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Landmark project gets big sendoff

Days before the historic loan signing, the lone radio station of Panama's province of Darién, housed in a modest concrete block building in the tiny crossroads community of Metetí, was sending out an urgent call:

"Children, men, women, farmers, Indians, organizations, bus and truck drivers, lumbermen, health and water committees, and general public: the Darién needs you. The social and economic development of the Darién is in your hands."

The station, Voz Sin Fronteras (Voice Without Borders), was not exaggerating. The $70.4 million loan due for signing on Feb. 21 would finance a sustainable development program for the Darién and pave its 184-km-long dirt highway, both long-standing dreams of the province's 60,000 citizens. But even more, it would carry out these twin aims through the participation of many of the province's people, and in so doing make this forgotten and neglected corner of the Americas a model for the rest of the hemisphere.

And come they did. From humble indigenous, Afro-American and Latin-American communities throughout the province, some 1,200 people traveled by bus, truck, car, utility vehicle, boat, dugout canoe, horse and on foot to Metetí, the site for the signing. Some journeyed two or three days to be a part of the event. It was the largest crowd ever assembled in the region and probably the largest ever to gather for an IDB loan signing. The cloudy Sunday morning sky threatened rain. Officials from the Darién Children's Foundation, who organized the event, had erected a tent on the recreation court in front of the radio station to shelter the scores of officials representing the Panamanian government, nongovernmental organizations, local communities and the IDB. But the weather held; it was a typical oppressively hot and humid Darién day.

In this same town, almost exactly two years before, Panamanian President Ernesto Pérez Balladares and IDB President Enrique V. Iglesias had proclaimed to community leaders their commitment to pave the Darién highway as part of an integrated development project for the region. At the same time, they agreed not to extend the highway the remaining 50 kilometers through the Darién Binational Park to the Colombian border. Now, after two years of economic and environmental studies, intensive consultations by a team of anthropologists with residents in 45 different communities, and the development of a comprehensive land use management plan for the biologically diverse, environmentally sensitive region, Pérez Balladares and Iglesias were returning to sign the financing agreement.

But the long-awaited moment would have to suffer a short, unexpected delay. Taking off from Panama City, the helicopter carrying Pérez Balladares and Iglesias hit a pelican, and the two presidents had to transfer to another aircraft. After finally landing in Metetí, in a field about a kilometer from the signing site, a caravan of four-wheel-drive utility vehicles drove them to the radio station. The two presidents, dressed in short-sleeve shirts, walked past photographers through an applauding crowd into the huge white tent. They took their places at a table covered with an embroidered white table cloth from Metetí's Catholic cathedral.

"This project is not just another all-weather highway financed by the idb," Iglesias told the crowd after the signing. "It's a route to develop the region, to protect its ecology, to exploit its natural resources rationally, and to respect its ethnic communities. I assure you," he added, "that this is the most participatory IDB project ever."

Equally elated was Monsignor Rómulo Emiliani, Catholic Bishop of Darién Province (see article "The Bishop with the Dirty Shoes" in this issue). For years, Emiliani has helped Darien residents lobby the government to pave the existing highway to the town of Yaviza, parts of which are impassable during the nine-month-long rainy season, and to finance development in the region. "After so many years of suffering and marginalization," he told the crowd, "it is about time we received help." But, he warned: "With the signing of this agreement, zero hour has arrived. All of us today have promised to make this project a reality. It now depends on all of us."

The Darién Sustainable Development Program, which will take about six years to carry out, will finance both productive and social projects, land titling and measures to strengthen government agencies, in addition to paving the existing road. An advisory board made up of representatives of local, national and international organizations oversaw development of the program, and will continue to monitor its execution.

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