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Antigua is being threatened by vague planning laws and rampant development

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The historic colonial capital of Antigua in central Guatemala is one of that country's top tourist attractions, full of well-preserved ruins and Spanish-era architecture amid volcanoes and green hills. Almost 50 years ago, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. But as Maria Martin reports, its growing popularity and development are threatening what makes it so special.

MARIA MARTIN, BYLINE: A traditional marimba band plays in Antigua's historic Parque Central, its central square, jammed today with vendors and visitors to this colonial city.

ELIZABETH BELL: It's magical. The architecture is fabulous. It was frozen in time in the 1700s when they moved the capital to Guatemala City and out of poverty. Squatters came in in the 1800s.

MARTIN: Author Elizabeth Bell came to Antigua when she was a young girl. In books, she's written about its history.

BELL: I remember the conservator of the time of the city saying Antigua's going to become a tourist attraction. And we all looked at him and thought he was crazy. Who would want a bunch of ruined houses, ruined churches, ruined everything? The city was virtually worthless.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION EQUIPMENT)

MARTIN: That's no longer the case. Now construction is everywhere.

TZ'ULES SUNUN: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: Concerned neighbors Tz'ules Sunun and Vickie Pappa take me on a tour of all the new development.

SUNUN: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: At least 17 new construction projects are currently in process in and around Antigua - not only gated communities, but also shopping centers and megachurches. And there are questions as to whether these new developments meet the standards for historical preservation and planning.

VICKIE PAPPA: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: This is a topic that concerns all the neighbors here, says Pappa. "What worries us," she says, "even more than that this is a UNESCO World Heritage site, is just how all this will change the quality of life for those who live here." The current conservation law is vague, and a lot of new developments fall into gray areas. That's part of the problem, says architect Javier Quinonez, who was recently appointed to head up the National Council for the Preservation of Antigua.

JAVIER QUINONEZ: (Through interpreter) It's the absence of a planning document that focuses on holistic development of the Antigua area that's damaging the city. Now no one knows what can or can't be built and whether preservation only applies to buildings or also to the green belt around Antigua.

FRANCISCO VIDARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: The controversy recently brought UNESCO's world heritage representative, Francisco Vidargas, to Antigua. Vidargas says everyone, from Guatemala's authorities to ordinary citizens, has a responsibility to preserve the city's historical heritage. He also admitted that of the more than 1,000 sites on UNESCO's World Heritage list, none is without its problems.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

MARTIN: Still, many of Antigua's citizens remain skeptical that Guatemalan politicians are acting in their city's best interests. But other residents remain hopeful that those who love the city will eventually come together to save it before it's too late. For NPR News, I'm Maria Martin in Antigua, Guatemala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maria Martin