Mt. Makiling guard killed
MANILA, Philippines—He spent 25 years patrolling and protecting the enchanted Mt. Makiling but in the end, this forest guard was unable to protect himself from an assassin’s bullet.
Elpidio “Jojo” Malinao, 49, was shot dead by a man on a motorcycle on Monday afternoon in the town of Bay in Laguna province shortly after a court hearing on a case he had lodged against illegal settlers on the fabled mountain.
News of his death shocked and angered his colleagues at the Makiling Center for Mountain Ecosystems (MCME), a unit of the College of Forestry and Natural Resources of the University of the Philippines in Los Baños (UPLB), which has jurisdiction over Mt. Makiling.
“His co-workers are grieving, of course, because he was one of them. They worked in teams when making the rounds of the mountain; they were buddies,” forestry dean Rex Cruz told the Inquirer by phone.
“He was one of the forest guards who had the [biggest] number of cases filed against loggers and settlers with illegal structures. Jojo was so hardworking. He was not the type you could intimidate,” Cruz said.
Forest guards on Mt. Makiling number less than 10, according to Cruz. They roam the mountain in twos or threes, unarmed.
Cruz lamented that Malinao and his fellow forest protectors had neither a good radio communication system nor a decent vehicle.
(In patrolling the mountain, a forest ranger is supposed to mark or note a violation and call for police backup if necessary.)
Cruz estimated that Mt. Makiling had around 1,000 illegal settlers on its fringes. But he said the mountain’s natural forests remained well-protected, thanks to its protectors like Malinao.
He said UPLB intended to go after Malinao’s killers.
“It was in his character—that despite the odds and limitations, he would do everything to protect this mountain, even if it meant putting his life on the line,” Cruz said sadly.
Asked about the possible motive, Cruz replied: “I believe he was killed for work reasons. He was a very religious person and served as a deacon of a Baptist church.”
UPLB chancellor Luis Rey Velasco said: “We have to be very careful with all the information, [although] we don’t see any other reason [for Malinao’s murder]. He’s a family man and a Christian.”
Velasco said he believed a large group was behind the murder.
MCME director Jo Sargento said Malinao’s job as a “forest technician,” arresting illegal poachers in the forest reserve, had earned him death threats.
“Even I was getting threats,” Sargento said. “When I had to arrest 30 people, that’s 30 people already mad at me. They got to Jojo first.”
But Bay police chief Insp. Joseph Laureta said: “We cannot make conclusions that the murder is related to [illegal logging] until we have further evidence.”
UP and environment officials stressed that there was no illegal logging on Mt. Makiling.
What exists there is “illegal poaching,” or small-scale cutting down of trees without a permit, they said.
Sargento and other university officials refused to discuss the recent case in which Malinao was involved.
But a UPLB police force report, a copy of which was sent to the Inquirer in San Pedro, Laguna, said Malinao was killed after attending a court hearing in Bay with two other MCME employees on Monday.
Malinao was a witness in the case against Armando Javier and Napeleon Oliveros, who were charged with violation of the Revised Forestry Code of the Philippines, according to the report.
After leaving the courthouse, Malinao proceeded to a tarpaulin shop a jeepney ride away, the report said.
It said that at around 2:30 p.m., a man wearing a helmet and a face mask entered the shop and shot Malinao twice in the head, killing him on the spot.
Laureta said a witness had identified the gunman as Roberto Canovas through a photo gallery of crime suspects.
Canovas remains at large but murder charges have been filed against him in court, Laureta said.
Cruz said part of Malinao’s tasks as Forest Technician I was to cite law violators, such as illegal settlers and loggers, on Mt. Makiling. He worked eight hours a day.
Sometime in 2009 or 2010, Malinao was at the receiving end of an illegal settler’s gun.
“He told me of one incident where he was shot at, but since he was unarmed, he just ducked for cover. That’s how violent the illegal settlers on Makiling are,” Cruz said.
Malinao was the second UP employee killed in the line of duty while protecting the environment.
The first was botanist Leonard Co, who was killed in a purported crossfire between soldiers and rebels while collecting plant samples in Leyte province last year.
UP president Alfredo Pascual was expected to visit Malinao’s wake in Los Baños.
Chancellor Velasco said UPLB was extending its assistance to Malinao’s family.
“It’s just very ironic that this happened just when President Aquino is scheduled to confer six Environmental Heroes Awards today,” said Nilo Tamoria, regional director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
He said Malinao might not be among the awardees yet “as we have to give his family time to grieve,” but would definitely be given the recognition later.