EMERGENCE: Biodiversity Heroes. by Jean Lindo

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/05 December) –  November 25 was the commemoration of International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. But it was a big day for Biodiversity in Davao City. While the women held a commemorative activity fighting gender-related violence, the Department of Health, Department of Tourism and other government agencies together with the Davao City Chamber of Commerce, Inc. and the Davao Medical Society, held a Biodiversity Summit at the Marco Polo Hotel.

Since Biodiversity was the agendum of the day for the city, I took the liberty of writing about the Heroes of Biodiversity, the people who do real work for the environment. They may be called the unsung heroes, but being unsung is no big deal for people like them. What is big deal is they are being treated as enemies – simply because there are people who would not tolerate and appreciate intellectual diversity in the same way that biodiversity should be appreciated.

They do real work when others do greenwash. Greenwash is the term whereby a product or a concept is deceptively introduced as green even if it is not. An example of greenwash would be the Green Revolution. That program was everything but green and everything but a revolution. It promoted the products of the big corporations which did not promote sustainable agriculture and was, in fact promoting polluting technologies. And it neither promoted change that translated into people’s empowerment, not even for farmers, nor brought about social equity contrary to what a revolution does.

One such hero was Leonard Co, a brilliant botanist who was killed while doing the work for the conservation project of the Lopez-owned Energy Development Corporation. As the story goes, his team had the military clearance to enter the forest. He was with a forest guard, and guides who were farmers. Leonard was allegedly shot by a group of soldiers and he was even heard by the witnesses begging for mercy. The two others managed to escape the bullets.

I do not know Leonard Co personally. I just happened to meet the guy while doing his usual work with the plants. I hosted his team while I was a medical student. I had this impression that he was a nerd and I noticed that he was reviewing his own book on plants and was writing his notes using Chinese characters. He studied tirelessly. I was a medical student then struggling with my medical book and retired much earlier than he did. I envied him for his energy, being able to continue reading and writing notes.

When I graduated from the medical school and worked with an Urban-based Community-based Health Program (CBHP), his book on medicinal plants came handy. They had the common name of each plant, the different names called by each plant in the different parts of the Philippines, the scientific name, the active ingredient, the therapeutic dose, the warnings on its toxicities, etc. I thought it was an amazing book and it helped a lot. There were instances when I was called by colleagues who started their residency training program and those who were moonlighting in the non-training hospitals. There were patients who exhibited toxicities. I remember one woman who took too much concentration of adelfa extract thinking that the plant had abortifacient effect. She sought admission at Calinan General Hospital (now Isaac T Robillo Memorial Hospital) then was transferred to the  Davao Medical Center (then and now, Southern Philippines Medical Center). My colleague called me up to check for the active ingredient of adelfa which turned out to be digitalis. I called my colleague for her to be able to transmit the information to those managing the patient at DMC. (Digitalis is a medication used to treat heart failure. Too much intake develops toxicity. Once toxicity develops, the patient may have irregular heart rhythm, loose bowel movement, nausea, vomiting, difficulty of breathing, and this can be life-threatening). The woman eventually died.

I got to be familiar with the character of the author through a common friend who had the chance to work with him in Baguio. He was always remembered. Here was one brilliant person who contributed a lot in the field of medicine. It was his philosophy that the people should have access to health care and that the people in the under-served areas should have access to the medical knowledge and be able to utilize the plants when health care got to be too expensive and inaccessible to the poor. He was for people’s science. He was one of those scientists concerned about the proprietary rights of the people in the communities.

All of those involved in community health development work are still mourning as of this writing. People are raging why this brilliant individual had to be killed as a result of what seemed to be senseless paranoia. He may be nameless and faceless to his killers, but to the scientific circle, environmentalists, development workers, and the people in the communities, his worth was more than the whole responsible battalion in Leyte. This rage inside me makes me think that if bullets had brain, they probably would have turned the other way. A meatflower, Rafflesia leonardi, was actually named after Leonard Co. Now there is a race among scientists to have plants of this kind conserved. For Compostela Valley, they are developing this conservation program for tourism.

Another individual I would like to write about is an IP (Indigenous People) rights advocate and an environmentalist. Jean Marie Ferraris, for her great work on the environment and biodiversity had been subjected to harassment. She had been detained along with other environmentalists in Indonesia. Just recently she was again victim of red tagging. I came across a press release by Asian Human Rights Commission which stated that the communist label on an activist is a prelude to murder. I had the honor to provide anesthesia care to her. I could not imagine why a gentle soul yet so courageous, has to be a target. She knows the implications of unbridled mining activities to biodiversity.

I pay tribute to the two exemplary individuals who do actual work for biodiversity beyond lip service. They were not in this Biodiversity Summit at the Marco Polo hotel. Leonard Co is dead. Jean Marie may be alive but on doubtful security. They are two people who have worked beyond conservation. They have been gifted with the wisdom that biodiversity is also a social justice issue. Unfortunately, their kind are among the endangered species…like Rafflesia leonardi. Leonard’s kind is probably extinct.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Dr. Jean Lindo is an anesthesiologist practicing in Davao City. She is into Health and Human Rights work. She is also involved in the women’s movement in Davao City).