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The bishop with the dirty shoes

Among many of his parishioners, Rómulo Emiliani is known as the bishop who gets covered in mud.

Mud is a defining part of life for the people who live along the single dirt road that connects Darién, Panama's southernmost province, to the rest of the country. During the rainy season, the road turns into an infamous quagmire that can stop even the toughest vehicles.
Yet even among veteran Darienitas, as the locals are known, the sight of a senior church official on his knees in the muck, wrestling with the punctured tire of a vehicle he drives himself, is worth a second look.

Since he was named Bishop of Darién in 1988, Emiliani has traversed this road innumerable times. On the way, he has acquired a twin reputation for informality and a willingness to take matters into his own hands. "Whenever I'm riding with him and we get stuck, I always tease him and say ‘It's your turn to push!'" says Rosario Aguilar, a long-time friend and collaborator.

Emiliani pushes, and not just stuck vehicles. When he arrived in Darién a decade ago, he found a region that felt like it was no longer a part of Panama. The problems were legion: extreme poverty, malnutrition, barely functioning schools, uncontrolled logging, crime, woefully deficient services and infrastructure, and a single road nearly impassable for much of the year.

Emiliani, who was well known in Panama's social and political circles prior to arriving in Darién, launched an all-out campaign to put the needs of his new parishioners on the national agenda. He organized demonstrations demanding government assistance in a plaza near the presidential palace in Panama City. He issued impassioned pleas in hundreds of radio, television and newspaper interviews. He peppered foundations and charitable organizations around the world with requests for aid. And he made personal appeals for help to many of Panama's wealthiest and most influential families.

Shrewd fund-raiser.
"He is devoted to the cause of the most disadvantaged," says Rogelio Novey, the IDB's alternate executive director for Panama and Venezuela. "But he is also very sophisticated when it comes to raising funds and getting civil society to respond and contribute."

It is impossible to visit Darién today without seeing evidence of Emiliani's efforts. "In 1990 it used to take me up to two days to make the road trip to Metetí," says Aguilar, referring to the province's largest town. "Today, thanks to the attention the bishop brought to the problem, the government maintains the road well enough that I can get there in four hours."

Aguilar is executive director of the Fundación Pro Niños de Darién, which Emiliani founded in 1990 to address the chronic malnourishment he saw among the province's schoolchildren. Today, relying entirely on private-sector donations, the foundation distributes school lunches to some 7,000 children while offering a variety of health, nutrition and farming programs to their parents.

Emiliani also founded a farmer's cooperative that teaches improved agricultural techniques and promotes reforestation, a home for the elderly, a prison ministry, and "Cristo Sana," an organization of volunteer doctors that travels to remote parts of Darién offering medical care.

But perhaps the most ubiquitous reminder of his influence can be heard on transistor radios in practically every home in Darién. The area's first regional radio station, also created through Emiliani's efforts, provides a folksy mix of Christian programming, news and personal message hours that are the principal means of communication for the province's scattered communities.

Given all this, it was perhaps natural that Emiliani should become one of the architects of the IDB-financed Darién Sustainable Development Program launched last February in Metetí (see article "Landmark Project Gets Big Sendoff"). As a member of the program's advisory committee, Emiliani helped shape priorities from the start. Even more valuable, according to the IDB's Novey, was Emiliani's role as a mediator among Darién's numerous and often conflicting interest groups. "He was crucial to ensuring that no one was excluded from the project," says Novey.

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