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A Firefly for Clean Air
by Mary Anne Plaza,

April 20, 2004

When was the last time you saw fireflies?

For those of us who have been born and raised in the city, fireflies may have well been the subject of fairytales and myths. If not for the occasional visit to the provinces, one might well think that fireflies are already extinct. The absence of these seemingly magical insects has more significant implications than darker nights.

Katti Sta. Ana is one of those who have taken a keen interest in the relationship between fireflies and the environment. Katti is the person behind the annual "Tour of the Fireflies" cycling event. A staunch advocate for clean air, this organization has generated public awareness on how activities, such as cycling, can significantly contribute to the quality of air we breathe in.

The idea of having the "Tour of the Fireflies" involved a lot of "questioning and arguing with God," as she recalls. "At that time I was concerned with our quality of air. More than that, this happened when I was telling God that I was not happy with Him because things are not getting better in this country. After saying that, not long after, this idea came to my mind and it wouldn't go away. I felt that it was something that needed to be done. I was also wondering if this is something He wanted me to do that I would see that He is at work."

With this resolve, Katti thought of having an environmental event that would mainly feature a bike ride and a march that would converge at the Quezon City Memorial Circle. That was in 1999. She then contacted a few friends from the Cycling Advocates (CYCAD), Philippine Daily Inquirer and the UP Mountaineers.

With the help of her friends from various environmental organizations, the biking event was soon under way. Katti notes how she was always encouraged by Ramon Fernan III, CYCAD's president, to continue with the project in spite of her being a neophyte in events organizing.

When plans were already underway, the only problem was how to call the event. Katti brought this up with Lorie Tan of Bookmark and president/executive director of the World Wide Life Fund Philippines. Lorie suggested to use the adage "When was the last time you saw fireflies in the city?"

The idea clicked well with Katti and she brought that up to Mon Fernan, who likewise picked up the suggestion.

"Fireflies are indicators of the balance in ecology. The reason why we don't see fireflies anymore is because the air is really dirty. Hindi na sapat 'yung mga puno, 'yung tubig. Doon mo kasi mahahanap ang mga fireflies sa ganung klaseng lugar (Trees and clean water are not enough. That's where you'll be able to find fireflies in places like that.)."

Air advocacy

Katti's advocacy for cleaner air stems from the fact that she too has been a cyclist since October of 1997. Most of the people who know her can attest to her unyielding efforts to use the bicycle as an alternative transportation vehicle. As much as possible, she uses her bike in traveling short distances, or sometimes, public transportation, if necessary.

"Kapag nakasakay ka sa kotse at hindi ka nagba-bike, ang tingin mo sa siklista nuisance. Hindi ka kasi in contact sa person kasi naka-enclose ka sa isang metal box. (When you ride in a car and you're not the one on a bike, you think of cyclists as a nuisance. You're not in contact with that person because you are enclosed in a metal box.). The bicycle is a 'calmer and gentler' mode of transport. It exposes us to the world around us, to out environment."

As an artist [she was previously named as one of the Thirteen Artists awardees by the Cultural Center of the Philippines -- ed], Katti sees a world of art on her bicycle. She takes delight in seeing the likeness of electric meters as installation arts and the other wonders of the city by just traveling on her bike.

She also cites the other benefits of using the bicycle as an alternative means transportation. Aside from the fact that it doesn't emit smoke, bicycles contribute greatly to the preservation of places and buildings for the greater appreciation of the public. She mentions the way Europeans were able to achieve this notion, especially with the protection of its historical sites.

"One way of preserving historical sites is by discouraging the use of motorized transport. Makikita na kapag pinalapad 'yung roads magiging displaced 'yung mga properties at mga tao. 'Yung kalsada napapaghiwalay niya ang mga communities (You can see that properties and people become displaced when you widen roads to accommodate cars and motorized vehicles. Roads further separate communities from each other)," she says.

Katti says that in Europe, cars and other vehicles have to have a special permit to go into specific roads; permits that are really expensive. In these communities, pedestrians and cyclists are given priority, thus encouraging people to browse through shops and invigorate the spirit of commerce.

She notes the district of Avenida in Manila as an example that such transformation can be achieved in the country. Now, people can enjoy leisure walking and shopping in the area. Business people have also reported an increase in the value of property because of this effort.

Firefly Brigade

The Firefly Brigade, or the organization spearheading the Tour of the Fireflies likewise assists cyclists who do not have proper cycling equipment such as vests, helmets and the like. These people are sometimes invited to join the Tour as "scholars" who are "adopted" by paying participants to sign up in the said event.

Within the years 2001 to 2003, the organization has tallied an estimate of 1,500 participants in each yearly Tour of the Fireflies. Perhaps the reason why a lot of people have taken an interest in this annual activity is because of the fact that this cycling event is open to people from all walks of life, age and social status.

For the 2004 Tour, Katti discloses that they will be working closely with a few local government units (LGUs). "Gusto rin naming magkaroon ng sense of ownership ang mga LGUs kasi kailangang ma-propagate, kahit hindi kami ang gumawa; kahit magkaroon lang ng mga mini bike rides sa mga cities, magkaroon ng policies on promoting non-motorized transport. (We want to develop a sense of ownership for the LGUs because we want this endeavor to propagate, even if we're not the ones organizing it; we hope to have even just mini bike rides within the cities and to have policies on promoting non-motorized

Also in this year's tour, Katti is the ride leader who will be directing participating cyclists through the 50-kilometer route in Manila, Pasay, Paraqaque, Las Piqas, Taguig, Makati and then back to Manila.

As all Tour of the Fireflies, participants can expect Katti to don another costume. Participants to the Tour are also encouraged to dress up and even decorate their bicycles to make the event as colorful and interesting as possible.

Katti recounts how participants take the extra effort to really make the Tour enjoyable not just for them but even for onlookers. "Dito makikita mo talaga yung mga iba't-ibang klase ng bisikleta. Meron ngang sumali na tubero na nilagyan ng gripo yung bike niya. (In the Tour you'll be able to see all sorts of bicycles. There was even a plumber who joined the event and decorated his bike with a faucet.).

There was even a 73 year old grandfather who came from Las Piqas and his costume was that of a revolutionary, complete with the 'salakot' and the Philippine flag that adorned his bike...In the last tour, there was a guy who went as Spiderman I have no idea how he was able to bike through 50 kilometers wearing the costume. There really are a lot of frequent participants to the Tour of the Fireflies."

After this year's Tour, Katti will still be busy to organize the "Firefly Flight Training", a training seminar where they can teach people the rudiments of fixing a bicycle and possibly train them to become future marshals of the Tour. Aside from the Firefly Brigade occupying most of her time, Katti likewise busies herself in studying for her Masters in Urban Planning and her occasional stints in designing book covers for other institutions. She is a member of the Ang Ilustrador ng Kabataan (I.n.K.).

As April also marks the annual Earth Day celebration, Katti looks forward to further awareness not just on the air we breathe, but on the state of the environment.

"We should do away with our culture of wanting to have an easy life, even if it is unfavorable for other people. Do an active effort to clean the environment."


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