Following the Monarch: Columba Gonzalez-Duarte on Butterfly and Human Migrations

June 30, 2021 by Natalia Zdaniuk

At the end of every summer, millions of monarch butterflies travel from Canada and the northeastern United States to a forest in the mountains of Central Mexico where they settle for the winter. Their journey is one of the longest insect migrations in the world, covering close to 3,000 miles over a three-month period. During their hibernation, the butterflies fill the forest with the audible sound of their beating wings, and paper it in orange as they rest in clusters on the ground and tree branches.

It is in this forest, now the Monarch Biosphere Reserve, that recent postdoctoral fellow Columba Gonzalez-Duarte first began her research. While the monarch has long been a source of fascination to both scientists and artists alike, Gonzalez-Duarte brings a new perspective to its study, as she observes the connection between the butterfly’s journey and human migration. Using what she calls a multi-species ethnography, Gonzalez-Duarte studies not only the ecology of the monarch, but also the relationship between the butterfly and people, and its affective and symbolic weight. Through this work, she too began to travel the butterfly’s trajectory, from her home in Mexico, to the U.S. and then Canada, engaging in research that collapses the borders of multiple disciplines and countries.

Gonzalez-Duarte’s  work comes at a crucial time: the population of the monarch butterfly is in sharp decline. This is in large part due to the decrease in the prevalence of milkweed, the butterfly’s host plant, which was once available in abundance in the U.S. and Canada. Gonzalez-Duarte traces this decline back to the North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that paved the way for an increase in agro-ecology, including genetically modified corn crops and the development of pesticides that kill plants such as milkweed. What Gonzalez-Duarte also points to is that NAFTA and the expansion of the GMO corn economy also saw the displacement of Mexican farmers that could not compete with large scale agriculture. With this came the subsequent increase in Mexican labour migration North, following a trajectory much like the monarch’s.

In the case of NAFTA, the symbolic weight of the butterfly was also significant. “NAFTA itself was the first one that mobilized the monarch,” Gonzalez-Duarte explains, pointing out how the butterfly was used by NAFTA as a symbol of breaking down trade borders (while enforcing migration borders). It was also used as a logo for one of NAFTA’s initiatives – The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC).

The CEC declared five sanctuaries for the monarch butterfly in Mexico and three protected areas including Ontario’s Point Peele National Park – another area significant to Gonzalez-Duarte’s research. Here too she uncovers the important ties between the patterns of people’s movements and the monarch’s, including the increase of Mexican migrant workers living adjacent to the park in Leamington, and the Anishinabek community that was displaced from the land in the early 1900s. “The Anishinabek communities which I have worked with in Point Peele say that they also used to move across borders in similar patterns as the monarch butterfly does”, Gonzalez-Duarte explains. This human mobility or seasonal migration, which became impossible after the establishment of US/Canada borders, once ensured that the land and resources would not be exhausted and served to protect the habitat and its species.

Through her conversations with Indigenous communities across North America, Gonzalez-Duarte traces the negative impacts on butterfly migration to the start of colonialism. It becomes clear, as she notes, “that land displacement and the displacement of knowledge ends up affecting other species as well”. For Gonzalez-Duarte, the potential of restoring Indigenous land and knowledge could have a positive impact on the survival of all species, butterflies and humans included. “The idea of territory in more fluid terms,” she says, “is something that we should definitely explore as a form of finding solutions for our ecological crisis.”

Indeed, by following the monarch’s migration, Gonzalez-Duartehas observed many hopeful moments for positive change. This includes migrant rights groups using the symbol of the butterfly in resistance to anti-migration policies, and butterfly enthusiasts growing milkweed in their yards and speaking out against industries contributing to climate change. Sometimes these groups come together, such as at the Minneapolis Monarch Festival – an event that promotes milkweed cultivation, migration as a human right, Indigenous culture, and the consumption of Mexican native corn. These events reveal the interconnection of many political, natural, and social systems, but for Gonzalez-Duarte they also show the strength of meaning and sense of relationship that humans feel for the Monarch butterfly.

This observation of feeling, or affect, plays a significant role in both Gonzalez-Duarte’s research and teaching. While a postdoc at the department, she developed and taught a first-year seminar course called “Tracking Insect Life”, where she encouraged students to explore how they felt about and perceived different insects. She and her students asked themselves questions such as Why do we fear insects? and Why do we perceive a butterfly one way, a cockroach another? Through these discussions students gained insight about complex ideas and systems in our world, exploring topics such as race, class, and gender, in a way they could feel connected to.

As for Gonzalez-Duarte’s own personal and emotional relationship to the monarch, it’s this act of reflection that she believes makes her a stronger researcher:

“… once I found myself following this butterfly and at certain moments acknowledging that we were … migrating in the same pattern – that it was possible that a monarch that was born in Pointe Peele in late Summer probably would be, as I was, going to be in Mexico next Winter… Those sort of connections between my own positionality and the way this insect migrates [made me realize] that I have an affective relationship with this butterfly… [and] that has enhanced how I think as a scholar.”

Gonzalez-Duarte’s journey has now taken her to Halifax, where she is Assistant Professor at Mount Saint Vincent University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. There, through her research, she continues to follow the geographies of the Monarch.

Columba Gonzalez-Duarte gained a postdoctoral fellowship at the Department of Geography & Planning at the University of Toronto and the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity from 2019-2020. In the Spring of 2020 she joined Mount Saint Vincent University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, in Halifax Nova Scotia, as assistant professor, while continuing her research project, Convergent Migrations. She has recently published an article critiquing the UNESCO reserve model and a popular piece on a recent Indigenous uprising in this reserve.