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Girl Scouts Fighting for Deforestation-Free Cookies Win United Nations Award

Orangutan Habitat Still Threatened by Plantations Producing Palm Oil for Girl Scout Cookies

NEW YORK (February 8, 2012) – The United Nations today awarded Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, two 16-year-old Girl Scouts from Michigan, the first ever International Forest Heroes Award for North America.

The girls were nominated for the award by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) 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.

“We are so honored to receive this award and it’s truly humbling to have our work recognized on the world stage,” said Vorva, who lives in Plymouth. “It’s amazing to see how many people support our campaign, including our role model, Dr. Jane Goodall, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.”

Tomtishen, who lives in nearby Ann Arbor, was thrilled that she and Vorva could make a difference. “Even though we’re only 16, we know change is possible and remain committed to protect the existing orangutan population and their habitat,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to choose between enjoying Girl Scout cookies and saving orangutans. We hope the Girl Scouts of the USA, and other food companies will make a commitment to making deforestation-free cookies.”

Vorva and Tomtishen 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 primary habitat, were being cleared at alarming rates to plant palm oil plantations—and that palm oil is commonly used in baked goods, including all 16 varieties of Girl Scout cookies.

“I burst into to tears when we realized that Girl Scouts of the USA was part of the problem,” said Vorva. “Right then, Rhiannon and I decided to that if no one else was going to stand up for the orangutans, we had to.”

In 2007, they launched Project ORANGS (Orangutans Really Appreciate and Need Girl Scouts) to persuade the Girl Scouts to replace the palm oil in Girl Scout cookies with a sustainable alternative—such as canola, corn, rapeseed, soy or sunflower oil—or only use palm oil from deforestation-free sources.

UCS was enthusiastic about the girls’ project. The organization, which is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been working to stop deforestation to safeguard biodiversity and ensure that the planet avoids the worst consequences of global warming.

“Madison and Rhiannon are genuinely concerned about saving forests and orangutans, and their dedication to live up to the Girl Scouts motto ‘to make the world a better place’ is inspiring,” said Sarah Roquemore, outreach coordinator for UCS’s Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative. Roquemore nominated the girls for the U.N. Forest Heroes Award.

Last year, Girl Scouts of the USA and Kellogg’s, which produces Girl Scout cookies, developed a plan to transition to “sustainable” palm oil by 2015. Kellogg’s also pledged to reduce palm oil use across its entire product line. The girls and UCS see this as a good first step, but they caution that the organization that certifies sustainable palm oil does not have adequate safeguards in place to ensure that the palm oil is not contributing to tropical deforestation.

To prod Girl Scouts of the USA to do more to protect orangutan habitat, the girls are working on an online petition on to call on the organization to completely eliminate unsustainable palm oil from their cookies. Over the past two weeks, more than 57,000 people have signed a petition supporting Project ORANGS.

“We won’t stop until Girl Scout cookies are deforestation-free,” said Tomtishen. “We need the Girl Scouts of the USA to hear us and commit to making a better cookie.”


The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading U.S. science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. Founded in 1969, UCS is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also has offices in Berkeley, Chicago and Washington, D.C.