San Esteban relies on a unified team, and has had important political and institutional backing since its creation. San Esteban has become an icon for the people of Carabobo state, which is extremely important since the local society takes the park’s problems into consideration. Despite this, San Esteban faces diverse problems that, in one way or another, threaten its ability to achieve its objectives as a national park.
* Lack of vigilance and effective control
* Land ownership problems
* Overharvest of marine resources
* Cattle ranching
* Wild fires
Lack of vigilance and effective control
Even though San Esteban has more personnel than many other national parks and has good infrastructure, there are problems related to lack of vigilance and institutional presence in certain sectors of the park.
Lack of park guard stations in key sites is evident and is a problem in places with high number of visitors. The coastal-marine areas and even the continental portions next to Patanemo, Yapascua Lagoon, and Bocáina are practically abandoned by the authorities. There are neither visitor registries in these areas nor records of local inhabitants fishing or resource extraction activities.
There are excellent accommodations in the Campanero sector, with space for 18 people, but only one clerk, who sometimes acts as a security guard, and one volunteer use the space. There is no vehicle and patrols in the zone are infrequent. All of the park guards are assigned to the southern slope in areas where there are no stations, and to Isla Larga. The park guard stations are located at Isla Larga, Campanero and Miquijía, these last two are on the mainland’s northern slope, but they do not have park guards assigned to them.
Lack of attention is such that in some of the poor communities bordering the park, delinquency is rampant, especially in the towns of Gózales Plaza and Los Mangos, where there have been several incidents with visitors who have been attacked and robbed. A similar situation exists along the northern slope, in the sectors of Patanemo and Borburata. Also, because it is a valued as a historic area, delinquency is worsening in the town of San Esteban. Frequently, hikers or visitors along the Camino de los Españoles are robbed or attacked by local delinquents. During our hike along the Camino de los Españoles, Inparques staff and local people alerted us to watch out for assailants.
Land ownership problems
Protected lands within the park are not entirely State property, there are several inholdings including the historic plantation owners, and small farmers, whose land uses are not compatible with those of a national park. On several occasions, their land use practices have even inhibited the park’s management.
A socio-economic evaluation of the towns of San Esteban and Goaigoaza (Conde 1997) and a similar study in Patanemo, Valle Seco, and Miquijía (Colina 1997) determined that there are at least 142 family groups who have lived within the park boundaries for more than 15 years, and another 42 families “in transition.” These are large families (between 8 and 11 people), who do not have access to basic services and they are almost exclusively dedicated to agriculture. Both studies concluded that their environmental impact on the park was “high” and “very high.” The studies recommended carrying out a formal census and land appraisals in order to then relocate these inhabitants to lands outside of the protected area.
Close to Patanemo, the town continues expanding and rural farmers settle within the park’s borders.
Hunting has been one of the park’s major problems for years. One study conducted in 1996 concluded that there is more year-round sport hunting in San Esteban than in Henri Pittier, El Tamá, Terepaima, Sierra Nevada, Yacambú, Guatopo, Paria and El Guácharo national parks (Silva and Strahl 1996). The same authors concluded that San Esteban suffers from the highest levels of year-round subsistence hunting when compared to the other parks; they reported that each hunter captures at least 26 prey per year and consume 233 kg per year per person (Silva and Strahl 1996).
Preferred prey species include collard peccary (Tayassu tajacu) and curassows (Crax daubentoni and Pauxi pauxi), which are also the least abundant. Pacas (Agouti paca) and guans (Penelope argyrotis and Penelope purpurascens) follow in order of preference. It is interesting to note that agouti (Dasyprocta leporina) is not a preferred species yet it is abundant; nonetheless, during the study period, each hunter culled on average 4.3 agoutis per year (Silva and Strahl 1996).
According to the park guards, hunting is a problem on both slopes. Park guards know that people from La Cumaca hunt regularly, they even know who the hunters are and their hunting schedule (every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday). Park guards comment that most commonly hunted species include collared peccaries (Tayassu tajacu), pacas (Agouti paca), doves (Geotrygon sp.) and Rufous-vented Chachalaca (Ortalis ruficauda). Apparently, in Trincheras and El Cambur, they also hunt tapirs (Tapirus terrestris).
A recent natural resource use evaluation conducted in the park’s coastal-marine portion revealed that several activities are not appropriately regulated; these activities in turn could be responsible for the population reductions of at least seven commercially important species.
Some of the most economically important species found along the rocky littoral are gastropods such as West Indian topshell (Cittarium pica) and (Astraea caelata). González (2003) confirmed that between 1972 and 1973 topshell was so common along the rocky littorals, like around Isla Larga, that it was considered one of the predominate species of the area (Almeida 1974 in González 2003). However, constant extraction has reduced many populations to the point of causing local extinctions in some areas. Today, fishermen have had to increase their effort, travel farther from Patanemo, and dive deeper to collect larger individuals (González 2003).
In Patanemo and Yapascua lagoons, mangrove oysters (Crassostrea rhizophorae) are collected. This species is economically important; thirty years ago it was considered abundant in Pantanemo Lagoon (Almeida 1974 in González 2003).
Since at least 1976, oyster collectors have been cutting red mangrove roots (Rizophora mangle) where the oysters grow in order to collect more quickly and possibly in order to avoid being seen by authorities (Dao 1976 in González 2003).
Other invertebrates intensely collected from the lagoons include: blue land crab (Cardisoma guanhumi), gaudy sanguin (possibly Asaphis deflorata), green-lipped mussels (Perna sp.), spiny spotted lobster (Panulirus guttatus) and on occasion blue crabs (Callinectes sp.).
Illegal cattle ranching activities are located mostly on the park’s southern border. Cattle ranching occurs in many sectors, included Tronconero, La Cumaca, Las Flores, Las Rosas, El Cimarrón and Vigirima. It seems to be most problematic in the sector of Las Flores. According to park guards, one cattle owner has 80 cows that have eaten all of the zone’s vegetation. They have carried out administrative processes and opened a case against this cattle owner, but nothing has resulted. The park guards are dissatisfied because perpetrators go unsanctioned.
Park guards and administrative personal consider wildfires to be one of the park’s major problems, especially in the park’s dry forests and scrublands on the southern slope. Every year, hundreds of hectares of savannah vegetation burn; even though fires are considered important for this ecosystem, they extend out of the savannahs and destroy the dry forests found in the higher altitudes.
During the September 2002 to April 2003 fire season, 3,200 hectares burned. So far this year, there have been fewer fires and only 1,354 hectares were affected. Despite this apparent reduction, it is important to note that there have been years with very few fires. For example, during the 98-99 fire season, only 664 hectares burned and the year before that, only 791 hectares (Hernández 1999). Since then, the percentage of the park affected by fires has increased.
Most fires start because neighboring communities burn garbage and the burns get out of control. Burning for agricultural purposes, cattle ranching and even hunting also cause wildfires (Hernández 1999). Fires are most common in the area extending from Trincheras to Vigirima, but also in the sectors of Nagua-Nagua, San Diego and Guacara. In the highest fire risk zone, the fire fighting work is most inefficient because of lack of personnel (Hernández 1999).
Forest fires are not a major problem on the north slope. Most fire seasons end before affecting the rainforests and cloud forests on the northern slope, probably because these areas maintain moisture and there are different land uses present.
Near the sector of Vigirima on the southern slope, forest fires are frequent.
There are many tourist attractions in San Esteban, including important archeological sites like Piedras Pintadas Museum; cultural-historic sites like Solano Fortress, the town of San Esteban, or Pimentel Plantation; natural attractions like the cloud forest along the Camino de los Españoles, many rivers and creeks on the northern slope, coral reefs along Isla Larga, and Patanemo’s coastal lagoons; finally, there are numerous beaches on the islands and along the coast been Puerto Cabello and Yapascua that are frequented by local and foreign tourists.
Thousands of people visit San Esteban every year. According to official registries, 92,646 people visited the park in 2000 and 100,986 in 2001 (Lau 2002).
Except for the beaches, the rest of the park is hardly visited and non-local tourists are mostly unaware of the park’s importance. Most tourism in the park is focused on the beaches; that is where most services and park personnel are located. A preliminary research study conducted during the slow tourism season, estimated that there are approximately 12,000 visitors per month (Jorquera and Romero 2002). Despite the fact that services in Isla Larga’s recreation zone function well, the mere concentration of tourists could threaten it and could threaten the currently well-protected coral reefs around the island.
Another problem is that in other parts of the park, tourism is almost entirely unregulated. The town of Patanemo, its lagoon and surrounding areas receive a fair number of tourists interested in visiting the beaches or in attending extended parties and open-air concerts. Unlike Isla Larga, there are no visitor registries, no services, and no vigilance. Delinquency is a problem in the town that affects areas within and outside of the park. Because there are no signs and hardly ever any park authorities here, it is hard to distinguish where the park ends and the town begins.
In areas bordering the park, like Patanemo (left) and Quizandal, there are a large number of
tourists yet tourism activities are not organized or supervised.
High demand, large numbers of visitors, and lack of tourism regulations combined threaten the park’s ability to reach its stated objectives.
Three of the four municipalities in which the park is found have annual growth rates similar to or higher than Venezuela’s average annual growth rate (Guacara 3.2%; Valencia 2.1%; Puerto Cabello 1.6%; San Diego 4.9%; National Average 2,2%), which is evident considering the changes in the communities over the last ten years. Not all of the communities are located within the park, but excessive population growth of nearby towns, uncontrolled land use changes, and lack of mitigation plans and actions all threaten the park in the medium term.
Despite the southern slope’s large growth rate, most towns along the park’s border remain in the valley and have not begun to expand up the rocky foothills. However, several years ago some people began building homes within the park’s limits. In some cases, these homes were built in order to earn compensation from Inparques. This situation is common, even becoming critical, in Vigirima. The settlers do not gather in towns or villages, rather they are scattered. The town of San Esteban is within the park and according to data gathered by the superintendent, there are 4,000 inhabitants. The last official census was in 1990 and it concluded that there were only 1,798 (OCEI 1994).
An example of land problems is seen in the town of Patanemo, where the Land Institute (Instituto de Tierras) within the Ministry of Agriculture and Land, has a policy of assigning agricultural plots. This policy encourages migration to the town (which already has certain amount of municipal services), thereby potentially increasing the demand for resources like timber, water, and land from within the park. This is already being seen in some of the lower elevations. Population growth in San Esteban, Patanemo, and several other sectors pose a serious risk to the national park’s conservation goals.
In 1998, there was a plan to build a highway from Turiamo Naval Base (within Henri Pittier Naitonal Park) to the town of Patanemo on the park’s border. To build such a highway, a section of pristine land protected by two national parks that was free of roads and human intervention would have been deforested and destroyed. Two ecosystems potentially threatened by such a road were Turiamo Lagoon and Yapascua Cove, both of which were considered unthreatened wetlands prior to talk of a highway (Fundación Tierra Viva 1998).
The highway was supported unilaterally by the Armed Forces (specifically, the naval bases’ administrators), and the state governments of Carabobo and Aragua who promoted it as part of their tourism development plan and promoted it as a way to connect Vargas state’s littoral zone as well.
This highway proposal infringed upon existing environmental laws and territorial plans, including Henri Pittier National Park’s land use plan decreed by President Dr. Rafael Caldera that explicitly prohibited road construction, urban, and tourism complex development within the park (Reyna 1998). Luckily, pressure created by an environmental movement during a national congress detained the highway project and thereby saved one of the last natural places along Venezuela’s coast. Aragua and Carabobo state governments still want to develop the project, which is why the highway project is still a threat and needs constant attention in order to stop any future attempts to reactivate it.