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February 1, 2012 

16 Year Old Girl Scouts Fighting for Deforestation-Free Cookies Up for Major United Nations Award

Girls Fight to Ensure Cookies Don’t Threaten Orangutans

On Thursday, February 9, the United Nations will announce the winners of its first ever International Forest Heroes Award, and two 16-year-old Girl Scouts from Michigan are in the running.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) nominated the girls, Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, for the award for bringing international attention to the threat palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia poses to orangutans and tropical forests. Palm oil is used in thousands of products, including Girl Scout cookies.

Vorva and Tomtishen, from Plymouth and Ann Arbor, first became aware of the connection between palm oil and orangutan extinction five years ago when they began working on earning a Girl Scout Bronze Award, which requires scouts to raise public awareness about an issue. Inspired by anthropologist Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees, the girls focused on orangutan protection. They discovered that forests in Indonesia and Malaysia, the ape’s habitat, were being cleared at alarming rates to plant palm oil plantations.

For example, Sumatra, one of the Indonesian islands, provides critical habitat for Sumatran orangutans. Between 1985 and 2007, nearly half of its forests were destroyed, and over the last decade, expanding palm oil plantations were responsible for nearly 80 percent of the deforestation. This habitat loss has decimated the Sumatran orangutan population, which has plummeted from an estimated 85,000 in 1900 to fewer than 6,600 today. If nothing is done to reverse this trend, the Sumatran orangutan could be the first of the great apes to go extinct, according to the United Nations.

When Vorva and Tomtishen learned that palm oil is commonly used in baked goods, they checked out the ingredients in Girl Scout cookies and were disappointed to discover that all 16 varieties contain palm oil. In 2007, they launched their campaign to make Girl Scout cookies deforestation-free.

Since then, the girls have been cited by a number of major media publications, including Huffington Post, Time Magazine, and the Wall Street Journal, and have appeared on numerous radio and television shows, including ABC World News Tonight, the CBS Early Show, and NPR. The publicity they have generated is beginning to pay off.

Last year, Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA), along with Kellogg’s, a Girl Scout cookies’ baker, outlined a series of initial steps to address this issue including moving to so-called “sustainable” palm oil by 2015. Kellogg’s also pledged to reduce palm oil use across their entire product line. According to the girls and UCS, this certified sustainable palm oil does not have adequate safeguards to ensure that it is not contributing to tropical deforestation – and thus the pledges from GSUSA and Kellogg’s are not enough to protect orangutans or the tropical forests where they live.

But the girls are keeping up their fight. Vorva and Tomtishen are prodding GSUSA to follow the lead of some food companies and demand that its supplier switch to other types of cooking oils, such as canola, corn, rapeseed, soy or sunflower oil, or emerging supplies of palm oil from truly deforestation-free sources such as degraded lands.


The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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