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Mourners kneel in prayer around the coffin of environmental activist Homero Gomez Gonzalez at his wake in Ocampo, Michoacan state, Mexico, on Jan. 30, 2020. Relatives of the anti-logging activist who fought to protect the winter habitat of monarch butterflies don't know whether he was murdered or died accidentally, but they say they do know one thing for sure: something bad is happening to rights and environmental activists in Mexico, and people are afraid.

The Associated Press

Hundreds of farmers and agricultural workers thronged the funeral of activist Homero Gomez Gonzalez on Friday, and the homage to him was like a tribute to the monarch butterfly he so staunchly defended.

The butterflies’ annual migration, threatened by logging, avocado farming and climate and environmental change, has also represented a ray of hope and income for the impoverished, pine-clad mountains of Michoacan state.

Nobody worked harder than Mr. Gomez Gonzalez – whose body was found this week at the bottom of a holding pond with a head wound – to stop logging, reforest and bring tourists to the butterflies” wintering grounds.

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In an area where crime, construction work and wood cutting provide some of the only sources of income, Mr. Gomez Gonzalez provided a way out, ensuring income for the communal farmers who actually own the land in the butterfly reserve.

“Thanks to him many of you had work, or more work – those who sell food in the reserve, those who sell their handicrafts, those who bring their horses to carry visitors into the reserve.,” Reverend Saul Saucedo said in the funeral homily.

It may sound like low-wage jobs, but it is that tenuous economy that keeps the pine and fir trees from being cut down and preserves the butterflies’ marvellous migration from the United States and Canada each year.

It also feeds the family of communal farmer Raul Garcia Gonzalez,.

“When there’s no work here, I go out and look for day labour jobs,” the stringy, weather-beaten Garcia Gonzalez said.

Like many of the communal land owners, he fears Mr. Gomez Gonzalez’s death could add to the already bad reputation that drug cartel violence has given to the western state of Michoacan.

“We hope that all the people who come to the reserve will feel safe, because what happened to him was an accident,” the farmer said.

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But the death was not so clear. Autopsy results showed Mr. Gomez Gonzalez drowned in the holding pond after leaving a party Jan. 13, but they also showed he had a head wound.

There would have been no shortage of people for whom life would have been easier if Mr. Gomez Gonzalez wasn’t around.

Mr. Garcia recalled how, in 2019, Mr. Gomez Gonzalez led hundreds of communal farmers in a demonstration in the nearby town of Angangueo to demand the town pay for water it receives from the mountain streams that are born on their properties.

They never got an answer.

While known as a friendly, big-hearted man who liked to pose for photographs surrounded by the swarms of black and orange butterflies that roost in trees here each winter, Mr. Gomez Gonzalez was a leader and a community activist – a dangerous profession in Mexico, where dozens are killed each year.

Son Homero Gomez Valencia, 19, said his father could organize angry, resolute demonstrations, such as the time he led farmers in taking over the state capitol building in the city of Morelia to demand development aid.

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“He fought for his town, and that fills me with pride,” Mr. Gomez Valencia said. “A lot of the things we have are due to that struggle, which took many years. He fought against a thousand things.”

One of those enemies were illegal loggers, who threatened to punch gaps in the protective tree cover needed by the butterflies to survive winter chills. He then persuaded fellow farmers to replant cleared land with trees.

By local accounts, he managed to reforest about 150 hectares of previously cleared land.

“He taught us to be a united people,” his son said.

In Mexico, that can be a dangerous thing to do. London-based Global Witness counted 15 killings of environmental activists in Mexico in 2017 and 14 in 2018. In an October, 2019, report, Amnesty International said 12 had been killed in the first nine months of that year.

“Something strange is happening, because they’re finishing off all the activists, the people who are doing something for society,” said Amado Gomez, the victim’s brother.

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A few hours after the body was found on Wednesday, Michoacan state prosecutors said an initial review indicated a drowning and found no signs of trauma, but a statement on Thursday night said more detailed autopsy results produced evidence of the head injury.

Authorities gave no other information on the injury and did not say how it might have been inflicted. They said an investigation continued, suggesting the case wasn’t considered an accident.

Prosecutors said robbery appeared not to be a potential motive, since about $600 in cash was found on his body.

On Thursday night, mourners in threadbare clothes amid a few candles and simple floral arrangements underscored the tough struggle being played out in the nesting grounds, beset by grinding poverty and gang violence.

“I would like to ask the authorities to do their job and do more to protect activists like my brother, because lately in Mexico a lot of activists have died,” Amado Gomez said. “With his death, not only my family lost a loved one; but the whole world, and the monarch butterfly and the forests lost, too.”

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador described Mr. Gomez Gonzalez’s death as “regrettable” and “painful” in remarks Thursday.

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