Girl Scouts Save the World (and Indonesia’s Forests)

If you’ve ever doubted the ability of today’s youth to change their world for the better, consider the inspiring story of two girls who have set out to save the carbon-rich rainforests of Indonesia. Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen were eleven years old when they learned Girl Scout cookies they were being asked to sell contained palm oil grown by clearing endangered forests. The two girls, now fifteen, embarked on a years-long campaign to change the purchasing practices of the Girl Scouts organization. Recently their efforts have sparked national debate about the selling of cookies that contain palm oil.

The use of palm oil as a food ingredient has ballooned in recent years as manufacturers try to find a replacement for other oils that contain trans fats. Yet the palm oil industry’s effect on the planet is anything but healthy: oil palm plantations are devastating the world’s tropical forest cover, especially in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. Plantation expansion and other sources of deforestation have made Indonesia’s carbon footprint the third-largest of any country in the world, second only to China and the United States. At the same time deforestation destroys the last habitat of endangered species like the orangutan.

When the two Girl Scouts learned cookies they were selling contributed to deforestation, Madison and Rhiannon contacted high-ups in their organization and asked that something be done. Unsurprisingly the girls’ requests were met largely with vague promises that their concerns would be addressed. Five years later, Girl Scouts USA has failed to implement any verifiable policy to keep rainforest-destroying palm oil out of its cookies. Madison and Rhiannon are quite rightly unsatisfied.

While Girl Scouts USA tries to sidestep the palm oil issue, the two girls’ campaign has gathered momentum. Madison and Rhiannon have reached out to local Girl Scouts chapters, including their own chapter in Ann Arbor, Michigan, both over the Internet and by making presentations at schools. They’ve convinced other Scouts across the country to join the call for rainforest-safe Girl Scout cookies. Meanwhile national media outlets have been picking up the story.

Most media coverage has naturally focused on the hard work and effort Madison and Rhiannon have put into their effort. However there have also been a predictable few pundits who can’t resist poking fun at someone else’s attempt to make a difference. Seattle Times columnist Ron Judd, for example, condescendingly urged that decisions about a complex affair like cookie ingredients are “best left to adults.” Since “adults” have converted much of Indonesia’s forests into palm oil plantations while cooking the planet and condemning endangered species, Judd’s criticism seems a little off the mark.

Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen are proof that politicians and corporate CEOs aren’t the only ones with the power to change the world. If some “adults” are uncomfortable with the idea of young people taking the future of the planet into their own hands, then they had better get used to it quickly. After all, it’s these girls’ future that’s being bulldozed to make room for oil palm plantations.

Photo credit: Masayuki Kawagishi