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Meet Arturo Tanco, a technocrat who tends the vital farming front

Arturo R. Tanco Jr. is one of those highly educated technoracts who basically run the Philippine government. Under martial law, the 21 Cabinet ministers have enormous powers as long as they have the ear and authority of President Ferdinand Marcos.

Mr. Tanco, as minister of agriculture, has in economic terms the most important of these Cabinet posts. Agriculture employs some 55 percent of the nation's labor force and provides 26 percent of total gross national product.Some 69 percent of the population live in rural areas.

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"This is still a poor country," noted the white-haired agriculture minister.

Like at least five other members of the Cabinet, Mr. Tanco is a graduate of Harvard University. (He has a degree from the Business School.) Several more ministers have graduated from other American universities. Many do not consider themselves politicians -- rather experts trying to speed the economic development of their nation.

Mr. Tanco would probably have to be less frank if he frequently faced election. During a lengthy interview, for instance, he broke off briefly to ask a question of an assistant on the telephone, and began discussing whether the price of fertilizer should be raised once more in line with the price of petroleum.

"This is a painful decision for every developing country," he explained afterward. "So we are patsying around.I'm scared."

If the price is raised, it hurts the farmers -- particularly those rice and corn farmers using the latest high-yield varieties that depend for their high outputs on heavy doses of fertilizer.

"We have been struggling to make sure these farmers make a profit," he said.

On the other side, if the price is not raised, the government fertilizer subsidy would have to be increased. That already costs some 250 million pesos ( "parsimonious."

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"Maybe we should raise the price and save some money," he concluded.

Since the martial law, he said, the government has shifted its development emphasis. "We were pushing for this will-of-the-wisp -- industriazation was the hallmark of the economy. Now we are aiming at a balanced economy.

Much more is being spent on irrigation, rural roads, land reform, rural electrification, rural credit, and so on.

For example, the level of credit provided farmers jumped from 3.5 billion pesos in 1973 to 15 billion pesos in 1976. Banks were spread around the countryside, sometimes on wheels to serve small villages, Mr. Tanco continued. The number of rural banks expanded from around 400 in 1973 to more than 1,000 now. The goal is 2,500 rural banks; there are about 3,200 towns in the Philippines.

With these institutions lending at 14 percent, the usury rate has plunged from 150 percent to 35 or 40 percent. Landlords, who held their tenants in financial bondage before, can no longer do so. (The banks sometimes had considerable problem in getting the farmers to make repayments. Many farmers thought any government money was a handout. Being poor, they also find it difficult to repay loans. In any case, some banks eventually would lend money only to those who had repaid previous loans.)

In 1971, the country imported some 650,000 tons of rice. It could have used even more in 1973 when the government launched its Masagana 99 program to boost the production of rice. Masagana means "bountiful" in Tagalog, a native language. The 99 refers to the number of sacks (cavans) or rice per hectare (or 4.4 metric tons) which the program hoped to see produced.

By 1976, said Mr. Tanco, the country was self-sufficient in rice. This year, he figures, it could export 400,000 to 500,000 tons if a market could be found. Indeed, the nation has a storage problem for its excess rice and plans to construct more storage space. The nation is storing some 140 days of supply, whereas 90 would be adequate.

Corn could also start to be exported this year, as production exceeds domestic cosumption.

More rural roads hae been built in th last eight years, Mr. Tanco has boasts, than in the entire Spanish and American eras. (The Spanish ruled for 327 years, the Americans from 1898 until independence in 1946.)

Though the financial welfare of farmers varies from year to year depending on crop, prices and yields, their standard of living has improved in the last decade.

However, the income of rice farmers, after rising sharply with the introduction of the new rice varieties, has been slipping lately, Mr. Tanco indicated.

After examining some of the problems and delays the government experienced in its land reform and farm programs, the Asian Development Bank commented in a report that "it should not be inferred that these programs have been even partial failures. Given the need for parallel programs, the limited experience of executing agencies, and the material constraints, shortfalls were expected."

Nonetheless, the problems of the rural Philippines remain difficult. There are still some 3.5 million landless farm laborers, who make up almost half of the agricultural work force. They tend to be the poorest of the poor, suffering from seasonal and uncertain employment.

With the population of the Philippines growing rapidly, especially in the rural areas, the movement of landless farm laborers to the cities will continue. Many could end up living in grim slums.

One reasonf for the government's efforts to diversify industry away from Manila to smaller centers is to absorb some of the farmers' sons and daughters who can no longer find work on the land.

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