Last week I was in an Indigenous Communities’ Conservation Areas Conference in Mandaluyong City and among those whom I met was Tubad.
Tubad was one proud Aeta. For two days, he wore a bahag or g-string to the proceedings in an air-conditioned conference room. There were other Aetas in the gathering but only Tubad wore the clothing of his people. But, I must tell you, he was not your usual Aeta.
For non-Filipino followers of this blog, the Aetas are a collection of indigenous communities in the Philippines, who lived in several parts of the country even before the Indonesians and Borneans arrived in waves. With the arrival of other groups and the Spanish colonizers, they were slowly pushed in several isolated areas in Central and Southern Luzon.
During the Cold War years, some Aetas would become jungle survival instructors to US Navy SEALs and US Army Special Forces personnel who passed through the Philippines on their way to Vietnam; and they also trained those sailors, marines, soldiers and airmen who were assigned in Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base.
Back to Tubad. I actually got to exchange thoughts with him due to the Rafflessia flower. Tubad and I both saw a picture flashed on the screen, and he asked me for the name since he wanted to tell his fellow Aeta, Jermie, about it.
Again, for those who may not know, the Rafflesia is one of the world’s biggest flowers. And in the Philippines, species of the Rafflesia were discovered and identified by slain University of the Philippines botanist Leonard Co.
Co, forest guard Sofronio Cortez and guide Julius Borromeo were killed in an alleged encounter of government troops with members of the communist New People’s Army in Kananga, Leyte. Government troopers insist that Co and companions were caught in the crossfire. Witnesses, family and friends think otherwise. At the time of his death, Co was conducting studies on indigenous trees for a reforestation project.
Tubad told me that he had met Leonard Co when the botanist visited their community and gave them a training in identifying and documenting the various species of flowers and trees in their areas. And Co had told him much about the flower.
He also told me that he was with botanist in Leyte for the studies on indigenous trees. One time, when they were in the field, they encountered a “No Trespassing” sign and Co told him that they should turn back. Tubad jokingly told the biologist that he misunderstood the sign.
The Aeta told the biologist that the sign only forbids the entry of three people at a time (tres, being the Spanish word appropriated by Filipinos for the number 3). Tubad added: “Tatlo lang naman ang bawal sir. Ibig sabihin, pwede apat, lima, at mas marami pa (It only forbids groups of three sir. That means a group of four, five or more can go in).” Co laughed at what Tubad told him.
Later on, Tubad would learn of Co’s death in the news. He was not there when it happened. But he said that he will never forget what he learned from Co; nor the experiences he had with the botanist.
Incidentally, November 15 would mark a year since Co was killed by government troops. And despite the length of time since the incident happened, the investigation into the botanist’s death has yet to yield proper results. An earlier investigation has absolved the soldiers implicated of faults.
At the request of party-list groups, friends and family, the Department of Justice has announced that it will re-investigate the case. Agham party-list Representative Angelo Palmones has also filed a resolution in the House of Representatives calling for an investigation into the deaths of Co and his companions.
I did not expect finding new stories about the slain botanist in the conference, especially since the other people I’ve interviewed about his life’s work did not talk much about him working with indigenous communities. But it was nice hearing another side of the man Director Perry Ong of the UP Institute of Biology called “a national treasure.”
I hope that the re-investigation into the deaths of Co and his companions would result to the filing of charges against those who were responsible for their deaths.
While some may just consider Co’s death as a statistic; for botanists, environmental conservationists, academics, students, and indigenous people like Tubad, he was a man with a wealth of knowledge the country could have benefited much from.
Sadly though, some government troopers with itchy fingers had reduced the exceptional botanist and his companions to mere collateral damage.