ORMOC CITY—One of the country’s top botanists and two of his companions were killed in a reported crossfire during an encounter between the military and communist rebels in a forested area in Kananga, Leyte, on Monday.
Leonardo L. Co, 56, a specialist in plant taxonomy and ethnobotany who was serving as biodiversity consultant of Lopez-owned Energy Development Corp. (EDC), was gathering specimen seedlings of endangered trees with a five-member team of civilians when he was shot, according to Manuel Paete, EDC resident manager.
Paete identified the other fatalities as Sofronio G. Cortez, a forest guard of EDC-Environmental Management Division, and Julius Borromeo, a member of the Tongonan Farmers Association (Tofa).
Insp. Jedol Camacho, Kananga police chief, said Army soldiers belonging to the 19th Infantry Battalion (IB) reported to the police that they had encountered unidentified armed men in Barangay Lim-ao in Kananga.
He would not say if the bullets that killed the three civilians came from the firearms used by soldiers. A police investigation was still ongoing, he said.
“It was a legitimate military operation. But we are very, very remorseful over what happened,” Lt. Col. Federico Tutaan, commanding officer of the 19th IB, said in a phone interview.
Tutaan said his men were in the area to respond to a report of the EDC about the presence of New People’s Army (NPA) rebels in Sitio Upper Mahiao of Barangay Lim-ao.
“It was just too unfortunate that our men, the NPA members and the civilians were in the same place at the same time,” he said.
Co’s brother-in-law, Darwin Flores, said in a phone interview on Tuesday that the family would like to know what really happened.
“I understand that they were given clearance to proceed to the area,” said Flores, whose sister Glenda is married to Co.
He said he was informed that there was an existing security protocol between EDC and the local military.
“Definitely, we would like to know if there were lapses. And if there were lapses in the security protocol, those who were responsible should answer for it,” Flores said.
State of shock
Paete said Co’s two other companions, Policarpio Balute, a member of Tofa, and Roniño Gibe, a contractual forester with EDC’s corporate social responsibility department, survived the crossfire. Gibe, however, was in shock and was admitted to the hospital of the Ormoc Sugarcane Planters Association.
EDC had hired Co as a Binhi project consultant to conduct a study on tree biodiversity in the area and to collect seedling specimens of wild trees for replanting, Paete explained. Borromeo and Balute served as his guides.
According to its website, EDC is implementing the Binhi project, which focuses on prime endangered Philippine tree species, to bring back vanishing trees that are highly valued and those that are native to the country.
In an interview, Col. Allan Martin, deputy commanding officer of the 802nd Infantry Brigade, said the soldiers who figured in the encounter were now “restricted” to their camp in Barangay Aguiting in Kananga. “There is now an investigation regarding that incident,” he said.
The soldiers, led by Lt. Ronald Ocheamar, figured in a 15-minute gun battle with seven armed men at about 12:15 p.m., Martin said.
During a press conference, Tutaan admitted that one of the soldiers fired the first shot because they were at a vantage point overlooking the area where they saw a man dressed in black jacket holding a long firearm.
Tutaan also refused to blame anybody for the deaths of the civilians. “I am not saying it was a lapse,” he said, noting that the area has thick forests and only patches were visible.
Tutaan said Co and his team were not visible to the soldiers.
Co, who was also the president of the Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society, served as a museum researcher at the University of the Philippines Institute of Biology (IB). He was the de facto curator of the Jose Vera Santos Herbarium, according to Dr. Perry Ong, IB director.
He was known in the Cordilleras for his work in helping communities systematize the knowledge of traditional healers about medicinal plants for their own primary health care.
As a staff member of the Community Health, Education, Services and Training in the Cordillera Administrative Region (Chestcore) based in Baguio City since 1981, Co had helped list 122 medicinal plants in the region with their scientific and common names.
The list also included illustrations so anyone could identify the plant. Descriptions of the plant included habitat, distribution, parts utilized, indications, directions for use, dosage, and precautionary notes on toxicity and contraindications.
In 1989, Co published the book, “Common Medicinal Plants in the Cordillera Region: A Trainor’s Manual for Community-Based Health Programs,” in collaboration with Chestcore.
The book was primarily designed to help communities tap their traditional medicinal plants to treat some common diseases without relying too much on prescription drugs, which are not readily available.
He also authored “The Forest Trees of Palanan, Philippines: A Study in Population Ecology.”
Although a serious botanist, who always carried a bag in which to preserve plants he would collect anywhere he went, Co was also remembered for his humor.
A joke his former colleagues in Chestcore still remember was about how he defined plagiarism and research. Co had said: “If you copy from one source, that’s plagiarism. If you copy from many sources, that’s considered research, which can even pass off as a thesis or dissertation for some graduate degree.”
Flores disclosed that Co had told his wife that he would prefer to be cremated and have a brief wake.
Co’s body was expected to be brought to Funeraria Paz on Araneta Avenue in Quezon City Tuesday night. On Wednesday, it will be transferred to UP Diliman where a tribute will be held.
Flores said Co wanted to have some of his ashes scattered in Palanan and around a tree in UP Diliman, and the rest to remain with his family. With a report from Maurice Malanes, Inquirer Northern Luzon
Leonardo L Co: In Memoriam
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