Botanist of the people : Leonardo Co
Leonardo Legaspi Co (1953-2010) was a 56 years old when he was felled before his time: a selfless scientist for the people, botanist, conservation biologist, acupuncturist, ethnopharmacologist, and a teacher to countless people.
Co was born in Manila on December 29,1953; the eldest and only son of Lian SIng Co, a Chinese immigrant and Emelina Legaspi of Taguddin, Ilocos.
Growing up in Caloocan, the younger Co took a keen interest in science and botany, which would soon become a lifelong vocation. Entering college a the University of the Philippines during Martial Law, Leonard became part of the group of activists using their scientific and technical knowledge and skills to serve the Filipino people, resist the Marcos dictatorship, and struggle for an independent, genuinely democratic and just society.
This group completed a survey of the Philippine in medicinal plants, an important project at a time when medicines were prohibitively costly. In 1977, it was published by the UP Botanical Society as A Manual on Some Medicinal Plants, and is now considered a pioneering work. As the days of the Marcos dictatorship dragged on , Co endured a brief period of detention at the Camp Crame Stockade. In the 1980s, he left Manila and continued his research in the grassroots communities in the mountains of the Cordilleria region, devoting almost a decade of his life to documenting and systematizing the people’s collective knowledge and practice on medical plant.
In 1981, Co and other advocates founded a Baguio-based NGO, named Community Health, Education, Services and Training in the Cordillera Region (CHESTCORE), working in the Mountain Province, Ifugao, Benquet, Abra, and Kalinga. With Co’s expertise, CHESTCORE was able to document 122 medicinal plants. In 1989, they published a book on common medicinal plants in the Cordillera, which become a valuable reference material to more than 50 community-based health programs all around the country.
Co offered his knowledge of traditional Chinese and herbal medicine to the Cordillera’s peoples, who have been neglected for the most part by the national government. His scientific expertise was enriched by traditional knowledge. The Cordillera Peoples Alliance and the Tongtongan Ti Umili said that Co was a “great scientist who devoted his life to practicing science and health for the people”, enduring “difficult travel along rocky mountains road, even trekking up many steep trails on foot to reach communities where government health and social services did not reach” and training local health workers on the use of medicinal plants and the practice of acupuncture, so that they could attend to their community’s health needs.”
Upon returning to Manila, Co established himself as a top-notch plant taxonomist. He worked as a pharmacologist, a field botanist for Conservation International (CI), and a museum researcher and lecturer for the UP Institute of Biology. He engaged government as a representative of civil society in the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau’s Philippine Plant Conservation Committee in 2004 and National Wild Flora Council in 2008. At Cl, he conducted biodiversity monitoring in the forests of Sierra Madre, Palawan, and Eastern Mindanao. From 2000 to the last months of his life, Co was the principal investigator for a 16-hectare biodiversity research facility project in Palanan, Isabela.
Co believed that botanical resources should be in the service of the Filipino. He propagated his knowledge formally and informally because he knew that if more people understood plants, they would treasure these resources. In 2007, he founded the Philippine Native Plant Conservation Society, Inc (PNPCSI), an NGO devoted to the conservation of indigenous Philippine plants and their natural habitats.
Co did not finish his Botany degree in UP until 2008, 32 years after he entered UP. Yet this delay never deterred him from becoming an internationally recognized expert. From 1977 to 2009, he co-authored six books and 13 articles in peer-reviewed publications. In 2008, the Rafflesia Leonardi, discovered by an Agta native in Cagayan Valley, was named after him.
Co was felled at a time when his life’s work was beginning to see fruition. On the morning November 15, 2010, Co assembled a four-man team for a reforestation project in the Manawan-Kananga Watershed in Leyte. By the afternoon, Co and two of his companions were dead, felled by a hail of bullets from the 9th Infantry Battalion (IB) of the Philippine Army. The military unit involved wrote off the incident as the “unfortunate” result of an encounter with the New People’s Army. However, this was belied by the two survivors from Co’s group, who testified that no encounter took place. An independent fact-finding mission that same month also concluded that there was no indication of any crossfire and recommended specific actions for the government to further shed light and seek accountability for the killing.
In January 2011, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and National Bureau of Investigation’s (NBI) own fact-finding team released its report, which cleared the 19th IB in the killing. Co’s family protested against the DOJ report and filed formal criminal charges of murder against the 19th IB. Both the CHR and the DOJ have not released their conclusive reports to date.
Co has now received many posthumous awards recognizing his excellence as a scientist: it is only right to highlight at this point the value f his sacrifice to the countless learners and communities he has quietly served. Sustained by sheer passion and sharpened through practice, the value of his vast and almost encyclopedic expertise was that it was shared in majority who needed it most. We shall always be grateful to Co and his colleagues who labored during the days of the dictatorship to make health and knowledge an attainable reality for the most dispossessed of communities. We shall always salute Co for his examples as a scientist for the people: one who has devoted his life to systematizing our knowledge of the forests and nurturing a passion for learning and for service. The quest for justice continues.