Philippine Daily Inquirer reports it, Co and his researchers were surveying a forest plot of the Energy Development Corporation (EDC) for native Philippine trees and plants especially those that are in danger of extinction, like this Rafflesia flower (the picture I got from Dr Julie Barcelona's blog. Thank you Julie)
The 41 year old Communist insurgency has again claimed another life of the best and brightest of the Philippines. In Leonard Co's case, a bright life that cannot be replaced. For he was one of if not the last of the classically trained botanists in plant taxonomy and systematics in the Philippines. While one can learn the basics of these disciplines in class, one can only gain expertise in the field, observing the plants themselves.
Leonard Co earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Botany in 2009, more than twenty years after the University of the Philippines (UPh) discontinued conferring the degree. He told me that he should have graduated in the early 70s but he just couldn't pass if I remember right what he said to me, math 11 (or is it Physics?). The Board of Regents waived the requirement due to his important contributions to Philippine botany. I was a graduation faculty marshal at his commencement.
Later on, I would be involved in planning the landscape of the National Science Complex at UP Diliman, where Leonard and Professor Emeritus Ed Gomez had made it a point to plant the campus with native trees. Some of the seeds and seedlings came from Leonard's field collections and nursed at the UP. Also I would have the chance to discuss with him some important topics on Philippine biodiversity and biogeography. Among rainforest scholars in Brazil whom I met when I was at Louisiana State University he was very well known. The Brazilians asked me how was he. Among the topics we discussed is patterns of endemism among Philippine plants. However, I have to inform the reader that I am no botanist (in fact I cannot teach the subject at all!), I am a zoogeographer. I was in the process of writing a theoretical paper on Philippine biodiversity and I needed his views on the subject.
But instead of discussing about biodiversity we ended up talking about the problems of teaching undergraduate biology! Leonard was concerned that with too much specialization, the classical way in learning about biodiversity (like looking at plants and animals and closely observing them) was now largely lost as molecular biology has become the "sexy" way to look at biodiversity. He told me that as the species disappear, it will much more difficult to learn biodiversity.
I couldn't help but agree. I am at least two student generations from Leornard's generation (having got my BSc in 1988), the generation that made EDSA 1 a reality and the quintessential Martial Law baby. My generation of students trained in the biological sciences still had the classical elements of drawing specimens (digital cameras were not available for mere mortals but only for spy satellites) but were just being introduced to ref sized PCR machines! Thus I could connect with Leonard's concerns. His parting shot was that no one can understand evolution without holding the specimen in your hand! I couldn't but more than agree!
Leonard's works are cited in my biogeography paper which I hope to come out in 2011. When the proofs come out, I will revise the manuscript and dedicate it to his memory.
But the question for me is this, why can't we end the violence in which no one wins and the country becomes poorer, in humanity, material and spirit? We have had EDSA 1, two Aquinos as President and yet there is still fighting that costs the lives of the country's best and brightest.
As for Leonard Co, our discussion reveals while someone like him can never be replaced. First is that UPh no longers offers the botany degree and second, the rainforests are almost gone! In the same way we can't have another Darwin or Alfred Russel Wallace (two scientists who were Leonard's inspirations and mine too). However unlike Leonard Co's life, Darwin and Wallace lives ended in peaceful old age.
The loss of this human life is thus magnified and wounds the nation. As the Philippine science community comes to terms with the irreplaceable loss, we have to reflect if the fighting is really worth it.
The young native trees in UPh Diliman are now worthy memorials to a life devoted to conserving Philippine plant biodiversity.