Remembering Leonard Co

November 18, 2010

Dr. Leonardo Co (Kontribusyon / Oda S. Beltran)

Leonardo Co (Kontribusyon / Oda S. Beltran)

(Leonard Co, one of the finest, if not the finest,  botanists this country has produced was killed last November 15 while doing field research in Leyte in what the military described a “crossfire” between the 19th IB of the Philippine Army and the New People’s Army (NPA).  A survivor who witnessed the shooting and barrio residents in the vicinity have since disputed the army’s claim, saying there were no NPAs in the area, and no one was shooting back at the soldiers.)

I first met Leonard in 1975, when he was still in his third year as a botany major in UP. He belonged then to a group of bright and dedicated activists who were either undergrad majors or graduates of botany or zoology. This group in turn was part of a larger network of Filipino scientists and technologists who were all committed to using their scientific and technical knowledge and skills to serve the Filipino people. At that time, it meant being part of the Filipino people’s resistance against the Marcos dictatorship, and of their struggle for an independent, genuinely democratic and just society.

The group to which Leonard belonged had decided to undertake a study of medicinal plants in the Philippines, with the aim of eventually contributing to the popularization of local herbal medicines and the production of medicines from readily available and accessible materials. This would greatly benefit the majority of Filipinos in the countrysides where doctors and western medicines are scarce.

To this end, Leonard played a key and major role in the group’s compiling and publishing the first authoritative manual on medicinal plants.   The group worked on this diligently for at least five years, publishing the mimeographed 8 1/2 x 13 “Manual on Some Philippine Medicinal Plants” in 1977.  The manual was published in the name of the UP Botanical Society, to which many in  the group belonged.

As far as we know, this was a pioneering and seminal work.  Not long afterwards some botanists published printed and glossy books on Philippine medicinal plants.  But none of them could compare to the wealth of material in the original 1977 Philippine Medicinal Plants manual.

Leonard was one of two highly expert field botanists in that group and was the only one left after the other went abroad to study and work.  He was perfect for the job.  While still an undergraduate doing field research,  Leonard had already discovered new species and varieties of Philippine plants which were eventually credited to and named after the professors under whom he worked.  Even then,  few could match, much less surpass, Leonard’s mastery of Philippine flora. Needless to say,  Leonard was the one in the group who would identify with certainty which medicinal plants that were catalogued in other countries are also found in the country, and in which particular area or forest in the Philippines.  Undoubtedly, this was his passion.

Ang makasaysayang manwal ng <i>medicinal plants</i> na sinulat ni Dr. Leonardo Co noong 1977 na nagsibling mahalagang <i>reference</i> ng mga <i>community health workers</i> sa bansa. (Larawan mula kay Mon Ramirez)

Ang makasaysayang manwal ng medicinal plants na sinulat ni Dr. Leonardo Co noong 1977 na nagsibling mahalagang reference ng mga community health workers sa bansa. (Arkibong Bayan)

There was never a dull moment when Leonard was around, with the enthusiasm with which he performed his duties in the group, his intense and ever-active mind and his frequently troubled heart.  In the groups meetings and while working, there was always seriousness, punctuated with laughter, interspersed with discussions of his courting woes, and garnished with delicious chinese food (the family owned and ran a chinese restaurant in Caloocan then).

After the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown, I met Leonard again only a couple or so times. The last one was a few years back when my wife and I chanced upon him outside his workplace at  Pavilion 4 of Palma Hall at UP, and he eagerly invited us in to a cup of excellent brewed coffee. While showing us his bottled and catalogued collections, he related how he had concentrated on his scientific endeavors, working with various NGOs and at UP, and intimated how his constant field work and exposure to the countryside has kept his aspirations for a just and free society alive and burning.