Philippines: Leading botanist killed in alleged military-rebel cross-fire

A flurry of tributes and condemnations posted online followed the unexpected death of top botanist Leonard Co and his two assistants, Sofronio Cortez and Julius Borromeo in an alleged cross-fire between the Philippine Army and communist rebels in Kananga, Leyte last November 15.

The army said that the Co became a collateral damage in a legitimate military operation against armed rebels in the area where Co and his companions were gathering seedlings of endangered trees. But contrary to the army’s claim,

Dr. Perry Ong, director of the University of the Philippines Diliman Institute of Biology, believes Co may have been mistaken as an NPA rebel by the AFP.

He said botanists typically carry pole cutters and umbrellas during their field work, and these may have been mistaken as long firearms from a distance.

The family of Co said the AFP's statements about the incident have created more questions than answers.
They want to know why Co was allowed to enter the area if rebel presence had been reported there.

For Agham at Scientia, Co’s is a “bright life that cannot be replaced.”

He was one of if not the last of the classically trained botanists in plant taxonomy and systematics in the Philippines. While one can learn the basics of these disciplines in class, one can only gain expertise in the field, observing the plants themselves.

Photo credits:

A rare flower species, the Rafflesia or “meat flower,” is named after Co.

Rafflesia leonardi is the eight endemic species of Rafflesia described in the Philippines and the fourth for Luzon Island. A nearly smooth disk, a wide-open diaphragm reminiscent of R. manillana and R. lobata, and a size intermediate between the small and large-sized Rafflesia, are unique features of R. leonardi. The flowers are parasitic in the roots and areal parts of the host liana, Tetrastigma. Its bright orange-red flowers give life to the seemingly monotonous green and brown colors of a dense, dark tropical rainforest understory.

Coffeebreak shares second-hand anecdotes from her sister who is a colleague of Co in the UP institute of Biology.

I knew, for instance, that while he was the acknowledged plant expert at IB, with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Philippine flora, it wasn't until 2009 that he finally “graduated” from college. The University awarded him an honorary Bachelor's degree–truly hard-earned and well-deserved–in recognition of his significant achievements and contributions to the field of Botany.

Rey Claro Casambre talks of his personal encounters with Co during Martial Law.

I first met Leonard in 1975, when he was still in his third year as a botany major in UP. He belonged then to a group of bright and dedicated activists who were either undergrad majors or graduates of botany or zoology. This group in turn was part of a larger network of Filipino scientists and technologists who were all committed to using their scientific and technical knowledge and skills to serve the Filipino people. At that time, it meant being part of the Filipino people’s resistance against the Marcos dictatorship, and of their struggle for an independent, genuinely democratic and just society.

The group to which Leonard belonged had decided to undertake a study of medicinal plants in the Philippines, with the aim of eventually contributing to the popularization of local herbal medicines and the production of medicines from readily available and accessible materials. This would greatly benefit the majority of Filipinos in the countrysides where doctors and western medicines are scarce.

Dr. Giovanni Tapang, the chairperson of AGHAM-Advocates of Science and Technology for the People, also writes a tribute to the late botanist.

One poet friend of Leonard tells us that he can even give the local names of these plants in different places in the country. Praising him for his memory, the same friend recounts a very moving quote from the esteemed biologist, “ . . . hindi trabaho ng mga intelektwal na magmemorya ng mga walang kuwentang bagay. Tungkulin ng intelektwal na gamitin ang utak para pag-isipan ang mga bagay.” It is not the task of an intellectual to remember useless things. It is the task of the intellectual to use his brain to think about things.

We add one more, taking cue from the seeds that Leonard Co’s example has planted: It is also the task of the intellectual to change these things for the betterment of all.

Itinerary posts excerpts of a conversation with Co on his childhood, his college days, his comments on political and scientific issues, and his personal projects. Here is Co on indigenous culture and botany:

Marami tayong indigenous knowledge systems na deeply intertwined sa surroundings natin. And in fact, tanggalin mo ang plant lore sa isang kultura, yung traditional na kultura, mawawalan ng identity yang mga yan: mga alamat nila, mga sayaw nila. Sa Palawan ng nakakita ako ng mga ganyan eh. Mga ritwal nila sa pagkuha ng pukyutan, mga ritwal sa paggawa ng arrow poison. Ang conception nila ng disease causation, ang diagnosis nila, magkaiba yan sa bio-medicine…. Although hindi natin natututukan, sinasabi natin, nanganganib ang kanilang mga kultura, we are discussing this in general terms. Kasama ng pagkaubos ng biodiversity natin ay pagkaubos din ng traditional knowledge system.

We have many indigenous knowledge systems that are deeply intertwined with our surroundings. And in fact, if you remove plant lore from a culture, that traditional culture will lose its identity: their legends, their dances. I saw such a case in Palawan. Their rituals in getting pukyutan, rituals in making arrow poison. Their conception of disease causation, their diagnosis is different from bio-medicine… Although we have not looked into this, we say, their culture is in danger, we are discussing this in general terms. Side by side with the shrinking of our biodiversity is the shrinking of the traditional knowledge system.

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