“Leonard Co believed that if only we can see the wealth of the Philippines, the plants, we would love our country even more.”
By DEE AYROSO
MANILA — “Getting justice in the Philippines is like betting on lotto.”
University of the Philippines Professor Jasper John Obico recalled the words of the late botanist Leonard Co when he described justice to be as elusive as a lottery jackpot prize. And it seems to be so for the many victims of extrajudicial killings, including Co.
It has been four years since Nov. 15, 2010, when Co was shot dead along with forester Sofronio Cortez and farmer Julius Borromeo by soldiers of the 19th Infantry “Comando” Battalion. Co and his team were doing biodiversity research for the Energy Development Corporation (EDC) in the forest in Upper Mahiao, Lim-ao, Kananga, Leyte.
Co’s friends and family decried the “whitewash and impunity” because no one has been made accountable, and the soldiers who killed Co have not even been charged with murder. They gathered on a rainy morning on Nov. 15 at the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife Center (Nawpc) in Quezon City to “rekindle the call for justice.”
They also remembered Co’s brilliance and passion in his work, and how his mission of spreading seeds of knowledge on Philippine flora and fauna now flourishes, as his colleagues and family carry on his work.
The commemoration was sponsored by the Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society Inc. (PNPCSI), which Co founded in 2007, the UP Mountaineers of which he was a senior member, the Advocates of Science and Technology for the People (Agham), and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (Denr).
Co’s family were all in attendance, including his wife Glenda and daughter Linnaea, his parents Lian Seng and Emelina Co, and his siblings and their families. Several Dumagats who were attending a bio-diversity training also joined the gathering.
A mass was later held in UP Diliman, by a Dita tree, “the scholar tree,” the spot where one-third of Co’s ashes had been deposited.
Co’s brother-in-law, Dr. Bobby Austria, decried that the Department of Justice (DOJ) found only probable cause to file charges of reckless imprudence resulting to multiple homicide and attempted homicide against nine soldiers, and obstruction of justice against 27 military officers.
Austria recalled the testimony of survivor Roniño Gibe who said that they shouted and pleaded to the soldiers to stop firing, but the latter only shouted back, “So you were there all the time,” and kept firing. He added that spent shells were recovered near the spot where the three died, which shows that the soldiers had moved closer and seen Co and company unarmed and wounded, yet they continued to fire.
“They kept firing, so there is no reckless imprudence there. But there is intent to kill, because even as they pleaded, the soldiers kept firing. There is intent to kill,” Austria reiterated at the gathering.
Austria recalled an incident on the second day of Co’s wake, which probably foretold how government would treat the case. Paul Aquino, an uncle of President Aquino came to the wake and repeatedly asked the family to await the result of the military investigation before making condemnations. Annoyed, Austria told him that no military in the world would make an “admission against self-interest”.
Austria said that Aquino was “smooth,” and seeing that he had not convinced the family, he just smiled, and said: “Do you know that the geothermal plant supplies 25 percent of the energy needs of Metro Manila?” To this, Austria retorted: “So, are you telling me, Mr. Aquino, that the killing of my brother-in-law is now a national security issue?” Aquino kept smiling and left.
Even if it would mean waiting longer for justice, Austria said he is pinning hopes when Pres. Aquino ends his term in 2016. “Maybe next time there will no longer be a Paul who will whisper that there is a need to protect the EDC in Kananga, and maybe under the next president, the soldiers will then be charged with murder.”
Meantime, the soldiers are not even under detention. The 2010 killings were not the first case involving the army unit. In 2003, the 19th IB, then under Lt. Col. Oscar Lactao, had figured in the April 16 “Kananga massacre” which killed nine people, four of them minors, in San Isidro village, Kananga. The military claimed it was an encounter, but a fact-finding mission reported that the victims were shot in the back of the head, indicating summary execution.
Lawyer Irish Tobiano, of the Free Legal Assistance Group and the counsel for the family, said there are four pending petitions and complaints in the past four years.
The family, through then counsel Evalyn Ursua, filed in April 2013 a petition for review of the DOJ resolution to charge the soldiers with only reckless imprudence resulting to homicide. The military side has not responded, and the petition for review should have been considered submitted for resolution. Tobiano said that on Oct. 28, they filed a manifestation for the DOJ to resolve the case. They are set to hold a dialogue with the DOJ on Nov. 19.
Two cases – one, of reckless imprudence resulting to homicide against the nine soldiers, and obstruction of justice against 27 military officers – are pending at the Kananga municipal circuit trial court. The proceeding has been suspended pending the decision from the DOJ and the Supreme Court.
The Co family had filed a petition at the Supreme Court for transfer of venue of the cases, from Kananga to Quezon City. Tobiano said that on Nov. 5, the Supreme Court had denied the petition, but they are filing a motion for reconsideration on Nov. 19.
Co’s wife Glenda said the court documents in Kananga were washed out by super typhoon Yolanda a year ago, which further delayed the legal proceedings.
Dangerous for defenders
Len Ragragio, a botany teacher in UP Manila and Co’s college friend, told the gathering how Co had a “deep and intense love of country.”
“Leonard believed that if only we can see the wealth of the Philippines, the plants, we would love our country even more,” she said. She said Co lamented that the nation’s resources are exploited by foreigners. He saw the need to educate people about natural resources so they can protect it.
Ragragio said: “Leonard believed that “there is a need for fundamental change, and not just in the political and economic aspect, but also in science, which should be for the people. Science should be progressive, and not deceptive.”
Also during the program, Karl Bignotea of Agham cited the Global Witness report which ranked the Philippines the third most dangerous place to defend land and the environment, with 67 killings from 2002 to 2013. Brazil ranked first with 448 killings, and Honduras second, with 109.
This November also marks the 10th year of the “Hacienda Luisita massacre” where seven striking farm workers were shot dead by state forces in Tarlac.
Co is one of the 204 victims of extrajudicial killings in the four years under the Aquino regime.
“Four years after, our calls and demands have increased since the number of human rights violations have increased, not only against scientists but against the Filipino people at large,” said Agham chair Dr. Gani Tapang and co-convener of the Justice for Leonard Co (J4LCo).
“For me, I cannot forgive what happened to Leonard. The stupidity, the idiocy of the soldiers who killed him may still be understandable, but the government’s continuous lies on what happened, that is hard to accept,” said Ragragio.
Prof. Obico, who is also PNPCSI vice president, said Co would have been very happy because the group that he founded had been gaining green ground in the past years.
The group had been conducting “tree walks” and conferences in Metro Manila and other urban areas, educating people on native plants and their ecological importance, and advocating tree planting. “You cannot protect what you don’t know,” they quoted Co’s words.
Anthony Arbias of the PNPCSI cited the many efforts of his and other groups to continue Co’s legacy. Co was given several posthumous awards, which recognize not only what he has done, but also the need to carry on his mission.
In Palaui island, Cagayan province, one could follow “Leonard’s trail” to commune with, as well as to learn from nature.
Arbias also said that up to 10 species had been named after Co. Among these were: the rafflesia leonardi, a parasitic plant in Cagayan; mycaranthes leonardoi, an endemic orchid in Sierra Madre; and gekko coi, an endemic lizard from the Sibuyan island.
Guding Gonzalo of Nawpc recalled how she learned so much from Co when he led an inventory of plants inside the park. “Now the park is a showcase of native plants. Students and researchers need not go to the mountains, they can just visit here,” she said.
A section of the park had been named as “Leonard Co Garden of Native Flora.”
Ronald Achacoso, a PNPCSI member said: “We were obliged to elevate what we know into something grander, something nobler, something more ambitious.”
He said that when Co founded the PNPCSI, he was able to fuse the interests of botanists and other scientists along with hobbyists, mountaineers and nature enthusiasts. “His mission was to revive the knowledge. He sees each mountain as a repository of untapped knowledge, a library,” said Achacoso.
“Leonard, he could read the forest like a book .. and he wants all of us to be able to read the forest,” Achacoso said.
During the gathering, the PNPCSI launched the book “Mt. Tapulao Field Guide” which was founded on Co’s study of plant species in the mountain in Palauig, Zambales.
Co’s only child Linnaea, 12, recalled a time when her father saw her watching a TV series about a man who turned into a dog to watch over his family, and Co said: “When I die, I would want to turn into a butterfly, so that even if you’re far I can still guide you and your Mommy.”
Linnaea believes that this had indeed come true, because after her father’s death, a yellow butterfly has become a constant presence.
She said that some three weeks before he was killed, her father took her to a Dita tree in UP where he said he wanted his ashes to be scattered. “Here I saw his passion and dedication to his work and — more specially, when we brought another part of his ashes to Palanan, Isabela — that up until the last minute, he wants to be with the plants and his nature of work.”
Agham chair and Justice for Leonard Co (J4LCo) convener Dr. Giovanni Tapang said: “They key is to continue the pressure on the government, on the DOJ and on Pres. Aquino to not let this become mere statistics.”