Skip to main content

NAFTA leaders could save the monarch butterflies

By Carter Roberts and Omar Vidal
February 14, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
A monarch butterfly lands on a hibiscus flower in Virginia. A monarch butterfly lands on a hibiscus flower in Virginia.
HIDE CAPTION
Monarch butterflies
Monarch butterflies
Monarch butterflies
Monarch butterflies
Monarch butterflies
Monarch butterflies
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama and his counterparts from Canada and Mexico will meet at summit
  • Carter Roberts, Omar Vidal: They should discuss plight of monarch butterflies
  • 2013 was the worst year for these butterflies in recorded history, they say
  • Roberts, Vidal: They're a special to North America, we must stop their decline

Editor's note: Carter Roberts is president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund. Omar Vidal is director general of WWF in Mexico.

(CNN) -- Twenty years ago last month, the North American Free Trade Agreement was born. The goal of NAFTA was straightforward -- to encourage the free movement of goods and capital between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Few points in history have been as important in forging bonds between our three countries.

While NAFTA is a relatively new pact that ties our nations, there are some things that go back far longer that bind us. Like the annual monarch butterfly migration, which started long before the trades, borders or foreign affairs were even an issue.

There's no record telling us when monarch butterflies first began their journeys of up to 2,800 miles between southern Canada, the northern U.S., and central Mexico. It's easy to assume that an end date for the migrations is just as elusive, but reality tells a different story.

Carter Roberts
Carter Roberts

In January, we got grim news from the central mountains of Mexico, the southernmost destination for migrating monarchs and sanctuary for their winter hibernation.

Omar Vidal
Omar Vidal

According to surveys carried out by World Wildlife Fund, together with Mexico's National Commission on Protected Areas and other partners, the entire hibernating population of monarch butterflies in the 2013-2014 season occupied an area of forest not much bigger than a football field -- a mere 1.6 acres. This is a 44% drop from the previous season, and a continuation of the freefall migrating monarchs have taken since data collection began two decades ago.

2013 was the worst year for these butterflies in recorded history. Now people are talking about the migration disappearing altogether.

There are several reasons for the decline, including extreme climate events in the U.S. and Canada as well as deforestation in Mexico. Yet the biggest culprit is likely the widespread extermination of milkweed, a flowering plant critical to monarch butterfly reproduction and development.

Across much of the monarch's range, particularly in the midwestern U.S., milkweed has fallen victim en masse to changing land use and the advent of herbicide-resistant crops. In short, the cupboard is bare for monarch caterpillars, and as a result one of North America's most dazzling natural wonders is on the brink of vanishing entirely.

If you've been fortunate enough to witness any part of the monarch spectacle, you understand why we can't let this happen. Whether a blanket of orange against a deep blue sky; a forest draped from root to leaf in dormant monarchs; or a single butterfly fluttering past you en route to join the masses, there is nothing quite like it.

The proverbial silver lining to this dark news on migratory monarch numbers is that it may have come at an opportune time.

Next Wednesday, February 19, U.S. President Obama will meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Peña Nieto at the North American Leaders' Summit in Toluca, Mexico. Toluca is just a short distance from the monarch's hibernation sites. During the summit, the butterflies will still be in nearby forests, poised to emerge from a four-month siesta that began in early winter.

White House officials have said the three leaders will discuss "a range of issues important to the daily lives of all of North America's people." What isn't clear is whether the plight of the monarchs will make the agenda, and if the three countries bound by an age-old butterfly migration will together show resolve in making sure this unique connection isn't permanently severed.

Whether monarchs flying south from Ontario, across America's heartland to converge on the oyamel fir trees of the Sierra Madre; gray whales hugging the California coast as they migrate from Baja to the Beaufort Sea and back again; or pronghorn antelope clinging to strongholds from the Northern Great Plains to the Sonoran Desert, the natural bonds connecting the U.S., Mexico and Canada stretch back millennia and transcend anything that can be traded or written on paper. They are bonds to take pride in, that unite the countries of North America in unexpected, beautiful ways. Something we simply cannot let disappear.

The summit in Toluca may be the last hope we have of saving the monarch migration. President Peña Nieto himself has been committed to the conservation of the monarch sanctuaries of Estado de Mexico since he served as governor there from 2005 to 2011. He knows firsthand the significant efforts and sacrifices of Mexico's local indigenous communities, authorities and civil society organizations to protect the sanctuaries. He also knows the important contribution the butterflies bring to local social and economic well-being.

Only a joint effort from all three countries will turn the tide in favor of the monarch. Our leaders must re-energize efforts to conserve the monarch butterfly, like those under the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation that was born alongside NAFTA. This plan must include concrete actions to halt destruction of milkweed in the U.S. and Canada, restore monarch habitat in all three countries, and strengthen law enforcement in Mexico to stop deforestation.

If together we could pull off something as big and ambitious as NAFTA, solving the monarch crisis must be within our means. We urge our heads-of-state, on behalf of all the people of North America, to use this opportunity to commit to the long-term preservation of one of our most ancient and spectacular bonds.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carter Roberts and Omar Vidal.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT