Where love for nature begins

DANCING tribes arrived at the town center with ethereal blurs of colors, contagious smiles on their faces, and a contagious rhythm on their feet. The lively sounds of Sinigayan Kahoneros and Sinigayan Ritmo invited the good vibes.

From where I was watching as one of the judges, the performances’ backdrop was a giant tree with birds flocking in and out, and the setting sun casting shades of gold.

Locals from all around town and guests from the rest of the world were gathered at the Sagay City Public Plaza where the Sinigay sa Sagay street parade culminated into five performances of “Saot Para Sa Dunang Manggad” (Dance for Nature) on March 19.

What deeply moved me is the message of the entire dance festival being embedded in the hearts of the performers and audience.

The theme was “Saving Mother Nature… For us and for the future generation.”

Sinigay sa Sagay is a celebration of Sagay City’s natural and cultural heritage, and it is telling us to take care of our environment as our ways of life depend on it.

The costumes and storylines of the dances featured five environmental icons: Endangered shells, mangroves, corals, sea turtles, and seahorses.

As I am a naturalist working in marine conservation, watching the festival was like being in a beautiful dream. But it was real, of course, and this was the most beautiful thing: That the people watching are being conditioned to care about wildlife, through dance, music, art, and festivity.

“Atun palibot amligan, dunang manggad halungan” (Let’s take care of our environment, protect our natural heritage) is repeated countless times throughout the performances in the accompanying song “Kilitaay sa Sagay” by Rod Florentino.

To my mind, this was it – this was how we engage communities in conservation. The government of Sagay City gets it. They are successfully sowing into the mainstream culture the awakening to ecological interdependence and interconnectedness.

This way, the psyche of the society places a high value on a healthy and thriving environment.

Hearing the show’s host – Helen Arguelles, Sagay City Tourism Officer herself – made me understand even more how Sagay City got to this point of environmental consciousness.

While introducing each of the performing contingents, delving into the stories around their wildlife symbols and the history of Sagay City, she was always skillfully providing valuable information about threats of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.

Helen, in effect representing the government of Sagay in this celebration, was a voice both gentle and firm reminding the partygoers to be mindful of their waste. This was such a breath of fresh air.

I rarely go out to join crowded festivals, feeling disoriented by the noise and often frustrated with the amount of trash left behind by street parties. In Sinigayan, it was refreshing to hear an official call to be conscious of trash.

Anyone developing IEC (information, education, communication) campaigns for conservation will appreciate the beauty of this approach and how it could affect public knowledge, attitudes, and perceptions of environmental sustainability.

Every individual dancer and each of the contingents’ candidates for Hari and Hara underwent basic environmental education, becoming advocates in the process.

The 2018 Sinigay sa Sagay Hari Jerico Sarona and Hara Reamey Destriza were chosen not only for their looks and grace but also for their knowledge on environmental issues.

Upcycled accessories and artwork from Sagay’s internationally recognized maestro Nunelicio Alvarado were incorporated into their festival costumes, and you can tell that the festival was profoundly conceptualized and beautifully executed.

It is not news that Sagay City has embraced their love and respect for nature – it is one of the few LGUs in the province that truly strives for environmental sustainability.

Sinigay sa Sagay started as a celebration of the city’s internationally recognized marine conservation program, and one of the country’s largest marine protected areas – the 32,000-hectare Sagay Marine Reserve initiated by then Municipal Mayor now Provincial Governor Alfredo Marañon Jr. and sustained by the city’s past and present leaders. The current Mayor Alfredo “Thirdy” Marañon III is a marine biologist himself.

With the ecological, historical and cultural significance of Sagay Marine Reserve, the city has also become known for its sustainable tourism development, with Suyac Island being awarded numerous times.

In 2014, the role of tourism in environmental conservation for Sagay became even more embedded in its culture when its traditional mardi gras transformed into “Saot Para Sa Dunang Manggad,” later developed further with workshops from Negros cultural mentors like Rudy Riveche and Ismael Java.

The winning contingent for this year’s Sinigay sa Sagay was the tribe of Bien Mar Keda Joy made up of Barangays Poblacion 1, Poblacion 2, Old Sagay, and Taba-ao, although all looked like victors to me when the competing contingents came together at the end of the contest and performed the “Unity Dance”, a collaborative effort of Sagay City’s LGU, Association of Barangay Captains, Sinigayan Choreographers and Designers Association, Department of Education advisers, and other stakeholders.

And in unity, they danced indeed, the same unity that made them decide Sagay City to be their home “where love for nature begins.”