Rolly and Perry, heroic scientists

This is belated, especially for Rolly Peña who was killed in an accident last November 30, 2018. For Perry Ong, who died of a heart ailment last March 2, 2019, this is still within the 40 day period of mourning. I had written my tribute to the former as early as January but decide to wait until the opportune moment to publish it.

Perry’s passing was that signal; as different as these two men were – in age (Rolly was 79 while Perry was 58), in personality (Rolly was a quiet presence while Perry was exuberantly passionate in everything he did), in expertise (Rolly was a geologist while Perry was a conservation biologist) – they were reunited by their affiliation to the University of the Philippines and shared a commitment to employ science to benefit the country, serve the people, and protect the planet.

Men Sta Ana, in his Businessworld column, described Rolly Peña as “a sweet gentleman, a gentle soul, a kind and humble man, a dedicated revolutionary.”  Men quoted Dick Malay’s summary of the life of his close friend: “A competent geologist, board chairman of the Professional Regulation Commission (PRC) exams for geologists, poet and essayist, principled revolutionary, humblest, kindest person I ever knew, constant companion in revolutionary struggles here and abroad, navigator of the MV Karagatan and MV Andrea with NPA (New People’s Army) crew. Never saw him got angry or say a negative word about somebody.”

During the memorial rites honoring Rolly, as reported in the ABSCBN website, there was universal praise for his work and contribution to the science of geology in the country.  “He is the Philippines’ number one geologist. He will remain an icon in the field of geology petrography,” according to Dr. Guillermo Balce, former director of Mines and Geosciences Bureau. Peña was the author of the Lexicon of Philippine Stratigraphy, published in 2008 and Geology of the Philippines, Volume Two, published in 2004, described by Malyn Tumanong, a fellow geologist mentored by Peña, as the “Bible of geologists’.

In those rites held in the National Institute of Geological Sciences (where he held office and where I often went to visit him), described how Rolly worked as a geologist. According to Tumanong, “If he was described as possessing a third eye for rocks, he used his tongue to identify mineral content of rocks. He has a keen hand lens-assisted rock analysis, and expertise in interpreting data from a petrographic microscope.”

Rolly also joined the scientific  team that gathered hydrographic, ecological, geophysical data, and scientific investigations that would provide the evidence that Benham Rise is part of the continental shelf of the Philippines. My last engagement with Rolly was when he was working on the Benham Rise expedition and reached  out to me on questions he had about the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

I had met Rolly twenty years earlier when he just surfaced from the underground to join as at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. I did not know then the details of his involvement with the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army. But it was clear to me, working with Rolly for three years on mining issues, that he was both a good scientist, a nationalist, and someone who would always side with the masses. It became a habit for me to always look for Rolly’s advice and approval for whatever strategy or position I would take on mining. He was totally dependable on the facts and reliable in his sentiments: pro-people, pro-enviroment always; solid in his scientific knowledge and analysis. He was a mentor to me as he was to many others.

When news of Rolly’s accident spread, it was not just his colleagues in NIGS or the geology and mining communities that expressed sorrow. Those of us in the environmental community also lost a champion. Collegues in the Masungi Reserve said it best:  “Sir Rolly was one of the foremost advocates for Masungi’s conservation – long before most paid attention. He’s accomplished so much, yet despite this and being retired, he humbly, unfailingly, and enthusiastically cheered on us and worked with our team to establish research-based arguments for its protection. Through kilometers of walking and always with a quiet smile on his face, he stood by us like he stood for the many causes for this country that he believed in. He is an unsung national hero, a dear friend, a companion, and mentor.”

I agree with Men: “Rol died in an accident, crossing the street as a motorcyclist bumped him. Not a glorious death compared to the martyrdom of many of his comrades. But his contribution to our people and country is invaluable, notwithstanding an unattained revolution. More, he touched the lives of different sorts of people, and he imparted life lessons to us. A hero of everyone, thus his death was not in vain.”

This – a hero to everyone – also summarized the life of Dean Perry Ong, who died in a Binondo hospital last March 2. A devoted son, Perry was in his parent’s house, both octogenerians, to minister to them when he felt sick. Not wanting to bother anyone, he took a trycycle to go tp the hospital where he collapsed and could  not be revived. As his mother told me when visted his wake, “Perry took care of everyone but did not watch out for himself.”

We were all shocked when Doc Perry, as he was fondly referred to by many of us that worked with him in the many environmental and biodiversity organizations he led or was part of, died.  He was a pillar in the conservation movement, a strong advocate for the use of science in policy and decision making in forest conservation efforts, a champion for the use of native trees species in forest conservation, and a firm believer in the participation of communities in forest management decisions. 

I met Perry in 1996 when he had just returned from Australia after obtaining his PHD and I had taken on a positon as environmental undersecretary. Since then, we have come together many times, always as allies and friends.

Among others, Perry was a founding officer of the Forest Foundation of the Philippines (which I currently chair), and helped shape our area priorities, conservation approach, and grant making strategies.

Our Executive Director Onggie Canivel recalls that as chair of the Foundation’s Program Committee, Doc Perry enabled the conservation of forests in key biodiversity areas in Luzon, Palawan and in Mindanao as well and critical habitats for the Philippine Eagle and the tarsiers in Bohol and Eastern Mindanao. He was instrumental in developing our community conservation approaches and was always sympathetic to the welfare of forest dependent communities. During our learning visits to project sites, he found time to share his knowledge and expertise on biology and conservation approaches with staff and local stakeholders.

Whether on field or in our board room, Doc Perry was a critical thinker and a problem solver, hence we often sought out his counsel. More importantly, he was an optimist, and often ended difficult deliberations and decisions exclaiming: “Kaya natin ‘yan!” This is also why, as Chancellor Michael Tan has written in his Inquirer column, Doc Perry was a great dean of the College of Science of the Diliman Campus of the University of the Philippines.

While his absence will be felt, the Foundation is developing a Dr. Perry Ong Fellowship Program in honor of his life’s work that will recognize outstanding individuals in the field of conservation biology, and foster research and publications. The Board of Forest Foundation has approved, subject to details, to laiunch this program.

In these times when the country seems to be adrift, without heroes and models, let’s remember these two men –  Rolando Peña, an expert on rocks, and Perry Ong, master of the diversity of life – colleagues in the University of the Philippines, comrades in the fight for environmental protection and social justice, and scientists for the Philippines, for people, and for planet.

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