In the northern piedmont, there are numerous urban invasions (Photo: Rodolfo Castillo)
Unfortunately, among most citizens, Loma El León Natural Monument is one of the least-known protected areas in western Venezuela. Even the local residents and authorities do not have knowledge of its existence. The monument does not have much strength as a protected area, and is currently critically threatened. Unless urgent action is taken, there is a risk the monument will fail to protect its biological diversity in the near future. The threats to the natural characteristics of the monument and its biological diversity include the following:
• Urban invasions, expansion of the city of Barquisimeto
• Extraction of nonmetallic minerals
• Lack of personnel and infrastructure
Urban Invasions, Expansion of the City of Barquisimeto
Loma El León Natural Monument is found in the urban expansion area of Barquisimeto. Its creation is justified by the need to protect arid ecosystems that serve as a refuge for endemic and endangered species (Republic of Venezuela, 1990). As a consequence of its location in an area of urban expansion, where residents are ignorant of its existence as a protected area, people with few economic resources have illegally built numerous homes within the monument, creating settlements known as barrios. The only neighborhood or human settlement that began before the creation of the monument (in 1989) is Barrio La Batalla, located in the northeast, with approximately 200 families. Barrio La Batalla is considered the only legal settlement.
All of the neighborhoods are north of the monument, near the limits of Barquisimeto. Toward the northwest, in a part of the monument known as El Martillo, are the settlements of Asprado, Valle Verde I, Valle Verde II, and La Batalla, in addition to the Barquisimeto–Quíbor highway, which constitutes the principal mode of transportation in the zone. Toward the northeast are the settlements of Brisas del Turbio, La Paz, 5 de Julio, Los Naranjos, El Coriano, El Tostado, La Lucha, Los Robles, Loma de León, Alí Primera, and Los Pocitos.
Almost without exception, the Mayor’s Office of the municipality of Iribarren (Barquisimeto) and the government of Lara State have provided all of the communities with municipal water, sewer, and electric services; roads; schools; and police stations. This infrastructure exhibits a total lack of coordination between local politics and ordinances and the national politics of conservation. Apparently, this lack of coordination was fed by the partial decategorization of the Barquisimeto Protected Zone, located in the surrounding areas (including Loma El León), which created problems of interpretation regarding the existence of the natural monument.
It is important to note, Barquisimeto lacks a zoning or urban development plan for the expansion of the city. Such a plan would take into account the limitations of the natural environment and the existence of protected areas where urban development is not permitted.
Barquisimeto is the fourth largest city in Venezuela. It contains more than half of the population of Lara State and has a growth rate higher than the national growth rate of 2.2% (INE, 2001), indicating that the city is growing at a relatively accelerated pace.
One of the principal consequences of urban invasion is the fragmentation and loss of habitat, principally in El Martillo sector. Formations of scrub forest are found here, which contain plant species that serve as food for the black-hooded red siskin. Even though this species is not cataloged within the monument, Loma El León theoretically forms part of its distribution range (García and Salazar, not dated; Smith and Rivero, 1983).
To a lesser degree, activities carried out by some of the residents are incompatible with the goals of the protected area. One of these activities is goat herding; there are primarily two goat ranches, one to the northeast in La Batalla and another to the west of the Barquisimeto–Buena Vista highway. Another activity is agribusiness or horticulture, conducted partially within the monument in the El Martillo sector.
The Barqusimieto–Quíbor highway passes through the monument in El Martillo sector
Lateral view of a satellite image showing Barismiqueto's southwest expansion (Source: GoogleTM Earth 2005)
Extraction of Nonmetallic Minerals
Within the monument, granzón, a small stone, is extracted, mixed with sand and cement, and used in the construction of houses. This material is principally extracted from the La Mosquera Gorge through which a stream bed flows when periodic precipitation events occur; the stream bed is dry most of the year. This gorge is located to the west and northwest of the monument and passes through El Martillo sector, an area entirely located in Barquisimeto’s zone of urban expansion. Builders find and illegally extract granzón, using trucks and use shovels to take the needed material.
Lack of personnel and ifrastructure
Currently, the superintendent is the only civil servant of INPARQUES charged with the administration and management of this 7,275-ha protected area. As such, he must manage all aspects of monitoring and control, as well as conduct proceedings related to the numerous infractions of urban invasions. The superintendent does not have a vehicle, and, in fact, all the parks located in Lara State (Yacambú, Terepaima, Cerro Saroche, El Gauche, and Dinira) must share the same vehicle because the others have been stolen.
The superintendent conducts his duties from the headquarters of the Regional Office of INPARQUES in Lara State, located in the Barquisimeto Park East. The mayor’s office of the Municipality of Iribarren (Barquisimeto) recently constructed a one-story building that will serve as an office for the superintendent of the natural monument. However, this building does not have basic services (e.g., water, electricity, drainage), and it still needs furniture before it can be used. The advantage of the new office is its strategic location in the area of Los Pocitos, a zone where there have been numerous urban invasions.
At present, no infrastructure (e.g., paths with signs and kiosks) exists for tourists or the reception of visitors, although the area has good potential for tourism because of its proximity to Barquisimeto and the panoramic views it provides of the city. On the other hand, in the areas of urban invasion that border on the piedmont of the hill, there are several dangerous neighborhoods with high crime rates, which will not stimulate the development of tourism in the area.