“Is it time to declare [National Hero] Jose Rizal as the ‘Father of Philippine Biodiversity?’”
The question was a proposition made by broadcast journalist Howie Severino during his talk at the Asean Biodiversity Heroes Forum in Malate, Manila, last August 12.
An award-winning broadcast journalist and documentary filmmaker, Severino, who considers himself a Rizal historian, has come up with several documentaries about the national hero that were aired over GMA television.
Severino talked about the national hero and his passion for the natural environment—the forest and the diversity of trees, plants, and animals, as well as the bounty of the ocean, including fish, seashells and other species.
Associating biodiversity with Rizal, he said young storytellers can make biodiversity a more interesting topic for their respective audiences, by associating it with history, heritage, and heroism.
Severino said: “You constantly have to experiment, to be resourceful and creative in your storytelling because you have too much competition.”
It is important to humanize the stories, to stir public interest in biodiversity, he added.
Organized by the Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) as part of the celebration of the 56th anniversary of Asean Day and International Youth Day, the event dubbed, “Asean Biodiversity Heroes Forum,” aimed to encourage young communicators and storytellers to be an agent of change for biodiversity.
It adopted the battlecry and the hashtags: “I write for biodiversity,” “I speak for biodiversity” and “I create for biodiversity.”
The interactive learning forum gathered development communication students from select state universities in Luzon and Mindanao and several storytellers from Asean neighbors with some ACB’s Asean Biodiversity Heroes to learn about biodiversity advocacy, experiences, challenges, frustrations, perseverance and the success that made the heroes in biodiversity protection and conservation.
Among the topics discussed during the forum were the interconnectivity of life, development communication, basic biodiversity reporting and storytelling.
Severino’s documentary, titled “Rizal and the Creatures of Dapitan,” originally aired on November 18, 2018, showcased Rizal and his passion for Dapitan’s rich biodiversity.
Rizal: the achiever
While in exile in Dapitan, Zamboanga del Norte, where Rizal spent his last four years before his martyrdom in Bagumbayan, now known as Rizal Park, the national hero made many projects that matter to the people of Dapitan—such as building a dam and irrigation system, a school and eventually, discovering new species.
In Rizal’s school, which can be considered the first progressive school in the Philippines, he imparted to his young students his progressive ideas on topics, including agriculture, politics, governance, and even religion.
His schoolyard and laboratory were the forest.
Medicine man, artist
As a physician and a teacher in Dapitan, Rizal explored the application of medicinal plants to treat his patients.
He also learned from the locals, while sharing his own knowledge, about the medicinal value of native trees and plants found around the forest of Dapitan.
His school and laboratory, according to Severino, was an 18-hectare land, which he acquired after winning a lottery.
While teaching about plants and animals, Rizal would walk around the forested area with his students and identify the species.
“Rizal collected hundreds of specimens of flowers, shells, insects and reptiles and sent them to Europe to know more about them,” he said.
By sending to foreign botanists the specimens that he preserved, he, in turn, received books and continued his education.
Most of the time, Rizal would sketch the species he discovered or found, and describe them with accuracy.
Rizal, a visual artist, poet, journalist, and novelist, was a passionate researcher, who, during his time, was able to discover new species that were unknown to science then.
Some of the animal species, Severino pointed out, were named after Rizal by his colleagues who learned about his new discoveries between July 17, 1892, to July 31, 1896.
A flying dragon was named Draco rizali; a rare kind of beetle, Apogania rizali; and a frog, Rhacophorus rizali.
German museum exhibit
Sen. Loren Legarda, in her keynote address during the opening of the forum, said that specimens of the new species discovered through Rizal are being exhibited at a museum in Germany.
An advocate of biodiversity protection and conservation, Legarda vowed to work with concerned institutions in Germany, and through a loan, to have the specimens brought to the Philippines and be showcased at the National Museum of Natural History, in recognition of Rizal’s work.
In her speech, Legarda said there’s a bit of Rizal in every young Filipino, urging them to emulate the national hero in their pursuit of science and in communicating the importance of protecting and conserving the species and their habitats for human survival.
A naturalist, a Filipino
Severino said Rizal may even be the first Filipino botanist, or naturalist, who discovered new animal species and had the honor of having the species named after him.
“Europe is where he studied and developed his political ideas. But Dapitan is where he applied much of his learnings, as a doctor, as a teacher and even as an engineer, an ecologist and naturalist,” he said.
“There were a lot of foreigners who came to the Philippines to study the Philippine environment, ecology and nature. But it is hard to think of anyone before Rizal who studied and love nature the way he did,” he said.
More importantly, he said Rizal articulated in the way he lived and not just what he wrote his vision for the Filipino—enlightened, progressive, civic-minded, a believer in freedom and human rights, a lover of nature—“which I think we can take to heart and emulate until today,” Severino said.
The journalist said the national hero indeed did many things, and that the underappreciated aspect of Rizal is that no Filipino before him had the kind of interest he had in nature and the environment, particularly Dapitan.
“While there are modern scientists who may lay claim to be the father of Philippine biodiversity, the fact remains that Rizal was the first to have new species named after him,” he pointed out.
“By recognizing Rizal’s contribution to biodiversity, we achieve a number of things. By associating biodiversity with Jose Rizal, we elevate biodiversity by making it more central to the identity of and the founding vision of the Philippines,” he said.
“We elevate biodiversity from being a fringe interest or being second fiddle in terms of global concerns to climate change,” he added.
According to Severino, while climate change is a big problem and will rearrange civilization, the loss of biodiversity, another mass extinction, can actually lead to the extinction of the human species.
“To me, it is more an existential threat, even more than climate change,” he said.
He added that by portraying Rizal as the father of biodiversity, the country will complete his memory and honor his contributions in the last four years of his life.
It should be noted that Rizal is also recognized through his statues in some European countries.
Severino said he wished that Rizal be recognized as a naturalist—or as the father of Philippine biodiversity—in the same breath that he is loved as a martyr, a hero, a poet, an artist and a novelist.
For her part, ACB dxecutive director Theresa Mundita S. Lim said Rizal has made significant contributions through his works in Dapitan to biodiversity conservation, long before the word “biodiversity” was even invented.
“He was ahead of his time in protecting nature and the environment. However, data on his works, such as the specimens he collected, are still fragmented and are scattered across various references and sources,” Lim said.
She explained: “There’s a need to compile all information and undertake additional research, and consultations among Rizal historians and biodiversity experts to ensure that there are no other candidates, and to establish a solid and unquestionable basis to officially bestow the title of ‘Father of Biodiversity’ on Gat Jose Rizal.”
Finally, Lim said: “The ACB stands ready to support processes to move this forward.”
Image credits: Jonathan L. Mayuga