Leonardo L. Co 1953–2010
Leonardo L. Co, a Filipino botanist and taxonomist who was respected worldwide and dearly loved by the people of his country, died November 15, 2010, from gunshot wounds.1 He was 57 years old.
Co was collecting seeds from endangered trees in a forested area in Kananga, Leyte, Philippines, when he and 2 others in his 5-man team were shot and killed. He had been hired by Energy Development Corporation (EDC), a Philippine developer of renewable energy, to conduct a study on the area’s tree biodiversity and potential for a reforestation project. Co died alongside Sofronio G. Cortez, a forest guard of EDC’s environmental management division, and Julius Borromeo, a member of the Tongonan Farmers Association (ToFA).
The nature of these deaths has been and continues to be very controversial and remains somewhat unsolved. Soldiers of the Filipino army originally claimed that the men were killed in crossfire between the military and armed rebels of the Philippine Communist Party’s New People’s Army (NPA). This depiction of events, however, was disputed from the start. An EDC spokesperson told the media that the company informed the military of the group’s plans and received a security clearance before proceeding, and that NPA rebels did not have any nearby camps.2 Additionally, eyewitness accounts from the survivors on Co’s team and a recent multi-organizational fact-finding mission reported that there was no crossfire and the gunshots came only from the direction of where the military was located.3 As of press time, more than 2 months since the killings, the army has not commented on these findings and the official Department of Justice report is pending.
A noted botanist, ethnobotanist, and taxonomist, Co spent his life with plants and the people who use them. He discovered several new plant species native to the Philippines, including Vaccinium oscarlopezianum (Ericaceae). The plants Rafflesia leonardi (Rafflesiaceae) and Mycaranthes leonardoi (Orchidaceae) were both named after him and a new species of pitcher plant (Nepenthaceae), discovered in the Philippines in November, is also to be named after him.4 Co authored The Forest Trees of Palanan, Philippines: A Study in Population Ecology in 2006, and served as president of the Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society (PNPSC), curator of the Jose Vera Santos Herbarium, and museum researcher at the University of the Philippines (UP) Institute of Biology.1 He received his bachelor’s degree in botany from UP Diliman.
“Working with him was stimulating because Leonardo was full of ideas regarding many things, not only about plants,” said Elena M. Ragragio, an assistant professor in UP Manila’s Department of Biology, who knew Co for 30 years (e-mail, December 18, 2010). “He knew about constellations, played the national anthem of different countries on his harmonica, was able to talk and read [the] Chinese, English, and Filipino languages. He was also very funny and found humor in many things. [When] we were young, many of our ideas were really ambitious about how to change the world, our society, etc.”
A large part of Co’s career was focused on medicinal plants. Working with Community Health Education, Services and Training in the Cordillera Region (CHESTCORE) in the 1980s, Co helped to list 122 Filipino medicinal plants.1 He also worked in the Cordilleras region to help local communities systematize their traditional medicine knowledge so that they could employ it in their own primary healthcare. As part of this work, he wrote and distributed the book Common Medicinal Plants in the Cordillera Region: A Trainer’s Manual for Community-Based Health Programs.
Additionally, Co set up community-based health systems in poverty-stricken indigenous villages around the country. According to colleagues quoted in local newspapers, he did all of this not “for his own personal career or economic advancement, but instead offered it back for the benefit and use of the communities.”5 For these efforts, Co is credited with helping to prevent biopiracy, as well as loss of traditional practices as a result of globalization. He is now widely remembered as a “scientist of the people.”
“[Leonardo] was specially involved in the various struggles of the marginalized sectors in our country who live in poverty in spite of the richness of natural resources in the country,” said Ragragio. “Leonardo was well aware of the inequalities in our society, so his work on medicinal plants here in the Philippines was his way of contributing to alleviation of this poverty since medicines in our country are beyond the reach of majority of the people. He lived and believed that botanical knowledge is for the people and should not be confined within the walls of the university.”
Reflecting the international scope of respect for Co’s work, S. H. Sohmer, PhD, president and director of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, called Co’s death “a keen loss for Philippine botany” (e-mail, December 16, 2010). “There are so few botanists of his caliber in the Philippines,” said Dr. Sohmer, who initiated and organized the Philippine Flora project in the 1980s and also did field work there. “He was competent, positive, and very collaborative. It will be a loss that will affect Philippine botany significantly.” USAID-Philippines wrote in a letter to Co’s wife, which was posted on Facebook: “We admire your husband’s unparalleled dedication and deep commitment to his work, particularly in conserving the forests, and helping families and communities who are dependent on these forest resources. Your husband and other people like him who lost their lives in doing conservation work are true patriots. USAID will continue to support conservation work in the Philippines so that their sacrifices are not left in vain. His passing away is truly a great loss to the country and to the global community.”
CHESTCORE recently released a statement, documented in various news reports, noting that it is not uncommon for health workers carrying out projects in remote communities to be accused of helping or being a part of NPA.5,6 A separate news editorial on Co states that community-based health programs continue to be harassed by the military, and that the location where he was shot is controlled by a part of the army that is known for alleged crossfire-related citizen deaths.7
Co is survived by his parents, Lian Sing and Emelina Co, his wife, Glenda Flores Co, and his daughter, Linnaea Marie, named after 18th century botanist and father of taxonomy Carl Linnaeus. “His work is very significant since there are only a handful of botanists in the country, most of whom are specialists on only one family of plant,” said Ragragio. “However, Leonardo’s plant knowledge encompasses all divisions, from ferns, to angiosperms, including the particular species’ ecology. Leonardo has no equal. Some botanists can perhaps work on Leonard’s latest collections, which are housed in the UP Diliman Herbarium. However, I am not so optimistic about who will continue Leonardo’s work.”
Co’s colleagues, students, friends, and family are heartbroken over the loss and remain determined to uncover the events surrounding his death. A Facebook page titled, “Leonardo L CO: In Memoriam,” for example, has more than 1,200 followers and numerous wall posts informing people of the latest developments with the Justice for Leonardo Co movement. As he wished, a third of Co’s ashes were scattered on a blackboard (or dita) tree (Alstonia scholaris, Apocynaceae) growing on UP Diliman’s campus and another third will soon be scattered in Palanan forest’s 16-hectare forest dynamics plot. The remaining ashes were given to his family. A Leonardo L. Co Justice Fund has been established to help pay for the costs of prosecuting his killers. More information is available at: www.facebook. com/note.php?note_id=182359148446942&id=162637747108520.
- Roa E, Gabieta JA. Top botanist killed in crossfire. Philippine Daily Inquirer. November 17, 2010. Available at: www.newsinfo.inquirer.net/inquirerheadlines/nation/view/20101117-303662/Top-botanist-killed-in-crossfire. Accessed December 13, 2010.
- Philippine botanist killed in military operation. The Hindu. November 17, 2010. Available at: www.thehindu.com/news/international/article891888.ece. Accessed December 13, 2010.
- Gabieta JA. Military mum on probe finding no crossfire in botanist’s death. Philippine Daily Inquirer. December 10, 2010. Available at: newsinfo. inquirer.net/breakingnews/regions/view/20101210-308170/Military-mum-on-probe-finding-no-crossfire-in-botanists-death. Accessed December 22, 2010.
- Anda R. New pitcher plant species to be named after slain botanist. Inquirer Southern Luzon. December 17, 2010. Available at: globalnation. inquirer.net/region/philippines/view/20101217-309503/New-pitcher-plant-species-to-be-named-after-slain-botanist. Accessed December 22, 2010.
- Picaña T. Cordillera NGOs mourn Co, salute him as ‘scientist of the people’. GMANews.TV. November 21, 2010. Available at: www.gmanews. tv/story/206554/cordillera-ngos-mourn-co-salute-him-as-scientist-of-the-people.
- Caluza D. Botanist’s case not isolated, says health group. Philippine Daily Inquirer. November 21, 2010. Available at: www.newsinfo.inquirer.net/ inquirerheadlines/regions/view/20101121-304498/Botanists-case-not-isolated-says-health-group. Accessed December 13, 2010.
- Tan M. Leonard’s passion. Philippine Daily Inquirer. December 3, 2010. Available at: www.opinion.inquirer.net/inquireropinion/columns/ view/20101203-306719/Leonards-passion. Accessed December 13, 2010.