Last November, Monarch butterflies finished their epic 3,000-mile annual pilgrimage from North America to Mexico. By the time they left again in spring, the man who protected them was gone.
Homero Gómez Gonzalez was one of the best-known guardians of the monarch butterfly in Mexico. In January, his body was found in a well. Three days later, another guide at a monarch butterfly reserve was also found dead.
Homero often had his arms wide open. In the videos from his reserve, he'd stand in a golden hurricane of wings, inviting tourists from around the world to come see this "maravilla" of the butterflies. This "marvel" of nature.
'Every year, more people are killed defending the environment than are soldiers from the United Kingdom and Australia on overseas deployments in war zones combined.'
'The supply chain of violence' report, 2019
But the reserve had been under threat for decades. Illegal loggers were carving off, acre by acre, lush green forest for timber, often replacing it with avocado plantations: Mexico's 'green gold'.
Gómez, once a logger himself, had been outspoken against such practices. So when he disappeared, friends feared that the organised gangs who control much of this illegal trade were behind it.
In the shadows of such gangs are often the politicians or businessmen who stand to profit from deforestation. Then there's the police, vulnerable to bribery and intimidation. When Gómez went missing, prosecutors detained the entire 53-strong police force of Ocampo and neighbouring Angangueo for questioning.
Avocado export worth to the Mexican economy
But despite his media portrayal as a "saint", Gómez was also a controversial man.
He drew a lot of attention to himself, and could come across as a "buccaneering self-promoter". There was resentment around his lack of transparency as former leader of the El Rosario community ejido: a traditional Mexican collectivist arrangement where residents share ownership of the land and its bounty. He had also asked the nearby town of Angangueo for payments in return for water they received from clear mountain streams that survive only because the forests are protected.
Caught in the midst of all this? The butterflies.
In their overwintering groves, there were once so many monarchs that the sound of their wings was like a rippling stream or summer rain. Branches would break under their weight. But their numbers are plummeting.
To many ancient and modern cultures, butterflies represent the human soul or spirit set free. What happens to humanity and the world when we let these souls disappear - both the butterflies and those who defend them?
“In this system, it’s easy for a leader to become abusive with the community’s income...I don’t know why he was killed, but because of the non-transparent management of the ejido he had a lot of enemies.”
Anonymous Michoacán conservationist
Photo credit: Washington Post
“A lot of the communal land owners fear that with his death, the forests are finished.”
Amado Gómez, Homero's brother
This story is not just about the tragic, unjust loss of two men, but what they stood and worked for: a habitable world that values nature and life over corruption, exploitation and destruction.
What will the forests, the community, look like when the butterflies return in November on the Day of the Dead? Will they recognise it?