Two 16-year-old Girl Scouts Win First Ever UN Forest Heroes Award

February 9, 2012 | 8:12 am
Brenda Ekwurzel
Senior Climate Scientist, Director of Climate Science

An effort begun by two Girl Scouts at age 11 linked orangutans with Girl Scout Cookies.

UN Forest Heroes Award bestowed on February 9, 2012

Madison Vorva Rhiannon Tomtishen wear Forest Heroes Medals after ceremony

Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, during the United Nations Forest Heroes Award (North America) ceremony. Image Credit: Sarah Roquemore, co-author of the Palm Oil chapter in the UCS report “Root of the Problem: What’s Driving Tropical Deforestation Today?” captured this moment during the celebration.

Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva, two 16-year-old Girl Scouts from Michigan, win the first ever United Nations International Forest Heroes Award for North America.

Today, in New York City, two 16-year-old girls, Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, will be honored at the United Nations with the first ever UN Forest Heroes Award.  The UN proclaimed 2011 the International Year of the Forest, and as part of the celebration created a Forest Heroes Award.  The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) nominated Madison and Rhiannon for this award and could not be prouder to hear that they are winning the title for North America.

The Link Between Tropical Deforestation, Orangutans, and Girl Scout Cookies

In 2010, Madison and Rhiannon reached out to my colleagues who work in UCS’ Tropical Forest & Climate Initiative for help on a campaign the girls had been running for almost 4 years to make Girl Scout cookies rainforest-safe.  At only 11 years old, they began a project to earn their Girl Scouts Bronze Award. Inspired by the work of Jane Goodall, the girls decided to focus their inquiry into another great ape—the orangutan. They found that orangutans are endangered because their homes, the southeast Asian tropical forests of Borneo and Sumatra, are being destroyed—in many cases to make room for enormous palm oil plantations.

Between 1990 and 2007, the area harvested for palm oil tripled in southeast Asia. The crushed seeds and fruit from the oil palm tree produce an edible oil that remains solid at room temperature—a highly desirable property for use in lubricants, detergents, cosmetics, and food products. And, as you might have guessed, Girl Scout cookies contain palm oil.

These plantations and other drivers of tropical deforestation account for about 15 percent of annual global warming emissions worldwide (number one and number two are currently China and the United States respectively).

Map of Borneo and Sumatra

The tropical forests of Borneo and Sumatra are where orangutans live. Image Credit: Foreign Agricultural Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) December 31, 2007 Commodity Intelligence Report for Indonesia.

Girl Scout Badge of Determination

What started as a simple letter to the Girl Scouts of the USA has become a full 5 year campaign to change the ingredients in Girl Scout cookies to ensure they are deforestation-free. Madison and Rhiannon’s pure determination to keep fighting for tropical forests no matter what, makes them an inspiration to us all. They are true forest heroes.

You can join their efforts by sending a note to the Girl Scouts USA officials letting them know that girls everywhere deserve the chance to be forest heroes, by selling deforestation-free cookies.

About the author

More from Brenda

Brenda Ekwurzel ensures that program analyses reflect robust and relevant climate science, and researches the influence of major carbon producers on rising global average temperatures and sea level. Dr. Ekwurzel is a co-author of the fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) Volume II. She presents frequently to a range of audiences on climate science, educating the public on practical, achievable solutions for climate change.