We're once again in that sugary time of year, Girl Scout cookie season — but, as two Girl Scouts from Ann Arbor, Mich., want you to know, there's palm oil in those cookies, as there is in many foods we eat. And palm oil has been linked not only with rainforest destruction in Indonesia, but with plantations in league with paramilitary killers in Colombia. (Kind of gives appalling new meaning to the phrase “cookie monster.”)
Last year I also met with Colombian farmers driven off their land by paramilitaries, as I write about in this month's issue of Sojourners, so I was excited to interview Madison and Rhiannon after their recent trip to Colombia.
Read on to find out about how, trying to live by the Girl Scout Law, these two intrepid 11th-graders have been on a five-year mission to stop cookies — and lots of other things you may be planning to eat — from, well, palming off human rights abuses on U.S. snack-seekers.
Sojourners: How old were you when you started your activism?
Rhiannon Tomtishen: I was 10 and Maddy had just turned 11. We were working to earn our Girl Scouts Bronze Award, the highest one we could earn at that age.
Madison Vorva: We shared the same hero, Dr. Jane Goodall. We saw her work with chimpanzees and thought we could do something similar; we found out that orangutangs' habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia is being cleared for palm oil plantations. So we initially just earned our award by talking to groups in our community about it. By that time we had become extremely passionate about this issue — and we found out that palm oil was an ingredient in Girl Scout cookies.
We set out on a campaign to show Girl Scouts USA that having that ingredient in their cookies wasn’t aligning with their mission statement. Part of the Girl Scout law is to "make the world a better place" and to "use resources wisely." Both of us grew up in the Girl Scout organization; we thought it would be a really easy change for them to find a healthy oil that was environmentally friendly.
For the past five years now we’ve been trying to garner support, doing outreach within our own local community and then we partnered with national groups including the Rainforest Action Network. We had over 70,000 people write letters to the [then-] CEO of Girl Scouts USA to ask for a meeting with us. We finally had a meeting this past May and they were committed to working with us; actually just this fall they announced their new Girl Scouts Palm Oil Policy.
It’s the first Girl Scout member-initiated policy change they’ve ever made in almost 100 years of existence, so it’s a great step in the right direction! But it still does not guarantee that the palm oil in Girl Scout cookies is from an environmentally friendly source — so we’re asking them to remove palm oil completely, because right now it’s impossible to track the oil back to the individual plantation.
Sojo: How did you get connected to Witness for Peace?
Madison: Rhiannon and I focused on the environmental aspects, but we weren’t really aware of the social impacts of palm oil, especially in Colombia. Witness for Peace contacted us through Facebook and invited us to travel with them down to Colombia for a week to witness the impacts that this palm oil was having on communities there.
Sojo: What was that trip in November like for you?
Madison: Oh my gosh, I don’t even know where to start. It was an extremely heartbreaking experience to talk with these communities who had essentially become prisoners on their own land. They’ve lost their family members, their lives are being threatened every day. It was shocking. But they had hope. They’ve faced this extreme struggle but they haven’t given up hope and they’ve risked their lives to stay on this land that is rightfully theirs.
It was a tough experience, but it was worth it; now Rhiannon and I are excited to come back to the United States where, as citizens, we have power to talk to our government and say this is ridiculous, this can’t go on, because it’s simply wrong.
Rhiannon: We were in northern Colombia by the coast, [visiting the Urabá region, where] the paramilitaries came in and cleared all these people off their land; they killed hundreds of people, they displaced thousands, and then the palm oil companies and the banana companies and these large, mostly international, corporations came in and took these people’s land, their farm fields, their homes, their communities, destroyed everything and planted giant plantations.
These people legally have the right to this land, but these corporations are on it and are being protected by the paramilitaries, so these incredibly, incredibly brave communities have started to organize returns to their land with the help these international human rights organizations. What they’ve done is set up these humanitarian zones — which are a small small fraction of the land that they legally own. They’ve put together these communities that are surrounded just by barbed wire; they don’t have armed guards, but they’re relying on the presence of internationals within the community to protect them from paramilitaries.
Madison: I remember talking to one guy our age, José…he was awesome. He lost his father. They were killed when these communities were being displaced and so these kids are still living the impacts of these palm oil corporations every single day.
People asked, ‘well aren’t these communities working on these palm plantations, aren’t they benefiting?’ What we learned was that these communities were displaced and then they brought other people in to work on these plantations. So that was extremely surprising to find out that these communities didn’t want the palm companies to come in. They told us: ‘we loved our forests, we lived off of our forests.'
Another thing was that [the agribusiness plantations] actually planted the wrong kind of palm, so all of this palm had died because there was too much water and it contracted this disease and most of the companies left. There’s still a few plantations, but most of the land is now just these rows and rows of dead palm.
Sojo: So, what are you advocating for people in the U.S. to do?
Rhiannon: For Colombia specifically we are currently working with Witness for Peace to develop a campaign that will be petitioning the State Department to pick a stance on this issue and encourage the Colombian government to start protecting these people. That's definitely something people can take part in once that gets finished, I think in January.
But also, in general, we really encourage people to learn about these issues and then buy products that are environmentally friendly and socially responsible. I know it’s not easy when you go to the grocery here in the United States to think about what’s happening, as a result of the ingredients in [a] product, thousands of miles away. But what we purchase here in the United States has global impacts.
Elizabeth Palmberg is an associate editor of Sojourners. Her article Standing up to Death Squads appears in the February 2012 issue.