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Vietnam is a country whose rich biodiversity sheltered within network of national parks, nature reserves and marine protected areas. It is also a nation of contrasts, with urban centres experiencing ambitious development, fertile deltas threatened by rising sea levels and mountainous regions populated by ethnic minorities, still living by subsistence farming. On paper, it is an ideal venue for Miss Earth, a beauty contest designed to promote the protection of nature and to develop social and environmental advocates. Indeed, the account of Miss Earth 2010 on Wikipedia creates the image of a well-run beauty contest with a strong environmental focus. However, those who participated and followed the month long programme had a somewhat less positive impression.

Any beauty contest must balance a set of inter-related expectations from different stakeholders. These include profitability for the organisers, exposure for the host country and sponsors, entertainment for the viewing public and a memorable and perhaps life-changing experience for the contestants. We Love Mauritius sent a candidate, expecting her to participate in a range of environmental projects, receive lectures and training and return home as an enthusiastic advocate and role model. We considered this a worthwhile investment since Mauritius has a lack of high profile, female role models. We also followed the contest to understand what would be required of Mauritius if we wished to Miss Earth in the future.

This, the tenth Miss Earth contest, was the first to be held outside its native Philippines and so some allowance must be made for teething problems. However, things got off to a bad start with the theme chosen by the Filipino organisers for this year’s contest: conserving water. Vietnam, had recently experienced torrential rains which caused flooding and landslides, destroying homes and roads and claiming dozens of lives. Moreover, on many days during the contest it rained or was overcast, curtailing several of the environmental activities and limiting the contestants appreciation of what is a very beautiful and historical country. The changes to the programme were often made at the last minute, which caused a degree of annoyance amongst the girls. Unsurprisingly, the hosts and sponsors redirected the theme of the contest within Vietnam to raising funds for the victims of the floods.

The environmental activities that did take place were described by many girls as too superficial and designed for photo opportunities rather than encouraging the people of Vietnam to take greater care of nature. Some felt that the focus was more on providing entertainment for the local population and social escorts for the sponsors and their guests at dinners which, more than once, included a marine environmentalist’s anathema – shark-fin soup. Most surprisingly, there were no lectures from Vietnam’s experts on their country’s ecosystems and their efforts to protect them.

Perhaps it is time for the organisers of Miss Earth to reflect on the raison d’etre of their contest. If the over-riding objective is profitability and organising a main stream beauty contest then they will always be playing second fiddle to the much more professionally run Miss World and Miss Universe. If, however, they focus on the purpose of raising awareness of the need to protect nature and develop social and environmental advocates, then they will make an important contribution to promoting the development of more sustainable lifestyles.

Talking to the candidates, it is clear that the popularity of the traditional beauty contest is declining, especially amongst the younger generation. Today’s youth are becoming more concerned with making a difference in society to ensure that their futures are not sacrificed on an older generation’s altar of individual self-interest and unrestrained economic growth. This trend is set to grow and the organisers of Miss Earth may find that tapping into it ensures the relevance of their contest and hence the viability of their business. Perhaps it is time to move on from judging how girls look in bikinis and evening dresses and recognise those who can speak with passion about environmental and social issues and who are most active in their home countries. And now that the contest has moved out of the Philippines, surely it is time for the winners to take the global stage and live up to their title: “Beauties for a cause”?

On a national level, one country stands out head and shoulders above the rest as a trend-setter. The selection of Miss Earth South Africa takes place over sixth months and candidates are invited to participate in a range of environmental and social projects around the country, mostly run by local NGO’s. The personal and professional development of the contestants is also a priority. As a result, the organisation enjoys generous sponsorship and the winners are frequently in demand to launch and promote environmental initiatives. We will be exploring the possibilities of emulating the South African programme in Mauritius.

We would like to thank Anne-Lise Ramooloo for taking the time out of her work schedule to represent Mauritius at Miss Earth. She did our nation proud. We must also apologise to her and to our supporters for creating high expectations of this year’s contest that were not realised. We live and learn. Hopefully our feedback to the organisers will lead to significant improvements in the future.