Mexcaltitán, a magical island town in Nayarit

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Nov 102014
 

A short distance north of San Blas, in Nayarit, is a small island called Mexcaltitán. With barely four thousand inhabitants, it would scarcely be expected to have any real link to Mexico City, the world’s greatest metropolis of some twenty million people. But it does, and the link is to be found in the amazing story of the founding in 1325 of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, the city which was later conquered and sacked by the Spanish and rebuilt as Mexico City.

The island and village of Mexcaltián, Nayarit

The island and village of Mexcaltián, Nayarit

Historians have long wondered about the origins of the Mexica people, or Aztecs as they later became known. There is virtually no evidence of them before they founded the highly organized city of Tenochtitlan in 1325. Clearly such a civilization cannot just have sprung up overnight. So, where did they come from? Mexica (Aztec) legend tells of a long pilgrimage, lasting hundreds of years, from Aztlán, the cradle of their civilization, a pilgrimage during which they looked for a sign to tell them where to found their new capital and ceremonial center. The sign they were looking for was an eagle, perched on a cactus. Today, this unlikely combination, with the eagle now devouring a serpent, is a national symbol and appears on the national flag.

Map showing location of Marismas Nacionales

Map showing location of Marismas Nacionales

In recent years more and more evidence suggests that Aztlán may be far from mythical and that Mexcaltitán, the island in Nayarit, could be its original site. Ancient codices (pre-Columbian hand-painted manuscripts) prove that the Aztecs’ search for a new place to live was ordained by Huitzilopochtli, their chief god. It began in about AD1111 when they departed from an island in the middle of a lake. Their two hundred year journey took them through present-day Nayarit, Durango, Zacatecas, Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato and Querétaro, and they may well have rested awhile on encountering familiar-looking islands in the middle of lakes such as Chapala and Pátzcuaro.

One of Huitzilopochtli’s alternative names was Mexitli and the current spelling of Mexcaltitán could be interpreted as “Home of Mexitli”, or thus, “Home of Huitzilopochtli”. In fairness, it should be pointed out that if the original spelling was Metzcaltitán (and “tz” often became transliterated to “x” down the centuries), then the meaning would become “Place next to the home of the Moon”.

Whatever the etymology of the name, early codices such as the Boturini Codex show the early Aztecs setting out from an Aztlán surrounded by water, in small canoes. The Mendoza Codex, depicting life in Tenochtitlan, has illustrations of similar canoes and, in both codices, the canoes and method of propulsion by punting show remarkable similarity to the present-day canoes of Mexcaltitán. Visitors to the island still have to undertake a canoe or panga ride to reach the village and it is an intriguing thought that the Mexica/Aztecs were doing exactly the same over eight hundred and fifty years ago.

Further evidence comes from an old map of New Spain. Drawn by Ortelius in 1579, it shows Aztlán to be exactly where Mexcaltitán is to be found today, though perhaps at the time this was largely conjecture.

The street plan of Mexcaltitán, best appreciated from the air, is equally fascinating. Two parallel streets cross the oval-shaped island from north to south, and two from east to west, with the modern plaza in the middle, where they intersect. The only other street runs around the island in a circle, parallel to and not far from the water’s edge. This street may have been the coastline of the island years ago and may even have been fortified against the invading waters of the rising lake each rainy season. Today, as then, for several months in summer the streets become canals, bounded by the high sidewalks each side and Mexcaltitán becomes Mexico’s mini-Venice as all travel has to be by canoe.

This street pattern has cosmic significance. It divides the village into four quarters or sectors each representing a cardinal point, reflecting the Mexica conception of the world. The center can be identified with the Sun, the giver of all life. The Spanish, as was their custom, built their church there, and today the central plaza with its bandstand is the obvious focal point of the community. Small shops, a billiards hall, a modern, well-laid out museum, and an administrative office complete the central area of the village.

 

Mexcaltitán pen and ink drawing by Michael Eager

Mexcaltitán (pen and ink drawing by Michael Eager from chapter 26 of Western Mexico, A Traveler’s Treasury). All rights reserved.

Low houses, of adobe, brick and cement, line the dirt streets and extend right down to the water’s edge, in some cases even over the water’s edge into the surrounding lake, on stilts. Land on the island is at a premium and, with an ever-growing population, saturation point is very near.

A century ago, the locals turned on some foreigners who came to hunt female egrets, valued for their plumes back in the days when feathers adorned fashionable ladies’ hats. Today, provided only photos are taken, all visitors are welcomed! The villagers celebrate one of the most unusual and distinctive fiestas in all of Latin America. On 29 June each year they organize a regatta which consists of a single race between just two canoes, though naturally hundreds of other pangas are filled with spectators. One of the competing canoes carries the statue of Saint Peter from the local church, the other carries Saint Paul.

Elaborate preparations precede the race. The village streets are festooned with paper streamers and the two canoes are lavishly decorated by rival families carrying on an age-old tradition. The Ortíz family is responsible for St. Peter’s canoe, the Galindo family for St. Paul’s. The statues of the two saints are taken from the church and carried in procession to the boats. A pair of punters has previously been chosen from among the young men of the village for each boat. The punters have been suitably fortified for the contest with local delicacies such as steamed fish, shrimp empanadas, and the local specialty, tlaxtihuile, a kind of shrimp broth. Each boat, in addition to the punters and the statue of the saint, carries a priest to ensure fair play. The race starts from the middle of the eight kilometer long lake after a short religious service in which the priests bless the lake and pray for abundant shrimp and fish during the coming year. Then surrounding spectator canoes, some with musical bands, and others shooting off fireworks, move aside and the race begins.

Nowadays, St. Peter and St. Paul take it in turns to win, most considerate in view of the violence which years ago marred the post-race celebrations when the race was fought competitively. The ceremonial regatta safely over, land based festivities continue well into the night.

A canoe ride around the island takes about 30 minutes and provides numerous photo opportunities as well as many surprises including a close-up view of the island’s only soccer pitch—in the middle of the lake, under half a meter of water. The local children are, perhaps not surprisingly, expert “water soccer” players, a fun sport to watch.

Even if you’re not interested in the island’s past and are unable to see it on fiesta day, your trip to Mexcaltitán will be memorable. This extraordinary island and its village have to be seen to be believed.

The island is reached from the Tepic-Mazatlán highway, Highway 15. There are two alternatives. The northern route is signposted 73 kilometers north of Tepic; it starts with 26 kilometers of paved road crossing swampy paddy fields, followed by 16 kilometers of well-graded dirt road to Ticha, the landing-stage for boats to the island. The drive is through a naturalist’s paradise, teeming with wildlife. The equally scenic southern route begins 57 kilometers from Tepic and is via Santiago Ixcuintla (basic hotels only; don’t miss visiting the center for Huichol Indian culture and crafts) and Sentispac. It leads to the La Batanga landing-stage, and is fully paved.

Note:

This post is based on chapter 26 of my “Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury” (link is to Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature), also available as a Kindle edition or Kobo ebook.

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The 2014 Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 off-road race

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Nov 082014
 

Entrants in the 2014 Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 off-road race have to complete a grueling off-road route that runs almost the entire length of the Baja California Peninsula. The race starts in Ensenada, Baja California, and ends in La Paz, Baja California Sur (see map). The approximate point-to-point distance is 1820 kilometers (1,130 miles). The 47th Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 race is being held this year from 12-16 November.

Route of Score 1000 Baja off-road race

Route of Score 1000 Baja off-road race

The race gives us a good excuse to offer this brief introduction to the geography of the very long, narrow Baja California Peninsula, which stretches for about 1150 km (700 mi).

In the north, it is composed of mostly granite, while the south is mostly marine sediments and lava.

To the east of the peninsula, the Sea of Cortés (Gulf of California) occupies a trough resulting from a series of faults which are linked to the famous San Andreas Fault system in California. Prior to the opening up of the Gulf of California, the peninsula was attached to the mainland. There are several volcanic islands in the Gulf.

The backbone of the peninsula is a crystalline mountain system with many peaks exceeding 1500 m (5000 ft) and some reaching as high as 3000 m (10,000 ft). The mountains have longer, gentler western slopes and steeper more rugged eastern slopes. Thus, as viewed from the Gulf of California, the Baja Mountains and the Western Sierra Madre look steep, foreboding and very rugged, while from the other side they look more subdued.

Climatically, almost the entire peninsula is extremely arid and forms the western part of the Sonoran Desert. It receives only limited and infrequent rainfall. However, the southern part of the peninsula does experience the occasional hurricane (such as Hurricane Odile earlier this year) which brings powerful winds and torrential downpours.

Population is distributed very unevenly on the Baja California Peninsula. The heaviest concentration of people is found in the extreme north, close to the U.S. border, a region which includes the cities of Tijuana, Mexicali and Ensenada. There are very low densities of population in most of the middle section of the peninsula, where the most important settlements include Guerrero Negro, Santa Rosalía,Ciudad Insurgentes and Ciudad Constitución.

The southern portion of the peninsula has attracted more settlement and this area, which includes San José del Cabo, Cabo San Lucas, La Paz and Todos Santos, is one of Mexico’s premier tourism regions.

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The regional geography of music in Mexico

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Nov 062014
 

Here are brief descriptions of some of the most commonly heard forms of regional music within Mexico. What you hear depends on where you travel!

Mariachi

For many decades, mariachi has been widely considered to be the quintessential Mexican folk-music genre, and has become an important symbol of Mexican music and culture.

A mariachi band is a term used to describe an ensemble band of five or more musicians that wear the traditional costume of a charro or Mexican cowboy. The costume consists of a waist-length jacket, tightly fitted pants and boots and a large sombrero. The jacket, pants and sombrero are elaborately decorated with colorful metal ornaments and intricate embroidered designs.

The unique sound of mariachi music is created by combining trumpets, violins, and guitars with two traditional Mexican instruments, the vihuela and the guitarrón. The music is characterized by loud, hard driving rhythms, spirited melodies and humorous lyrics. Shouts and cries (gritos) are periodically given while a song is being sung, giving the music an additional lively character.

Music and dance in Mexico.

Music and dance in Mexico. Fig 13.3 of Geo-Mexico, the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. All rights reserved.

Ranchera

Another very popular Mexican music form is the ranchera (ranch song), which originated during the time of the Mexican Revolution. It is basically cowboy music, and the singers dress in the traditional style of the Mexican horseman with tight breeches, jacket, boots, gun holsters and a large sombrero.

The lyrics of ranchera songs typically deal with rural life, unrequited love, or about the struggles of ordinary people living in the country. The songs are sometimes joyous and sometimes nostalgic or tragic, and are often sung in a very dramatic and passionate manner, with the singer crying out “Ay, ay, ay, ay, ay!” at various points.

Norteña

Another popular music genre, particularly in northern Mexico, is the norteña. This form of music has its origins in the ballads that were traditionally sung by people living along the USA-Mexico border. This music style is typically a hybrid of many other musical forms, including the waltz, polka, and country music.

Norteña is high energy music, driven by the accordion and the booming bass sound of the bajo sexto, a large 12-string guitar. The lyrics of norteña songs typically deal with stories of life along the border, illegal immigrants, outlaws and desperados, drug dealers (narcotraficantes), corrupt public officials, rejected lovers, etc.

Many norteña bands are quite large, with a full horn section and strings. The genre’s most famous group, Los Tigres del Norte has cultivated a large number of fans both in Mexico and in the USA.

Banda

Banda (Band) refers to the form of music played by large brass ensembles that first appeared in the northern Mexican state of Sinaloa several decades ago. A typical banda ensemble features trumpets, trombones, tubas and percussion instruments, and may include keyboards. String instruments are used sparingly, if at all. Banda sounds somewhat similar to American Big Band music, but with a distinctive Hispanic twist.

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What are Mexico’s leading exports?

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Nov 032014
 

The table shows the destinations of Mexico’s major export flows, excluding petroleum-related exports, for the first five months of 2014. (All data from Pro-Mexico.) It is no surprise that Mexico’s two main export partners are the USA and Canada, its partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but the other countries in the list are far harder to guess, and even most economists would struggle to get them in the right order!

Mexico's leading exports by country, Jan-May 2014 (Pro-Mexico, 2014)

Mexico’s leading exports by country, Jan-May 2014 (Pro-Mexico, 2014)

Spain, on account of its colonial dominance and shared language, has long been a major destination for Mexican exports, whereas China (#4 on the list) is a recent entry, and one that has risen rapidly in importance for a wide variety of products. The other Asian countries on the list of the top 15 export destinations are Japan, India and South Korea.

All the remaining top 15 destinations for Mexican exports are in either Europe or Latin America.

In terms of the items exported, vehicles of various categories clearly lead the way by a wide margin, while various electrical or electronic items (telephones, televisions, computers) are also important. It appears that Japanese consumers must like Mexican pork, since that is Mexico’s leading export to Japan.

And who would have guessed that Mexico also exports significant quantities of iron and steel waste to India, or lead minerals to Italy?

For more details of Mexican exports, and a link to an interactive webpage about Mexico’s foreign trade since 1964, see our previous post Trends in Mexico’s foreign trade and Economic Complexity.

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How does Mexico’s water footprint compare to that of other countries?

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Oct 292014
 

In a previous post, we saw how Mexico is a major net importer of “virtual” water. In this post we take a closer look at Mexico’s water footprint. The data throughout this post come from The Water footprint of Mexico in the context of North America (pdf file).

Individual products each have their own water footprint in terms of the total amount of water involved in their production, processing and marketing. For example a single cup of coffee represents (on average) a water footprint of 140 liters. Other water footprints include:

  • A single letter-sized sheet of paper – 10 liters
  • Microchip – 32 liters
  • Pair of leather shoes – 8000 liters
  • Glass of milk 200 liters
  • Glass of wine 120 liters
  • Tomato 13 liters
  • Hamburger (150 gram) 2400 liters

From numbers like these, it is possible to calculate the water footprint for an individual consumer in a particular country, and also for an average consumer in each country.

How does the water footprint in Mexico compare to other countries?

The water footprint of Mexico (WWF 2012)

The water footprint of Mexico (WWF 2012)

The graphic shows that Mexico’s total water footprint (all consumers) is 197,425 Hm³, of which 92% is agricultural, 3% industrial and 5% domestic. Only 57% of Mexico’s water footprint is internal, the remaining 43% is external (ie water used in other countries to make or produce items imported into Mexico). The average water footprint per person in Mexico comes to 5419 liters/day (or 1978 m³/year).

The global average water footprint (all countries, all consumers) in 2010 was 1,385 m³/y. However, some countries have much higher average water footprint/persons than others. For example, the average consumer in the USA has a water footprint of 2,842 m³/y, whereas in China and India the average water footprints are 1,071 and 1,089 m³/y respectively.

The water footprint of an average consumer worldwide  is primarily determined by their consumption of cereal products (contributes 27% to the average water footprint), followed by meat (22%) and milk products (7%).

It should be remembered that countries which heavily rely on foreign water resources may have significant impacts on water consumption and pollution elsewhere.

Full report:

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Oct 272014
 

The following account of Mexico’s traditional (folkloric) and introduced musical instruments consists of extracts from an article by Andrea Teter. [1]

Pre-Columbian instruments

Archaeologists have noted the existence of more than 1,400 musical instruments used in pre-Columbian Mexico and Central America. These were used primarily for religious, and healing rituals and for ceremonies, but also for war, dances, fiestas and entertainment. Some of these instruments, primarily the huehuetl, and teponaztli, both percussion, and the tlapitzalli, a four-hole flute, were considered divine or endowed with supernatural powers, say Mexican archeologists, and were worshiped as idols.

Teponaztli

Teponaztli

The Mexica (Aztecs) used flutes and trumpets made of clay, bamboo and metal. Drums, including the ayotl, made of tortoise shells, and other percussion instruments were used extensively. The huehuetl was the principal drum used by the Mexica and was made from animal skin stretched over a hollowed-out tree trunk. The teponaztli was made from hollowed-out trees or dried gourds, and sometimes gold and silver, with grooves or tongues cut into the top. Rich and varied tones are produced when played with small mallets. Pre-Columbian musicians also used cymbals, maracas, bells and even stones to produce their music.

The Youtube clip below is one interpretation of what some of Mexico’s indigenous musical instruments may have sounded like when played:

Europeans arrive

With the invasion of the Spanish, these musical instruments were immediately used to help convert the indigenous population to Christianity, while the Conquistadors began introducing European musical methods and instruments. A Franciscan missionary, Pedro de Gante, established the first music school in Mexico in 1523 and trained students in the construction and playing of European instruments.

Little by little, all of the European instruments were introduced to Latin America, starting in the 16th century with organs, guitars, harps and flutes, and later followed by the violins, trumpets, mandolins and accordions. Especially important and influential were guitars, which rose to prominence in the seventeenth century, as an easier-to-play alternative to the lute.

Six-string guitars, viheulas, became extremely popular in Mexico with other instruments of the same family also put into general use: five-string charangos, tiples, or treble guitars, and a large 12-string guitar similar to a bass, the bajo sexto.

Another string instrument that became popular in Mexico was the mandolin. The mandolin, which comes from Southern Italy, is the most recent development of the lute family. It was popularized in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Verdi’s “Othello”.

The salterio, originally from Egypt, is a stringed instrument a little larger than a briefcase with a sound resembling a harpsichord and a playing method resembling a steel guitar or autoharp. The musician plucks the 97 strings while it rests on his knees; the sound is unique and quite beautiful.

Once the Spanish began importing slaves from Africa, these blacks began constructing marimbas, which imitated the African xylophone. As early as 1545, a Spanish scribe in the state of Chiapas wrote of an instrument of eight wood bars played with heavy sticks by the local natives at tribal ceremonies. The modern sophisticated Mexican marimbas was developed by Chiapas musician Corazon Borraz, who in 1896 brilliantly added a second row of half-tone bars to the common single row (like a piano’s black keys) adding to the musical scope of the original instrument, allowing it to play more complex music.

marimba

A marimba band: two marimbas plus guitar and drums

Today, a concert marimba can be three meters long, have 70 keys and weigh more than 55 kilos. This grand instrument demands four musicians; the bass man at the wide end with two sticks or baguetas having small rubber balls on the striking tips. This end has long resonance boxes hanging below the sound keys. Then the harmonics man with one or two sticks in each hand above shorter resonance boxes. Then comes the melody maker and leader, wielding two sticks per hand; then the narrow end controlled by the treble master, a stick in each hand producing counterpoint to the melody. Talk about a compact orchestra!

The variety of instruments Mexican musicians and composers have access to has resulted in a distinctive music for this country. At least one Mexican composer, Carlos Chavez, has gained international fame with his integration of Mexican pre-Hispanic instruments in his works such as “Sinfonia India,” “Xochipilli” and “Macuilxochitl.”

Some Mexican composers have been even more innovative. For example, Julián Carrillo (nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1950), one of Mexico’s top violinists, invented a microtonal music system known as Sonido 13. The system became sufficiently famous that Carrillo’s birthplace in the state of San Luis Potosí felt obliged to rename itself Ahualulco del Sonido 13: an interesting place to visit for any geographers interested in microtonal music! Ahualulco del Sonido 13 is located 39 kilometers northwest of the city of San Luis Potosí. Leaving that city, first follow federal highway 49 towards Zacatecas and then turn north on the road signed Charcas.

Note:

[1] The bibliographic details for Andrea Teter’s article are currently unknown. Please contact us if you are able to supply any further information about these extracts, so that we can update to include the full reference.

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Migration and remittances: an index page

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Oct 252014
 

Remittances (the funds sent by migrant workers back to their families) are a major international financial flow into Mexico. Remittances bring more than 21 billion dollars a year into the economy, an amount equivalent to 2.5% of Mexico’s GDP.

For an introduction, with links to some of the key pages on this blog, see

Causes and trends:

How do remittances work?

Impacts of Mexican migrants on the USA and Canada:

Links between communities – “migration channels”.

The five major “states of origin”—Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, San Luis Potosí and Zacatecas:

What happens to migrants who are deported back to Mexico?

Changes in Mexico that may impact migration:

Internal migration:

Foreign migrants living in Mexico:

Practical Exercise (Mapwork):

This index page is updated periodically.

 Posted by at 6:37 am  Tagged with:
Oct 232014
 

The online Atlas of Economic Complexity is now interactive, allowing users to choose and combine a large number of variables related to imports, exports, date and country. In the webpage’s own words, it is “a powerful interactive tool that enables users to visualize a country’s total trade, track how these dynamics change over time and explore growth opportunities for more than a hundred countries worldwide.”

What is economic complexity?

A country with a high Economic Complexity has a wide range of complex knowledge capabilities related to productive enterprises. Its economy is likely to produce sophisticated products that require a very wide and diverse set of knowledge capabilities. For example, relatively few countries have the capabilities to produce highly complex chemicals or pharmaceuticals, since their production requires very specialized equipment and very precise measuring instruments. Equally, very few countries have nuclear power stations or space stations, since they lack the range of knowledge capabilities needed to build them. At the other end, a very large number of countries have far less complex economies that are capable of producing simple products (basic foods, mineral ores, lumber, garments, shoes, glass, kitchen utensils, furniture) but not products involving more complicated processes or technology

We first discussed the Atlas in 2012 in How “complex” is the Mexican economy?, when we noted that the Atlas ranked Mexico’s Economic Complexity Index (ECI) as #20 of the 128 countries studied. The interactive nature of the online Atlas has added the opportunity to explore many more trends in trade, generating a range of related, visually-appealing infographics.

In particular, choosing Mexico as the country, the Atlas can answer questions such as:

  • What does Mexico import and export?
  • How has Mexico’s trade evolved over time?
  • What are the drivers of Mexico’s export growth?
  • Which new industries are likely to emerge in Mexico? Which are likely to disappear?
  • What are the GDP growth prospects of Mexico over the next 5-10 years, based on its productive capabilities?

Playing with the variables and dates in the Atlas is a really interesting way to explore just how Mexico’s exports and imports have changed over the years. For example, compare these infographics for Mexico’s exports in 1964 and 2010 respectively:

What_did_Mexico_export_in_1964_

Mexico’s exports in 1964

Mexico's exports in 2010

Mexico’s exports in 2010

It is sometimes hard to imagine just how much Mexico has changed in the past fifty years! Overall, at rank #20, Mexico turns out to have an unusually high Economic Complexity Index given its income level. (All the other countries in the top 20 have significantly higher incomes than Mexico).

According to the Atlas, during the rest of this decade Mexico’s GDP should grow relatively rapidly, bringing its GDP rank more in line with its Economic Complexity Index. In general, analyses in the Atlas indicate that during the last few decades countries with higher than expected ECIs compared to their income levels experience more rapid economic growth.

Note, though, that while this relationship is empirically true, it does not explicitly include other factors thought to be important to economic growth such as governance and institutional quality, corruption, political stability, measures of human capital and competitiveness indicators.

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Oct 202014
 

Which of Mexico’s states have the fastest growing economies? The map below, based on INEGI data, shows each state’s percentage change in GDP for the three year period from 31 March 2011 to 31 March 2014.

Change in GDP by state, 2011-2014. Data: INEGI. Credit: Geo-Mexico

Change in GDP by state, 2011-2014. Data: INEGI. Credit: Geo-Mexico

Only one state – Campeche – registered “negative growth” over the period. In Campeche, production from the oil fields that have long been a mainstay of the local economy has been gradually declining.

Besides Campeche, six states grew far slower than the average for Mexico: Durango, Veracruz, Tabasco, Chiapas and Guerrero. Not entirely coincidentally, several of these states are among the poorest in the nation, so their failure to grow as quickly as the average leaves them further behind, increasing the economic inequalities that plague Mexico’s development.

At the other end of the spectrum, the economic growth of six states – Sonora, Chihuahua, Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Michoacán and Querétaro – easily outpaced the average for the country. Sonora, Chihuahua, Guanjuato, Querétaro, and to a lesser extent Aguascalientes, all benefited from foreign direct investments and new industries, such as those involved in  the vehicle manufacturing and aeronautical sectors.

The case of Michoacán is something of an anomaly, since that state’s economy is still heavily dependent on primary products such as avocados and iron ore. The positive growth in that state may prove to be mainly due to its negative growth in the preceding three years (2008-2011), which meant that it started the three year period shown on the map at an unusually low level. Perhaps more importantly, given the state’s recent political upheavals and gang-related violence, it is highly unlikely that Michoacán will continue to grow anywhere as quickly over the next three years.

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Are Monarch Butterflies in danger of extinction?

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Oct 182014
 

As a species, monarchs are native to North America, but subsequently island-hopped their way around the world—across the Pacific to Hawaii, Tonga, Samoa, Australia and New Zealand, and across the Atlantic to Europe. In parts of Mexico, particularly in the area around Lake Chapala, there is a healthy population of non-migrating monarch butterflies; these butterflies can count on year-round access to milkweed plants on which to lay their eggs. As a result, it is reasonable to conclude that the species itself is in no danger of extinction.

However, what may be “endangered” is the annual migration of Monarch Butterflies to and from Mexico. This annual migration is categorized as an “endangered phenomenon” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Threats to the migration come from climatic change and extremes, as well as from the impacts of human activity. In some years, unusually cold snaps and hailstorms have caused the premature death of millions of butterflies, though, as yet, this has had little if any discernible effect on total monarch numbers. Human activity has greatly reduced the area of the monarchs’ natural overwintering habitats, in both California, for real estate developments, and in Michoacán, due to forest clearance for timber and agriculture. Farming activities in the US have also resulted in the loss of milkweed along the Monarchs’ migratory pathways. This loss may have far more serious consequences on the long-term viability of the annual migration. Without milkweed, the female Monarchs are unable to lay their eggs on a suitable host plant, and the Monarch caterpillars will never acquire their chemical defenses against predation.

The numbers of Monarchs overwintering in Mexico have varied greatly from one year to the next. The graph below, reproduced widely in the press, has been used as evidence that the numbers of migrating Monarchs are in sharp decline. A note of caution is needed, though, since the estimates of numbers used for the graph are based on the area of trees occupied by the butterflies, and not on a direct count (which is clearly impractical!)

Monarch-Trends-1994-2013

The challenge for researchers is to be certain that the density and architecture of trees is similar from one year to the next. If the trees are less densely grouped, for example, one year than the next, in the particular areas occupied by the butterflies, then the area the butterflies need will be correspondingly larger. The lower area in recent years could be at least partially explained by a higher tree density in the overwintering areas, allowing the same number of butterflies to co-exist in closer proximity to each other.

This is not to say that there is not cause for concern. According to the National University (UNAM)’s Environmental Geography Research Center, at current rates of deforestation, the area of overwintering sites for the Monarch butterflies could be reduced by 75% in the next 18 years, leaving just 12,000 ha of suitable habitat. The protected area, established in 2000, covers 560 square kilometers (56,000 ha. or 216 sq. mi) but includes land cleared for pasture, settlement and cultivation. Researcher José López García claims the reserve is losing 3% of its forest each year. He blames clearance and changes of land use more than illegal logging. The rate of forest clearance has been exacerbated by a rapid rise in the population of the El Rosario ejido. El Rosario is the gateway to the most-visited part of the reserve, attracting thousands of tourists annually. The ejido’s population rose by an average of 5.65%/year between 2005 and 2010.

What is Mexico doing about this?

The Mexican conservation strategies for the butterflies are designed to protect their overwintering habitat and provide alternative sources of revenue and employment for local campesinos who depend on the land and forest for their livelihood. After some doubtful years in the early 1980s, there is now a system of formally protected monarch butterfly reserves, and concerted conservation efforts to prevent further destruction of the monarchs’ unique overwintering habitat.

The modest entrance fees to Monarch Butterfly reserves help fund development projects in the local communities. There is a strict code of conduct for tourists to prevent noise, littering and straying from the well-marked paths.

While the new rules have undoubtedly had some success, it is still preferable to visit, if at all possible, during the week and not at the weekend when the reserves are at their crazily busiest.

On a quiet day,pausing to catch your breath in the peace of the forest as you climb the trail, you will then be just as surprised as I first was when you realize that the gentle swishing sound you can hear around you is not the sound of the wind blowing through the tree limbs but the sound caused by millions of tiny wings beating as the butterflies flutter about in the sky.

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