History, disasters, and resilience: The story of Antigua Guatemala

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Fachada de un monumento en Antigua, Guatemala Fachada de un monumento en Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua Guatemala, a city in the central highlands of Guatemala, has a long history of disasters. Originally called Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, it was the country’s first capital, founded in 1524. While an indigenous uprising led to its brief abandonment, it was founded again 1527 only to get demolished by the lahar from Volcán de Agua in 1541. The city was reestablished a year later and endured for more than two centuries until disaster struck once again. The Santa Marta earthquakes destroyed the city in 1773. The capital was moved definitively to Guatemala City, but the inhabitants who survived rebuilt the city and began to refer to it as Antigua Guatemala.

For more than two and a half centuries, Antigua Guatemala was one of the most important political, economic, religious, educational, and cultural centers of the continent. It was founded as the capital of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, also known as the Kingdom of Guatemala, which encompassed and had jurisdiction over most of Central America and parts of southern Mexico. 

With the partial abandonment of the city in 1776 and subsequent regulations prohibiting the repair and construction of new buildings, the city’s ruins and its 16th-century Renaissance grid pattern were preserved. These have come to be the distinguishing features of Antigua Guatemala, gaining its inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979. 

Antigua Guatemala has a lot of cultural heritage, from the ruins to historical buildings, and museums, as well as the Renaissance grid pattern, a landscape of volcanoes surrounding the city, and the Barroco antigüeño, a regional adaptation of the Baroque architectural style that is designed to withstand the seismicity in the area. Antigua was also a major exporter of religious images and statues to the rest of the Americas and Spain during the 17th and 18th centuries. 
This cultural tradition remains. During Semana Santa (Easter), images representing the Passion of Christ are carried on huge wooden platforms during the "procesiones" or processions. The celebration attracts an increasing number of visitors every year. 

Artisans rest near a couple of pasos, the religious wooden statues used during the Easter processions

Artisans rest near a couple of pasos, the religious wooden statues used during the Easter processions. 
(Photo: BMG, 2015)


While Antigua Guatemala’s resilience and cultural heritage stem in part from the long history of disasters, its people don’t want to suffer any more of them.
Hazards are natural, but disasters are not. To avoid future catastrophes, it is crucial to strengthen the city’s capacities in risk knowledge and reduction, good preparedness, and effective emergency response. This will help avoid the loss of the city’s rich heritage. 

It’s not easy to avert natural hazards in Guatemala. The country is on the Ring of Fire, a horseshoe of volcanoes and seismic fault lines running along the edges of the Pacific Ocean, and is also exposed to hurricanes in the Atlantic . This makes it one of the most hazard-prone areas in the world. Indeed, it was hit by 8.3- and 7.5-magnitude earthquakes in 1942 and 1976, respectively, and slammed by hurricanes Mitch in 1998 and Stan in 2005, as well as tropical storm Agatha and mudslides from Volcán de Agua in 2010. The Volcán de Fuego erupted in 2018.

In addition to Antigua, Guatemala has two more World Heritage Sites: the Archaeological Park and Ruins of Quirigua and the Tikal National Park. It also has around 2,200 pre-Hispanic archaeological sites, plus a plethora of colonial and republican monuments and buildings. 

These historical legacies are frequently threatened by earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, and climate-related events such as floods and hurricanes, meaning that establishing disaster risk management (DRM) plans for cultural heritage is essential to protect them.

Guatemala is taking steps to do this. While many countries don’t consider cultural heritage as part of their DRM plans, Guatemala's Executive Secretariat of the National Coordinator for Disaster Reduction (SE-CONRED) and Ministry of Culture and Sports are working together to protect the country’s cultural heritage from hazards and to ensure a resilient recovery from unavoidable events. 

The World Bank has been working on DRM with Guatemala’s national and local authorities and agencies since 2006.  After the eruption of Volcán de Fuego on June 3, 2018, the Bank provided support in a matter of days in close coordination with the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR).

Two key areas were identified: (i) determining the overall economic impact of the event to better prepare the post-disaster recovery effort and reconstruction activities, and (ii) proposing a multi-stakeholder short-, medium- and long-term plan for enhancing DRM in Guatemala to prevent and cope with a potentially catastrophic future. As part of this initiative, a workshop on DRM for cultural heritage was held in March 2019. The outcome was a roadmap for the integration of DRM and cultural heritage in Guatemala, which was presented during the “International Progress Workshop One Year after the Fuego Eruption” in Guatemala on May 28, 2019. The roadmap was also included in the Guatemala – Study on Disaster Risk Management of Cultural Heritage, which was published in June 2019.

Antigua Guatemala has had enough disasters in the past. Now it’s time to enhance the city’s — and the country’s — resilience to preserve and protect its heritage.

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Barbara Minguez Garcia

Disaster Risk Management and Cultural Heritage Consultant

Rodrigo Donoso Arias

Disaster Risk Management Specialist

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