He was the author of the book, Common Medicinal Plants of the Cordillera Region (Northern Luzon, Philippines), published 1989, which included a trainers manual for Community Based Health Programs. His loss to his family and friends is multiplied greatly because this man was so valuable to his country. Leonardo was also counted as a National Treasure. Hardly replaceable, fortunately, his students are willing to carry on with his important work of study and reforestation.
Secretary Leila de Lima of the Department of Justice (DOJ) created a three-member panel of prosecutors to conduct a fact-finding inquiry on the incident, stating to the press: “We can’t always leave the investigation to the Armed Forces of the Philippines. No matter how they do their jobs, there will always be suspicions.”
This was said on the sidelines of the 7th National Congress of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines in Quezon City. She hinted at summoning personalities, including Armed Forces officials, to attend hearings and answer questions, adding, “We need to remove the cloud of suspicion regarding Co’s death.”
At the time of the killing Mr Co, working as a biodiversity consultant for the Lopez-owned Energy Development Corporation (EDC), was gathering specimen seedlings of endangered trees with a five-member team of civilians. While the media is reporting that both the communist inspired New People’s Army and the Armed Forces in Leyte accused each other of firing the shots that killed Co and his companions, a source close to witnesses informed Pressenza that only government military personnel were in the area at the time, in other words, there was no cross-fire!
Manuel Paete, EDC resident manager, identified the other fatalities as Sofronio G. Cortez, a forest guard of EDC-Environmental Management Division, and Julius Borromeo, a member of the Tongonan Farmers Association (Tofa).
Lt. Col. Federico Tutaan, commanding officer of the 19th IB, said in a phone interview to The Inquirer, his men were in the area to respond to a report of the EDC about the presence of NPA rebels in Sitio Upper Mahiao of Barangay Lim-ao.
Co’s brother-in-law, Darwin Flores, said to the same media that the family would like to know what really happened. “I understand that they were given clearance to proceed to the area,” said Flores, whose sister Glenda is married to Co. He said he was informed that there was an existing security protocol between EDC and the local military.
EDC man Paete said Co’s two other companions, Policarpio Balute, a member of Tofa, and Roniño Gibe, a contractual forester with EDC’s corporate social responsibility department, survived the crossfire.
Col. Allan Martin, deputy commanding officer of the 802nd Infantry Brigade, has stated to the press that the soldiers who figured in the encounter were restricted to their camp in Barangay Aguiting in Kananga. The soldiers, led by Lt. Ronald Ocheamar, reported a 15-minute gun battle with seven armed men at about midday. During the press conference, Tutaan admitted that one of the soldiers fired the first shot because they were at a vantage point overlooking the area where they saw a man dressed in a black jacket holding a long firearm.
In a separate statement, CHESTCORE (The Community Health Education, Services and Training in the Cordillera Region) warned that “what happened to Leonard is not an isolated case, and many health professionals working in far-flung communities have been accused of aiding, or of being members of, the New People’s Army or the Communist Party of the Philippines.
“Instead of being lauded as heroes for choosing to devote their lives to community service and for opting to give up opportunities for career advancement abroad or in private practice, many of them have been harassed, arrested on false charges and even killed,” the CHESTCORE spokesperson stated.
Leonardo Co also served as a museum researcher at the University of the Philippines Institute of Biology (IB). He was the de facto curator of the Jose Vera Santos Herbarium, according its director, Dr. Perry Ong. Co was known in the Cordilleras for his work in helping communities systematize the knowledge of traditional healers about medicinal plants for their own primary health care. He also authored, The Forest Trees of Palanan, Philippines: A Study in Population Ecology.
Non-government organizations in the Cordillera Administrative Region mourned the death of the Filipino botanist saying that this was both the nation’s loss and humanity’s loss as well.