Rolly and Perry, heroic scientists
"Let's remember these two men."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 77 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 get angry or say a negative word about somebody.” During the memorial rites honoring Rolly, as reported in the ABS-CBN 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), she 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 20 years earlier when he just surfaced from the underground to join us 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-environment 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 us on 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.”
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