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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Girl Scouts take a stand: Just say no to Thin Mints

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LEISA THOMPSON / NNS

Rhiannon Tomtishen, left, and Madison Vorva found the habitat of orangutans is being threatened by conversion of the land to the production of palm oil, which is in Girl Scout Cookies.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Two middle-school students who started a project to earn a Girl Scout award have ended up rejecting what may be the best known of their organization's symbols: Girl Scout Cookies.

Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, both 12, started doing research last fall on endangered orangutans in Indonesia as part of their Bronze Award project. They discovered the habitat of orangutans is being threatened by conversion of the land to the production of palm oil, an ingredient in Girl Scout Cookies.

Although the two have sold many boxes of cookies over the years, this year they sold magazines instead.

"Just doing the Bronze Award wouldn't be enough," Madison said.

Rhiannon agreed. "We have stopped selling [the cookies]," she said.

The girls also started an education drive, giving presentations at area schools and establishing a Web site.

At a recent conference in Chicago, they met anthropologist Jane Goodall, renowned for her studies of primates and efforts to protect them. Goodall signed their petition against palm oil.

Palm-oil production leads to conflict between orangutans and people, the girls said.

"You really just want to reach out and do all that you can to help save them," Madison said.

Palm oil, which is produced from a fernlike plant, is grown after the rain forest is logged and burned, the agricultural technique practiced for centuries in tropical areas. The deforestation is increasing rapidly, partly because of the rising demand for palm oil, which is trans-fat-free, the girls said.

Lisa Raycraft, director of funds development for Girl Scouts of the Huron Valley Council, to which Rhiannon and Madison belong, said cookie sales are a vital part of the organization's funding. She said maintaining two camps that involve girls in nature and outdoor skills would not be possible without the cookie sales.

She also said that ABC Bakers, which produces cookies sold by the council, has committed to using palm oil grown on rehabilitated or previously cleared land rather than on land that is deforested specifically for palm-oil production. Raycraft also provided a letter from the company saying it is researching how to use as little palm oil as possible.

The girls said the explanation does not satisfy them and they plan to continue their boycott.

Raycraft said the council will work with the girls and has invited them to make their presentation about the dangers of palm oil to Girl Scout leaders before next year's cookie sale. The educational effort is to be part of Rhiannon and Madison's work toward the Girl Scout Silver Award, Raycraft said.

The two girls said they plan to continue as Girl Scouts despite the conflict.

"Overall, it's a pretty good organization," Madison said.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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