Scientists seek neutral probe into botanist's killing

By Atom Araullo, ABS-CBN News and Jojo Malig, abs-cbnNEWS.com

Posted at Nov 19 2010 01:40 AM | Updated as of Nov 20 2010 12:06 AM

MANILA, Philippines – Scientists’ group Agham on Thursday condemned the killing of distinguished ethnobotanist Leonardo Co and 2 of his assistants.

The group also called for an independent civilian investigation into the incident.

Photo from Facebook account of Leonard Co

Co and his 4 companions were conducting research work for the Energy Development Corporation (EDC) in Upper Mahiao, Lim-ao, Kananga in Leyte when they were allegedly caught in the crossfire between an Army patrol and New People’s Army guerrillas.    

Agham chairperson Giovanni Tapang, however, said that the statements of the survivors lead them to believe that no exchange of gunfire took place.

Given the vantage point and prior information of the soldiers, Tapang believes that that the death of Co and his aides resulted from the indiscriminate firing of troops without any verification of their targets.

“Parang nagkaroon ng mistaken identity sa kanyang research team ng militar, at bigla na lang silang pinaputukan noong nakita sila doon sa lugar,” he told TV Patrol.

The Armed Forces is insisting that a legitimate encounter between government forces and the NPA took place.

Lt. Col. Federico Tutaan, commanding officer of the 19th Infantry Batallion operating in Kananga Leyte, also said the rebels fired the first shot.

Lt. Gen. Reynaldo Mapagu

Armed Forces vice-chief Lt. Gen. Reynaldo Mapagu, meanwhile, said they will investigate who killed Co.

“Kung meron tayong lapses, siguro may pananagutan ang ating mga involved na troops, then so be it,” Mapagu said.

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) states that all parties to a conflict must ensure at all times that civilians are protected. This includes the responsibility to distinguish between combatants and civilians.

Republic Act 9851, or the Philippine Act on Crimes Against International Humanitarian Law, Genocide, and Other Crimes Against Humanity, which took effect earlier this year, penalizes violations of IHL.    

Agham hailed Co as one of a few remaining high-caliber taxonomists in the Philippines.

"The loss of a scientist like Leonard Co who has stayed in the country despite other opportunities abroad is saddening but the circumstances of his death makes it doubly worse," Tapang said.

 “Both domestically and nationally, he’s really a contribution to all of us. And he’s a loss,” said Darwin Flores, Co's brother-in-law.

“Iyong karunungan niya at kaalaman niya, ay maituturing natin na walang kapantay. Meron siya ng kung tawagin namin ay “encyclopedic knowledge,” added Co's friend, UP Diliman Institute of Biology director Dr. Perry Ong.

Probe

Anakpawis party-list Rep. Rafael Mariano has filed House Resolution 653 for a probe into Co’s death.

The resolution quoted Co’s companion, Policarpio Balute, a member of Tongonan Farmers Association who survived the incident.

Photo from Facebook account of Leonard Co

Balute said he “did not hear any responding volley of gunfire from any direction that could indicate an ongoing battle between Army soldiers and the NPA."

The Commission on Human Rights, meanwhile, will start its probe on case on Monday.

Police investigators have recovered 24 spent bullet shells from M-16 rifles from the scene. They are now waiting for results of the ballistic exam and the autopsy on the victims.

Co was president of the Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society, and served as a museum researcher at the University of the Philippines’ Institute of Biology.

He was also the de facto curator of the Jose Vera Santos Herbarium.

Co was also known in the Cordilleras for his work in helping communities systematize the knowledge of traditional healers about medicinal plants for their own primary healthcare, according to Mariano.

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.

Tragic loss

He was one of the country’s top botanists tapped by the Energy Development Corporation (EDC) for its BINHI Program in the forests of Kananga, Leyte.

BINHI is EDC's broad-scale reforestation and biodiversity restoration program that aims to plant 10,000 hectares of endemic and endangered plant species over the next 10 years.

The EDC is under the Lopez Group of companies.

The Lopez Group, in a press statement on Thursday, said it is saddened by the tragic loss of Co and his companions Sofronio Cortez and Julius Borromeo.

Cortez was a member of the Tongonan Farmer's Association, while Borromeo is part of EDC's Community Partnerships Department.

"Leonard has worked alongside the Lopez Group in many of our bio-diversity and conservation initiatives. His untimely and senseless death will leave a deep void in the academe, scientific community and in all our hearts,” EDC chairman and chief executive officer Federico R. Lopez said.

“In the same way, Sofronio Cortez and Julius Borromeo have been invaluable contributors to our common goal of protecting and preserving the environment while serving and uplifting the lives of the communities around our various sites. They will be painfully missed by us and the people they have sincerely touched as they went about their daily tasks."

Richard Tantoco, EDC president and chief operating officer, meanwhile, said they were “deeply shocked and saddened” by the terrible incident.

Photo from Facebook account of Leonard Co

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of Professor Leonardo Co, Sofronio Cortez and Julius Borromeo at this time," Tantoco said.

"We would like to assure their families that we will cooperate with the authorities who will investigate precisely how such a tragedy like this could have happened,” he added.

“What we do know, is that EDC had informed the Philippine Army Command responsible for security in the area of Professor Co's planned route and activities and had received positive confirmation for them to proceed before they entered the area.  What occurred subsequently remains unclear at the moment, but we will cooperate fully with the investigators tasked to find out precisely what happened," Tantoco said. – with reports from Atom Araullo, ABS-CBN News; and Ranulfo Docdocan, ABS-CBN News Tacloban