Five years of distinction and controversy
By Antonio De Jesús Aguado
Often, time seems to creep in San Miguel, but other times it seems to fly. It has now been five years since San Miguel de Allende and the Shrine of Jesús Nazareno in Atotonilco were added to the list of World Heritage sites by UNESCO, and to remember this important occasion we look back to some of the controversial events that posed potential problems for San Miguel’s UNESCO status and examine a current situation that some believe could have an impact on that standing.
It all began in 2001, when members of the local administration, along with a nonprofit organization led by the current director of the transit department, Eleazar Romero, were invited to Quebec, Canada, for a meeting of UNESCO’s World Heritage committee. The local administration took advantage of the situation and decided to start proceedings to apply for World Heritage status for San Miguel. The 2003–2006 administration followed the process and decided to include the Shrine of Atotonilco in the petition, which was granted on July 7, 2008, during the 2006–2009 administration headed by Jesús Correa.
Local legislator Oscar Arroyo, who had been mayor in 2001, said that with the appointment San Miguel de Allende had won international standing as a tourist destination, which would also benefit the state financially. Édgar Bautista, director of the Urban Development Department, commented that since the earning the designation San Miguel has won more than it has lost, because nowadays it has international recognition beyond being a tourist destination and some of the traditions that were at risk of disappearing have been recovered and those already existing have been strengthened, because they were an important part of San Miguel’s eligibility for this appointment.
Controversies along the way
On May 23, 2007, in part to help San Miguel’s chances at being designated a World Heritage site, the local government decided to cancel the Sanmiguelada, the running of bulls that had been celebrated since 1973 in the historic center. There were other reasons for cancelling it, including inadequate public safety for the more than 2,500 people who attended. The cancellation disgruntled those who provide tourism services in the city, who said that was their highest-earning weekend during the year. After several talks between the government and those interested in holding the event, no agreements were reached and it was cancelled. The 2009–2012 administration held a public poll on the matter, but there was insufficient response from the population.
On December 16, 2011, the City Council approved the change of land use from forest to housing for the construction of more than 8,000 dwellings near Atotonilco. Immediately, several organizations expressed their opposition to the project, stating that it was a danger for the public health of the city because it would attract 40,000 more inhabitants to the city. They also commented that it would cause economic, social, political and ecologic damage. The project would also potentially affect a rich paleontological zone more than 80 million years old. Later, the city council cancelled the permits for construction and change of land use. Currently the administration faces a legal complaint.
Although the subject did not draw media attention until 2011, a duck-shaped structure in colonia Allende began being constructed in mid-2010, an architectural detail that some believed would put San Miguel’s World Heritage status at risk. Opposition from social activists was rejected by Francisco Vidargas, a representative of the INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History), who made it clear that the structure was not damaging a historical building and could be taken down at any time without harming the architecture of the city. Currently, a legal case is still pending.
The possible opening of a McDonald’s at Canal 16 also alarmed many residents. Arcos Sercal Inmobiliaria, representative of the franchise, obtained the permits for land use and construction from the municipality in July 2011without explicitly stating that the permits were for opening the franchise. For that reason, and following several public protests, the local government cancelled the construction work at the building. The company sued the local administration, and the case has not yet been resolved.
New road paves the way for dissent
The construction of a new road from Guanajuato to San Miguel de Allende was announced in 2010. In 2012, several organizations and inhabitants of rural communities that would be affected by the construction published a letter alerting the local authorities and residents of San Miguel about the damage that the new road could cause. According to the letter, the road would pass through the site of the first settled agricultural community in the area. The inhabitants of those early communities had their own astronomically based observations, myths and rites that they performed at sites called “coecillos” (small mountains). There is also civic architecture from the period of the viceroyalty, a paleontological zone and a zone appointed as a World Heritage site that will be affected. The letter also stated that the wetlands of the San Damian-Laja River, which cross through Taboada, Xoté and la Cieneguita, will also be affected, as well as the migratory route of American storks, which come to the northern area of the Presa Allende during the summer. Residents said the freeway will also have an impact on the geologic border between volcanic Mesoamerica and semi-desert Aridoamerica and the largest paleontological site in North America, covering more than 3,000 acres, which contains fossils dating from 50 million years ago. The construction of this freeway, according to a video, would break the bond between the San Miguel de Allende–Atotonilco World Heritage sites and the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Royal Inland Road), the first route created by the Europeans in America. San Miguel de Allende was the last city it crossed before it reached the volcanoes near Mexico City.
Again, it has been said that because of this construction San Miguel and Atotonilco could lose their designation as World Heritage sites, because of the division that it would cause in the Camino de Tierra Adentro, San Miguel and Atotonilco, and its negative effect on the nearby communities.
Arturo Durán, secretary of public works of the state, told Atención that the project has been approved and there will not be more modifications. He also commented that they will try their best to minimize the impact on the indigenous communities and it will not cause damage to the city’s heritage. They are holding meetings with the Guanajuato INAH, which suggested some studies that will be conducted. The highway will help develop tourism, said Durán, and will connect San Miguel, Dolores and Guanajuato. He invited all those against the project to meet with him.
The final plans for construction of this road, which will be 70.5 kilometers long and 12 meters wide, were submitted on July 2 this year, and its construction will begin in January 2014. In 2016 it should be open.
Bautista, from the Urban Development Department, commented that the local government is prepared for the protests that this project could cause, but he made it clear that they will respond only according to their responsibility, because the construction is a state and federal project. Bautista said that the construction does not put San Miguel’s World Heritage status at risk.