Guatopo is considered a model park within the system administered by Inparques, and the process of evicting and relocating its previous inhabitants is one successful management example. Another outstanding feature has been development and maintenance of diverse recreation facilities. As a result, Guatopo has information centers, historic-cultural sites, interpretation trails, cabañas, and kiosks. In addition, most of Guatopo's staff members are ex-park inhabitants. Despite the park's excellent management conditions, there are a series of threats, which if left uncontrolled, put the park's protection and biological diversity at risk in the medium term.
• Illegal hunting
• Logging and timber extraction
• Agricultural uses
• Human invasions
• Lack and poor distribution of staff
• Insufficient budget
• Insufficient equipment
During our interviews with park guards, we learned that illegal hunting is common in diverse areas in the park. Apparently, hunting does not occur only along the borders, but also in the central portions of the park, close to the highway that connects Santa Teresa del Tuy with Altagracia de Orituco in the Central Plains. Towns within and around the park are the centers of activity. A majority of the hunters originate from the Santa Teresa del Tuy, Ocumare del Tuy, Altagracia de Orituco, and Aragüita communities. Close to Altagracia de Orituco, hunting is mostly concentrated in the sector called Tiamo where sport hunting is popular; locals guide and house foreign hunters. Subsistence hunting occurs in some sectors, such as Cuira River Basin (the area included within park borders in 1985), where several farming communities exist because they have not yet been evicted and relocated outside of the park.
For their study, Silva and Strahl (1996) interviewed hunters in the following neighboring towns: Macaira, Uverito, Orocollal, San Miguel, Altagracia de Orituco, El Banco, Ocumare del Tuy, San Francisco de Yare, and Santa Teresa del Tuy. They determined that the preferred mammal species included the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), the red brocket (Mazama americana), collared peccary (Tayassu tajacu), agouti (Dasyprocta leporina), and paca (Agouti paca). Among the birds, hunters preferred crested guan (Penelope purpurascens), band-tailed guan (Penelope argyrotis), and rufous-vented chachalaca (Ortalis ruficauda). According to park guards, hunters mostly seek the guans, agouti, collared peccaries, and brockets. In addition, the guards mentioned that the tapir (Tapirus terrestris), a "vulnerable" species, is also hunted.
Pet parrot in the sector of Alpes del Tuy (photo © César Aponte)
Hunters primarily use shotguns and traps, although park guards found a tapir whose cranium was completely destroyed, leading them to believe that more powerful weapons, such as rifles, are being used.
There were poached animals for sale along the highway sector known as Los Alpes del Tuy, where the road coming from the community of Aragüita connects with that of Tuy Valleys. People making use of the road engage in this clandestine and improvised illegal sale of animals.
Logging and timber extraction
Deforestation occurs in the Cuira basin for agricultural purposes; each farm must clear between 5 and 8 ha of forest in order to cultivate. After two years, the soil becomes impoverished and the farmer looks for a new area to clear and cultivate. The timber harvested in this way is used locally, to construct homes and furniture, and as firewood.
"Cedro amargo" (Cedrela sp.) is one of the most valuable species in Guatopo's forests because of its high quality wood. Several testimonies mentioned that illegal cedar trafficking takes place for commercial purposes (those interviewed were unable to identify the perpetrators). Apparently, the loggers have required equipment, such as chainsaws and trucks, and they mostly cut and extract the timber at night. Apparently, both park guards and neighboring residents claim that this type of extraction takes place in the Guira sector and next to the Quiripital and La Elvira. The park director confirmed these claims. It is not known who is responsible for this illegal extraction, although on one occasion timber was cut in the sector of La Elvira and it turned out that an agent of the Guárico Police was implicated, and later dismissed. Similar situations, where an authority figure with economic interest in exploiting the forest is involved, are no longer taking place in the park.
Although the exact species of cedar found in Guatopo has not been verified, it is important to note that Cedrela odorata, is also known by the same common name "Cedro amargo," and this species is listed as a vulnerable species at the national and international levels (Llamozas and col. 2003, Americas Regional Workshop 1997).
Timber boards confiscated by the National Guard were stored at the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Coordination Center located at Guanapito Dam. These came from the northern part of the José Tadeo Monagas and San José de Guaribe Municipalities (Guárico State), south of the park, but none of it was from Guatopo National Park. As in the cases of illegal extraction from Guatopo, the illegal loggers have yet to be identified.
Agriculture primarily occurs in Cuira Basin (29,824 ha), where most of the park's inhabitants live. As was previously mentioned, this part was incorporated into the park in 1985 (República de Venezuela 1985) to cover the area of a future dam and nearby lands. The inhabitants were supposed to be relocated. At the time of its incorporation, there were 490 families living on the land who were mostly dedicated to semi-commercial cultivation of cacao, fruits, and tubers in the humid zones. Some of the same families who were affected by the first relocation in 1960 were again affected. According to the 1990 census (OCEI 1994), there are 317 families residing within the park (1,011 people). According to the census and appraisals process, as of 1995 there were still 395 appraised properties whose owners had yet to be compensated (Yerena and Escalona 1992).
According to park authorities, there are currently 108 families (500 people) in the zone. The eviction and relocation process stopped in this sector because the people kept farming and maintained their natural growth rate: In other words, the program was not working. According to the last national census in 2001, the annual growth rate for Acevedo Municipality in Miranda State (where Cuira Basin is located) is 1.9% (INE 2004).
Yautia (Xanthosoma saggitifolium), yam, plantain, corn, cacao, coffee, and legumes are the main crops. Each family member usually has his/her own 5 to 8 hectare farm to work for two years. After those two years, the farm is abandoned because the soils have become too impoverished for cultivation and a new area is deforested. Even though there are two park guard stations in the zone, and they carry out periodic patrols, there is no strict control over the agriculture or expansion into new areas. Inhabitants do recognize the existence of the park, but the relationship between the inhabitants and park authorities is rather tense.
The following communities, which are mostly dispersed homes without any services, in Cuira Basin include: El Jobito, Casupito, Telefor, Los Muertos, Palmira, La Piedrota, La Macanilla, La Campechana, María, and La Crucecita. La Macanilla is the only community that has a school and a medical center, provided by Miranda State Government.
A home in the village of Casupito in Cuira Basin (photo © Rodolfo Castillo)
The agricultural activity in the towns of Quiripital and La Democracia, and in the villages of El Pegón and Palma de Taguaza, does not represent a direct threat because the park authorities control it.
Cuira Basin's situation may be leading to new invasions by people from outside of the park who use the road from San Francisco de Macaira in Guárico State as access. In this basin, growth of new inhabitants dedicated to agriculture has been expanding southeast.
Several squatters have settled in the sector of La Elvira, also close to the community of San Francisco de Macaira. These cases are being processed by the Environmental Prosecutor's Office; there are six people with open administrative procedures and four additional people who have not answered their citations.
There have been a few cases in the sectors of La Colonia and El Tiamo where the old occupants have returned to the park, eight families in total in addition to the three families that never left. Apparently, none of them received compensation payments.
The difference between the sector of La Colonia and the park border is clear. This is where several old inhabitants have returned to the protected area (photo © Rodolfo Castillo)
Lack and poor distribution of staff
Even though Guatopo National Park has a large number of staff, of the 16 park guards, only 11 are fully active. The remaining five are retiring, although they still keep watch occassionally. The park guards themselves admit that the work schedule is challenging: six days work then one day off, or 15 days work and two days off. This means that they have very little time to participate in training courses or even to spend time with their families and friends. Several park guards commented that the felt that they needed additional training.
During the park's first 20 years, the administration was dedicated to stabilizing the park territory and installing facilities, and to refurbishing the old plantation buildings. They also built kiosks, grills, trials, signs, and rustic pools to bathe in the river water. These facilities were built almost entirely by a workforce of ex-park inhabitants, who are quite skilled and have become known within the park system as "guatoperos." Since their first constructions, the "quaoperos" have been contracted to build infrastructure in other parks.
Nonetheless, distribution of the park's human resources is unbalanced. There are more maintenance workers and not enough park guards to patrol, control, and provide guidance for visitors. For example, in the Agua Blanca recreation area there is one park guard for the entire area. This guard is supposed to charge the entrance fees, attend the information center, demonstrate the sugar mill, prepare the pools for swimmers, keep watch of the facilities to make sure they are being used properly, make sure that visitors are following the rules, make sure visitors are safe, and patrol the area. There are no park guards assigned to the recreation area at Guatopo Creek (also known as Gautopito), and visitors enter freely and do as they wish(although the natural pools are not conditioned like in Agua Blanca).
In contrast to the lack of staff in the above examples, the recreation area Quebrada de Agua (close to Santa Teresa del Tuy) is overstaffed. The facilities here were destroyed by the 1999 landslide and are out of service; yet there are two maintenance workers and one park guard. There are no visitors to the area since it is unsafe. In the past, there were several instances where people from neighboring Barrio Vizcaíno robbed visitors.
In general, more park guards are needed to increase the existing rotation. It should be noted that some of the maintenance workers are in position for a promotion to park guard, but because of lack of budget, they have not yet received their promotions.
Until 2001, the park's management had a budget of 700,000 per month ($967 USD), which was used for daily expenses for equipment, fuel, and purchase of some materials. Starting in 2002, this direct budget was eliminated and Inparques' headquarters in Caracas now sends equipment and supplies. As a result, it is very difficult to buy fuel for the vehicles, the staff pay from their own pockets, and maintenance equipment is lacking to maintain recreational facilities.
Personnel are owed money for expenses they have covered, as well as for iovertime, night pay, and vacations. Most park guards are owed at least three vacations; as a result, personnel are unmotivated. Facilities maintenance and the park's management suffer. Nonetheless, these budget problems are mostly resolved since mysteriously, the workers remain dedicated to their work.
The superintendenct office is the only one with radio equipment and therefore can only communicate with El Ávila National Park. There is no radio communication between Guatopo's distant park guard stations, which makes requesting help in cases of emergency or violation difficult. Also at the main headquarters there are three vehicles, but because the park is so large, three is not enough. Additional vehicles should be purchased for the park agents to get around and complete their patrol and control operations along the highway and in certain sectors like Cuira. Another option would be to ride donkeys or horses to get around.
There is a lack of maintenance equipment for the green areas; there are no machetes or blade sharpeners. This impacts the workers' ability to carry out an excellent job, which in the past has been their "claim to fame" within Venezuela's National Parks System. As a result, the park contracts a landscaping company in Altagracia de Orituco that has lawn mowers and other equipment to take care of green spaces even though the park has its own maintenance staff.
Population growth in the Tuy Valleys
One of the main regions experiencing population and urban growth is north of the park in the Valles del Tuy region in Miranda State, close to Caracas. Caracas' suburbs are located here; residents live in the area and travel to work in the capital. This region has been the fatest growing region in the country over the last 10 years (2.2% average growth rate).
View of Tuy Valleys from the western borders of Guatopo, in the background the city of Ocumare del Tuy is seen (photo © Rodolfo Castillo)
A new train system, that is now almost complete, will travel between Caracas and the communities of Charallave and Cúa in los Valles del Tuy. This system will further stimulate population growth, by enabling residents faster transit to the capital.
One of the principal consequences of uncontrolled and unplanned demographic growth is increased demand for land to build homes and farms to feed the larger communities. This could create additional pressure on the park's northern borders, which will require additional park guards to patrol and control the zone. In addition, larger nearby towns will create more demand for recreation--it is likely that future residents will look towards the national park for recreation opportunities since it is the closest natural area.
If the park maintains its current budget while the surrounding communities experience population growth, it will be unable to hire more staff or maintain the recreation areas. In addition, with more people in the region, the park will need to develop environmental education programs for visitors (there will be more visitors in the future) and create programs to organize hiking groups or other Guatopo alliance groups, as Henri Pittier and El Ávila national parks have done. Such programs require financial resources.