They are two young girls from two very different worlds, linked by a global industry that exploits an army of children. Olivia Chaffin, a Girl Scout in rural Tennessee, was a top cookie seller in her troop when she first heard rainforests were being destroyed to make way for ever-expanding palm oil plantations. On one of those plantations a continent away, 10-year-old Ima helped harvest the fruit that makes its way into a dizzying array of products sold by leading Western food and cosmetics brands—including Girl Scout cookies. Ima is among the estimated tens of thousands of children working alongside their parents in Indonesia and Malaysia, which supply 85% of the world’s most consumed vegetable oil. An AP investigation found most earn little or no pay and are routinely exposed to toxic chemicals and other dangerous conditions.
Some never go to school or learn to read and write. Others are smuggled across borders and left vulnerable to trafficking or sexual abuse. Many live in limbo with no citizenship and fear being swept up in police raids and thrown into detention. The AP used US Customs records and the most recently published data from producers, traders, and buyers to trace the fruits of their labor from the processing mills where palm kernels were crushed to the supply chains of many popular kids’ cereals, candies, and ice creams sold by Nestle, Unilever, Kellogg’s, PepsiCo, and many other leading food companies. Child labor has long been a dark stain on the $65 billion global palm oil industry. In some cases, an entire family may earn less in a day of laboring than a $5 box of Girl Scout Do-si-dos. (The full story has more on Ima, who sometimes works 12-hour days, as well as Olivia, who took action when she realized what was in the cookies she was selling.)