Thursday, February 3, 2011

Justice for Leonard Co!*

Justice for Leonard Co!*


There is an old philosophical conundrum that asks the question, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”. Beyond the metaphysiCal musing, the question invokes the tragic fate of this country’s foremost leading field botanist and unsung hero of Philippine forest conservation.

On November 15 2010, in the International Year of Biodiversity, Leonardo Co and two of his companions fell from a hail of gunfire while collecting seedlings of endangered trees for reforestation, fired upon by the very elements sworn to protect us.

On that day the tallest tree in the forest fell and the silence is deafening. In ecological terms, Leonard Co is analogous to a keystone species, a primary species in any ecosystem that plays a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community and whose removal would create dramatic shifts if not the collapse of that ecosystem.

At that very moment Leonard Co fell, the fate of Philippine rain forest itself has been fundamentally altered and its future, as bleak as it already was, even more uncertain.

Leonard Co’s violent and untimely demise has left an immense void in the front line struggle for conservation and the rippling effect of his sudden departure can only be guessed at but may never be truly quantified- Most certainly we are left with fewer options to pursue.

Few can realize the herculean task that Leonard Co set out to undertake. He spent a lifetime exploring and gathering precious data on the rapidly diminishing forested regions of the country; No one understood our native forest dynamics the way that he did; He provided a glimpse into its hidden order and where one would see just endless green, he would expound on the complex interrelationships between one living thing to another; He possessed firsthand knowledge that can never be found in any literature; He is, quite simply, the singular authority on Philippine floral biodiversity.

Sadly, his virtually thankless undertaking, so vital to the future of conservation, remains largely unappreciated. His achievements have largely remained overlooked, partly due to his selflessness and partly due to the fact that, though he would not find fame and recognition unwelcome, he felt somewhat awkward what to do with it. A teacher at heart, he imparted knowledge freely. He taught intensely, convincingly, provocatively. He knew and loved his subject with ardor and conviction and taught in an intrinsically colorful, even poetic, yet comprehensive manner that the student cannot help but imbibe the same passion.

It is always a great tragedy to never really know what one has in his possession until it is irretrievably lost and an even bigger one never to realize this at all. Leonard’s loss is ultimately this nation’s loss but one that it will never really comprehend.

But what ultimately killed Leonardo Co was the tyranny and usurpation of mediocrity, ignorance, apathy and indifference. Slain by the very demons he disdained. In one moment of collective disregard and lack of value for life he was gone. One poet suggested in her poem dedicated to the great botanist that, perhaps, if these soldiers knew the names of the trees and the lush flora that surrounded them as Leonard so passionately wanted to share with his countrymen, then they would find their own deed most incomprehensible

It is pointless at this juncture to seek Leonard Co’s replacement. The man was simply in a class by himself. The last of the Mohicans, so to speak, it would take another lifetime for that to take place and another lifetime is a luxury we cannot afford at this point to address the seemingly insurmountable environmental problems of today. Instead we must all dutifully fulfill our roles guided by the principles and legacy he left behind.

They say that the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ and ‘opportunity’ are virtually the same. Perhaps it is Leonard Co’s way of telling us to rise above this great tragedy and his way of passing the torch to the ones who recognized his greatness and importance and to keep this fire burning. Greatness, after all, can only be measured by the strength of the foundations it leaves behind.



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