractingly fine as the food is, the ecological significance of the meal is not lost on these men and women. Mrs. Isidoro, speaking of the fruits of their labors laid out before them, said, "We're protecting the forest."

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