Girl Scouts in Washington and Peat Forests in Malaysia – What's the Link?

April 20, 2012 | 3:46 pm
Doug Boucher
Former Contributor

What  do these two things have to do with each other? The connection is palm oil, which is a major threat to tropical forests. This week brought important developments on both fronts: a whirlwind visit to political leaders in Washington by the two Girl Scouts who are leading the campaign to make Girl Scout cookies deforestation-free, and a scientific paper showing just why their work is so important — not just for orangutans, but for global warming as well.

Lots of tourists visit Washington in the spring, and many of them visit the White House, the Capitol, the famous monuments or the Smithsonian museums. But few do as much good for the planet as did Girl Scouts Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva. Supported by UCS and Climate Advisers, they talked about their campaign to influential members of Congress, State Department negotiators, and the Director of the Environmental Protection Agency — all in a single day.

Photo at Senator Levin's office, Tuesday 17 April 2012

Rhiannon and Madi visited Senator Carl Levin, who was very impressed with their campaign

They started with their Michigan Senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow (who chairs the Agriculture Committee) and with their Representatives John Dingell and Thaddeus McCotter and were met with great praise for their hard work and the honor they brought to Michigan with their accomplishments. They also met with staffers and members of Congress from the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to raise more awareness about the environmental and social aspects of palm oil production around the globe.

The girls also made a special stop by some of the offices of the members of Girl Scout Troop Capitol Hill to share their story and offer them the chance to earn “Rainforest Hero” badges for their vests.

Photo at the State Department, Tuesday 17 April 2012

At the State Department, Rhiannon and Madi met with US climate/forest negotiator Christine Dragisic (far left) and other officials

Following their meetings on Capitol Hill, the girls then traveled to the State Department to talk with staffers covering Indonesia, Malaysia, Colombia, international environmental issues, forests, and human rights. This group included Christine Dragisic, who negotiates forest issues and REDD+ for the U.S. in the international climate talks.

Meeting at Director Jackson's office, 17 April 2012

Rhiannon and Madi met with EPA Director Lisa Jackson at her office

The girls ended the day by sitting down with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to receive her congratulations and discuss palm oil with her in more detail. This was an especially timely meeting because the EPA is in the process of finalizing its analysis of palm oil-based biofuels, and its draft analysis shows that because of the deforestation and draining of peat land, palm oil-based biofuels do not meet even the basic requirements for the U.S. renewable fuels program.

However, the palm oil industry is making a strong effort to reverse this in the final EPA decision. UCS got a taste of their tactics when our outreach coordinator Sarah Roquemore nominated Rhiannon and Madi for the United Nations’ first ever Forest Hero award — and they won!

In response, the “American Palm Oil Council” — which despite its red-white-and-blue-sounding name, actually is the DC lobbying arm of the Malaysian palm oil industry — wrote our Executive Director Kathy Rest a letter in which they claimed flatly that “Palm oil plantations are not the cause of deforestation.” Concerning Madi and Rhiannon, they complained that “These Girl Scouts have been nominated for bringing international attention to the alleged threat palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia poses to orangutans and tropical forests. These individuals have suggested that Malaysia does not produce sustainable palm oil. This inaccurately represents the Malaysia palm oil industry.”

So who’s right — the Michigan Girl Scouts or the palm oil industry’s lobbyists? Well, a new scientific paper just published in Global Change Biology – Bioenergy,  based on detailed satellite monitoring, makes the answer pretty clear. The authors, using detailed satellite photos going back over 20 years, showed how industrial plantations in southeast Asia — 69% of which are for palm oil — have expanded rapidly in recent years.

This is particularly bad when the plantations are established by clearing forests on peat soils, because peat contains very large amounts of carbon, which is released to the atmosphere and causes global warming. The new Mietennen et al. paper shows that in the Malaysian part of Borneo (Sabah and Sarawak), about a third of the peat swamps have already been lost to plantations. The rate of loss has actually been increasing in the overall region, so that between 233 and 311 million tons of CO2 annually are now being emitted because of plantation expansion onto peat. The authors also point out that “This deforestation rate of nearly 4% per year substantially exceeds earlier analyses of historical and projected forest losses (e.g. Hooijer et al., 2006) and is indeed dramatically higher than deforestation levels generally around the world ….”

Looks like the science is on the side of the Girl Scouts. You can support their campaign, and for more information, see our recent report on how the vegetable oil industry can and should become deforestation-free. And if you’d like to find out more about palm oil biodiesel and weigh in on the EPA’s decision, click here to submit comments.