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Agricultural success -- and concern about the future

At the wheel of his Peugeot 504, Padre Guido Coronel barrels along the dirt-surfaced roads of this region of eastern Paraguay with the assurance of someone who knows almost every bump and rut.

He should. For he is the driving force behind a 45,000-square-kilometer agricultural colonization project that has been carved out of virgin territory just across the Parana River from Brazil.

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A Salesian priest, Fr. Coronel is a doer, a tireless worker, and a man of tremendous energy.

For more than 15 years he has run the project -- a series of independent farms that are now producing a vast array of crops from soybeans to milk on land that hardly produced anything before.

It is a remarkable story -- and in considerable measure, it is the story of one man: Guido Coronel.

And there is the rub. While the project has been a success beyond any expectation, and it is producing large quantities of food for the Paraguayan economy, there is concern that direction of the project has been too heavily in the hands of one man.

Moreover, some of the success of the project is clearly due to Fr. Coronel's close connections with Paraguayan President Alfredo Stroessner. He is the brother of Pastor Coronel, chief of the Paraguayan political police, who is one of General Stroessner's closest associates. It is easy for Fr. Coronel, by his own admission, to call the President for help.

And indeed, Colonia Presidente Stroessner, which obviously is named after the President, is something of a model community and has the personal blessing of General Stroessner.

The fact that the President is so intimately connected with the project has clearly helped ensure its success. Taxes have been deferred, the government has helped in constructing an all-weather road into the area, and there have been other benefits as well.

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But the key to the project is Fr. Coronel. A man of tremendous talent as well as energy, he is one of many Roman Catholic priests in Latin American who devote their time and attention to secular matters.

At the Colonial Presidente Stroessner project he has managed to create a thriving agricultural community that is annually producing 40,000 tons of soybeans, 15,000 tons of corn, 1,500 tons of cotton, and 90,000 tons of yuca, as well as 6,000 liters of milk daily. This production represents about 9 percent of Paraguay's annual needs in all of these areas. In addition, the 15-year-old project with its 19,000 inhabitants, now has 400 kilometers of all-weather roads , 24 primary schools, as well as secondary and university level educational facilities for the 5,000 school-age pupils.

Most of the colonists, who come from all parts of Paraguay, are of Spanish and Guarani Indian descent, although there are 30 Brazilian and 15 Japanese families -- as well as a handful of German settlers.

Dressed in an off-white priest's garment, Fr. Coronel takes pride in serving his visitors some of the cheeses, milk, yougurt, and butter produced in the Colonia. Some of this production goes to Asuncion, the Paraguayan capital. According to nutritionists in the capital, these items are having an impact in the local market, providing a much richer dairy product diet for Paraguayans.

The project began with loans from both the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and the Paraguayan government. But the key element for the past 15 years has been Fr. Coronel. Without him, the project would most likely not be as successful as it is.

This is a cause of worry to many observers, including the IADB. Although it is more than pleased with the success of the project and the fact that a $660, 000 loan it made for the project in 1966 has been entirely paid back, the bank wonders what will happen to the project once Fr. Coronel is no longer around.

He controls much of the activity here in a somewhat paternal way. There is strong feeling that he ought to delegate more authority to others. That counsel has been made repeatedly. But so far, he has done virtually nothing to delegate the reins of authority.

Still, the project is clearly a success -- and an example of the sort of work that the IADB does in agricultural development. In the case of the Paraguayan colonization scheme, the bank's funds were used to finance the expansion of the project.

Similar projects in virtually every Latin American country have been helped as well -- some with success stories such as that at Colonia President Stroessner, others which have had less success.

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