They wasted a Filipino genius: still no justice for Leonard Co
“Once in a hundred years a rare species appears that has a special role for all of creation.” Thus was Dr. Leonard Legaspi Co memorialized as foremost Filipino botanist, taxonomist and conservationist. Leonard scoured Luzon-Visayas-Mindanao forests in research. He fought for their protection from mining and logging. In the end he fell in the forests he so loved.
Leonard knew the English, Tagalog and vernacular term for every endemic grass, fern and tree. He was called a genius for memorizing all the scientific names. He studied more than 10,000 species. Eight of those he discovered. One is named after him Rafflesia leonardi, a variety of a giant Southeast Asian flower as big as a basin. He taught young scientists everything he learned in 40 years.
Tragedy struck on Nov. 15, 2010. Leonard, 56, was examining the forest in Kananga, Leyte when shot by soldiers. “Tama na, hindi kami armado (Stop firing, we’re unarmed),” Leonard shouted before breathing his last. Slain too were companions, Energy Development Corp. employee Sofronio Cortez and farmer Julio Borromeo. Two others, state forester Ronino Gibe and farmer Policarpio Balute, lay wounded.
At first the soldiers claimed that Leonard’s team fired at them, so they returned fire. Gibe and Balute belied them. All they had were two sungkit (grapnel) attached to bamboo poles, two itak (machete), a basket and Leonard’s trusty umbrella. The bamboo poles were painted orange for easy sighting. Farmers and foresters normally carry machetes.
With that the soldiers changed their story. Supposedly the five were caught in crossfire with communist New People’s Army rebels. Investigators disproved that too. Rifle bullet slugs showed that the volley came only from the soldiers’ direction. From wounds, the five were shot from behind while gathering seeds and seedlings. There were no attacking rebels.
Still the soldiers delayed, alibied and withheld evidence. In the end, prosecutors indicted a lieutenant and eight troopers for reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide and attempted homicide. Twenty-seven others were charged with obstructing justice.
Twelve years hence, the case pends in court. Leonard’s widow Glenda appealed in 2010 for the charge to be amended to murder. After all, the 36 respondents admitted to intentionally targeting the victims. Too, they acted with the singular purpose of killing. None could say who actually saw the supposed rebels. Ballistics showed they fired close range from higher vantage.
Did the soldiers ambush them? The Commission on Human Rights has been questioning such military operations deemed as civilian rights violations and even admitted in Army press releases. Short of cash, Glenda travels every two months to Leyte to attend hearings.
A University of the Philippines Biology professor in 2010, Leonard was doubling as EDC’s reforestation consultant. The firm’s former chairman Oscar Lopez had tapped him to replant seedlings at the firm’s geothermal power facility in Kananga’s Brgy. Lim-ao. Leonard’s tireless replenishing of endangered species inspired EDC staff.
Leonard was a prominent figure in UP Diliman in the 1970s. He looked nerdy in thick eyeglasses, crew-cut, camisa de chino, denims, rubber slippers and with folded umbrella under his arm. Amused fellow students watched him crouching over shrubs, scrutinizing flowers and brushing aphids from under leaves.
Leonard’s scholarship amazed members of the Biology Students’ Circle. He dabbled in Literature with the campus theater troupe Samahang Mag-aaral ng Pilipino. In 1975, he led both groups and other volunteers (me included) to replant hardwood around the grassy lagoon between the Faculty Center and the tennis courts. Every week he inspected the saplings of what are now a lush sanctuary of rare birds, insects and flora.
Environment activism and campus turbulence disrupted Leonard’s studies. Yet despite his unfinished undergrad, he was consulted by younger professors on their researches. He later breezed through master’s and doctorate programs.
Daughter Linnaea Marie was 12 when Leonard was killed. He had named her after the beautiful twinflower Linnaea borealis of Scandinavia and Alaska. Linnaea and Gladys buried part of his ashes beneath his tree in the UP woods. The rest they brought via bus, Navy boat, tricycle and trek to the Sierra Madres in Palanan, Isabela – to blow away in the forest where he discovered his Rafflesia.
Family and friends cry for justice. Watch the short film “Immortal Life of Leonardo Co”: https://cinemata.org/view?m=ms6NPFDuV
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