A hat constructed of coffee bags. Shoes made of used twine. An entire dress woven of leaves and bark. A burlap sack turned into a shirt. Fringes created out of plastic bottles to adorn a skirt. As each contestant in the first ever ecological beauty pageant held in the Montes de María crossed the stage in their unique outfits, they were greeted with thunderous applause from their peers and friends.
Beauty pageants hold a special place within Colombia’s cultural traditions. When Barranquilla born Paulina Vega was crowned Miss Universe, celebrations took place across the country. Besides participating in national and international level competitions to become Miss Colombia, every year countless women vie to be crowned queen of their local speciality, be it coffee or cattle.
For the Youth Peace Promoters group, pageants are still popular, but with a twist. Instead of being judged for their swim suit style the young people, both men and women, competed to teach environmental care to their communities, engaging in projects to guarantee the welling being of their natural surroundings. Their goal? Sustainable beauty.
For people in the high zones of the Montes de María, in Colombia’s coastal region, doing things a little differently has become a way of life. “We have to take risks, take risks to see what happens. And those risks have had better results than we could have ever imagined,” says Jocabeth Canoles, one of the founding members, as she describes the beginning of the youth organization in 2013.
For many rural coastal communities, the past decade was filled with violence. Leftist guerrilla groups battled right wing paramilitaries for territorial con- trol. Trapped in an atmosphere of fear, distrust grew between all of the different communities caught in the middle of the fighting. Even after the overt violent ended, a high level of distrust remained. That is, until the avocado trees started dying.
While the reasons behind the deaths were not clear, the results were obvious. Hundreds of families that had depended on avocado sales as their main livelihood suddenly faced a crisis. While armed displacement had been a threat ten years ago, displacement for economic reasons now loomed. Community leaders from around the region put aside years of mistrust and starting working together to find a creative solution. They decided to nonviolently march together as a reconciliation movement to bring attention to their situation and to demand their legal rights as victims to reparations, health care, education, and farming assistance, among others.
Young people from each community participated and, as Jocabeth explains, when “the march was over the leaders sat down together with a local organi- zation, Sembrandopaz, and realized that something had to be done with all of the young people.” They all agreed and decided to form their own group, mirroring and expanding the existing movement to focus on integration, reconciliation and education, to improve the quality of life in their region.
The newly-formed coordinating committee travelled from hamlet to hamlet to encourage participation. Despite the geographical closeness of the neighbouring communities, for many it was a challenge to enter previously unfamiliar spaces and to build relationships. The young leaders began to learn, as Jocabeth says, that “to trust is good.” As friendships formed, the group grew to encompass participants from thirty-two hamlets, with as many as fifty-five different communities interested in the process.
One theme especially important for the group is their future. Protecting the environment is key. “With the death of the avocados, we have seen a lot of deforestation,” explains Jocabeth. Together, the group decided to host a beauty pageant, but with an environmental community focus.
According to Jocabeth, “We wanted to work on something that could have an impact, which could teach people how to value the environment.” Each community nominated a couple to participate. They would be judged on not only their costumes, but on their ability to creatively put together on environmental project in their local community, with a focus on teaching others how to care for their surroundings.
Once again, the coordinating committee travelled from community to community, promoting the idea. Interest was immediate and impressive. Youth-led projects ranged from tree planting to garbage collection to creative recycling. Communities learnt together how to turn plastic bottles into decorations and the value of their local watersheds and trees.
On pageant day, young people congregated in the hamlet of Gaumanga for a day of festivities centred on the environment. In keeping with the community spirit of the event, the winning couple, Walter and Darleis from Raizal, received computer training, not only for themselves, but for thirty people in their community.
The pageant may be over, but plans to create a beautiful, and sustainable, future continue. For Jocabeth, “our dream is to continue to see how education can be guaranteed for the young people in our communities.” With ideas for future projects ranging from environmental tourism to soccer tournaments, it is clear that the youth, and their communities, are true pageant winners.