We, the University Council of UP Diliman, mourn the loss of our colleague, Leonardo L. Co, the country’s top taxonomist and biodiversity expert. He was one of our nation’s most devoted son, the protector of its forests. As a scientist, he combed our forests and mountains, collecting plants the names of which he knew by heart, identifying those that had medicinal value to benefit our people, and sharing with the world the rare plant species he discovered. By the rigor of his work, he sought to bring an end to the wanton destruction of our forests. By his life, Leonardo taught us more than taxonomy. He showed us, above all, what the UP Oblation means: a life of learning in the service of our country and people.
Leonardo was a veteran fieldworker who took extra precautions not to imperil the life of his team. More than 30 years of fieldwork taught him the wisdom of prudence. He would not have ventured into the forests of Kanangga, Leyte without clearance from the Energy Development Corporation (EDC) under whose 10-year tree nurturing BINHI program he was its biodiversity expert.
On that fateful day of 15 November 2010, Leonardo and his team were in the forests of Upper Mahiao in Barangay Lim-ao, Kanangga, Leyte, assessing which trees could be considered mother trees for the BINHI program when they were allegedly caught in a “crossfire” between soldiers of the 19th Infantry Battalion under Lt. Col Federico Tutaan and an unnamed armed group. Not even the trees he loved so much could protect him and his teammates Sofronio Cortez of the EDC and Julius Borromeo of the Tongonan Farmers Association (ToFa) from the bullets that claimed their lives. Two survivors, forester Roniño Gibe and ToFA farmer-member Policarpio Batute, have both declared that there was no exchange of gunfire and that they were directly fired upon.
Leonardo’s contributions to our country are immeasurable and are sure to benefit future generations. We pay the highest tribute to our colleague and consummate biodiversity researcher for his depth of commitment to our country. He is truly irreplaceable.
To honor Leonardo L. Co is to demand justice for his tragic death and that of coworkers, Sofronio Cortez and Julius Borromeo. We are unconvinced by the military’s explanation that they were killed in a “crossfire.” The University Council of UP Diliman calls on the government to immediately act on the following:
form an independent and credible investigating team to ferret out the truth and identify those culpable involved in this unconscionable incident;
ensure there is no whitewash and those responsible be charged and punished;
guarantee the safety of the survivors, honor and preserve the integrity of their testimonies;
undertake measures to prevent the recurrence of the incident; and
make research field sites safe for all field workers, field biologists and extension workers among others, who provide service to the people.
We will not allow Leonardo’s death to be just one more statistic. The irony that his life was taken away while he himself labored to conserve life does not escape us. As we grieve for our colleague, we clamor for justice for him and his co-fieldworkers. Leonardo L. Co was not just one of us. In truth, he belonged to the entire nation.
*Adopted by the University Council of UP Diliman in a special meeting held on November 26, 2010.