It is about a 3000-kilometer trip travelling about 100 kilometers per day. It is the amazing migration of Monarch Butterflies.
Recently, I visited one of the five Monarch Butterfly Reserves west of Mexico City. In mountain-top pine forests, the butterflies hibernate for the winter, then procreate in Spring, and begin the return trip north in late March.
These are some photos of the incredible sight of thousands of butterflies covering the trees, and fluttering around sky above us.
Marveling at the incredibly beautiful and complicated way in which the natural world functions, I was reminded of the seminar I had attended two days earlier on human migration between Central America, Mexico, and the United States. The flow of human migrants is not quite as visually beautiful as that of the butterflies. Human-made boundaries, rules, and self-interest attempt to control and profit from the movement of people. Yet, there are similarities between the migrations of butterflies and of people.
Both migrations are a response to basic needs
The butterflies cannot survive the winters in northern United States and in Canada. They need the particular plant foods -milkweed for reproduction and sustenance – and habitat – the oyamel pine forests in central Mexico for hibernation and reproduction. They sacrifice themselves for the well-being of the next generation: it takes four generations of butterflies to complete the entire cycle of migration. The migration requires tremendous fortitude and persistence for such tiny beings: they weigh about half a gram and have a wing-span about 9 cm.
People also migrate to fulfill basic needs – to earn a decent living, to support their families, to provide opportunities, like education, to the next generation, to escape violence or natural disasters. Unequal development has created conditions in which people are often forced to make difficult choices for purposes of survival and economic well-being. The trip requires tremendous fortitude and persistence to overcome lack of resources, discrimination, solitude, and abuse.
At the seminar I attended, a speaker from the United Nations, pointed out that the flow from Central America and Mexico to the United States is unique in the world; 60% of Latin American migrants are in the US and Canada. In contrast, most international migration is within regions; south-south migration is the most common (50-60% of migrants), mainly people moving to a neighbouring country that has a slightly more prosperous economy, like Nicaraguans migrating to Costa Rica, Malaysians to Singapore, or Zimbabweans to South Africa.
Both migrations adapt to changing conditions
The Monarch Butterflies respond to changes in weather and vegetation – adjusting their calendars and routes to minute changes in conditions. The butterflies are also impacted by human actions. There are indications that the 2012 butterfly population in Mexico is down by about a third, as a result of climate changes and reduction in the habitats needed for their survival.
Human migrations also adjust and respond to changing conditions. At the seminar on human migration I attended, researchers discussed the most recent trends in migration in the region.
About 12 million Mexicans live in the US – about half of those without documentation. Migration from Mexico to the US has always closely followed the employment rates in the USA: when the US economy is expanding, Mexican immigration increases – when the US experiences decline, Mexican migration declines.
Migration of Mexicans to the US appears to have peaked in 2007. Since then the number of Mexicans returning from the US back to Mexico is more than the number going to the US. This is partly a result of the tightening immigration policy and border controls in the US, but it is also a natural outcome of changing economics and demographics. The recession in the US has made it more difficult to find work or the wages have fallen to a point where it is no longer economically viable.
There has also been an increase in the return of long term migrants – those who are returning to Mexico after decades of working in the US. Mexican migration to the US is also declining because the birth rate in Mexico has been falling since the 1970s, and education has been improving. So the number of young people entering the labour force each year is decreasing, and more of these new workers are able to find employment in Mexico.
In contrast, the Central American countries are about one decade behind Mexico in the demographic transition to lower birthrates, and so the small Central American economies cannot absorb all the young people entering the labour market. The wage disparity between Central America and the US continues to be a factor: minimum wage in Central America is between $4-6 per day, while in the US it is $58/day (undocumented workers can be paid less than the federal minimum wage, but the difference is still significant). So the flow of Central Americans continues to be high despite the dangers crossing Mexico and the increased enforcement at the US border. An estimated 140,000 undocumented Central Americans cross Mexico each year heading for the US.
Both migrations are part of the complex pattern of Creation
The beauty, spirit, and determination of the Monarch Butterflies is shared from Mexico to Canada with their extraordinary annual migration. In the same way, may we also learn to appreciate and respond to the beauty, spirit, and determination of the people who migrate in the Americas.
For more information on recent trends in migration, see:
For more information on the Monarch Butterfly migration, see: