A jumble of stories, experiences, and memories came tumbling from my lips when I was asked about my five week placement as an Amizade Individual Volunteer in Jukwa, Ghana. It has proven to be impossible to summarize my time there when every single moment was filled with excitement, joy, and a new lesson. Perhaps the most interesting, and unique, aspect of my stay in Ghana was learning about palm oil and its role in the local community.

Project ORANGSMy interest in this seemingly unimportant crop stems from research I did seven years ago, when I was only eleven years old. My friend, Madison Vorva, and I were reading about the orangutan for a Girl Scout award and were shocked to discover one of the primary reasons they’re endangered is due to the destruction of their rainforest habitat in Southeast Asia for palm oil production. This ingredient is used in an estimated 50% of products on an American grocery store shelf, everything from shampoos to candy bars to baked goods. After looking into this issue more, I realized that palm oil is also having detrimental impacts on many of the communities where it is grown. The US Department of Labor links its production in Southeast Asia to child and slave labor, and I had the opportunity in Colombia to witness first-hand the role palm oil corporations have played in land grabs and forced displacements there.

In response, my friend and I founded Project ORANGS, a campaign to educate consumers about this issue and to encourage companies to transition to deforestation-free and conflict-free sources. As a result of our grassroots organizing and appearances in major media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, we were able to encourage Girl Scouts USA to adopt a palm oil policy, which was the first change in the organization’s 100 year history ever to have been driven directly by its own girls. While this policy does not do enough to truly ensure rainforest-safe cookies, we continue to speak out about this cause and to play a role in pushing the industry to adopt stronger safeguards.

Although commercial production occurs primarily in Southeast Asia, palm oil is grown globally and is, in fact, native to West Africa. While in Jukwa, I was able to experience life in a community where palm plays an integral role. The broom I used to sweep my room each day was made from the fronds of an oil palm. Most of my meals were prepared using palm oil, and in fact the first Ghanaian dish I learned to cook was a delicious soup made from palm fruit. Amizade staff arranged for me to explore local facilities to learn about each step of the production process, from when the fruit is picked to when the oil is packaged for use. When I explained to those working on producing palm oil that I was interested in learning more about it, they laughed and didn’t understand why but were more than happy to answer all of my questions and even let me try my hand at it. I was also able to tour an international soap factory, that uses palm oil as a key base in their products, and a distillery that taps the felled palm trees to make palm wine which is later turned into akpeteshie, a popular local gin. As one of my cultural excursions, I traveled to the Eastern region to visit Serindipalm, a unique, fair-trade, organic palm project that distributes to several small international food and cosmetic manufactures. While the majority of palm oil produced in Ghana is done so by small individual stakeholders and used domestically, Serindipalm was a fascinating example of how palm can be used as a tool for community development while satisfying the every-growing global need for palm oil that is deforestation and conflict-free.

Rhiannon Tomtishen speaking at the UN conference on International Day of Forests

I stepped off the plane in Ghana with no expectations, knowledge or context for what I was able to experience. But as I sobbed in the airport in Accra leaving, I knew I was taking a wealth of knowledge, questions, ideas, and memories with me. Amizade did not just provide me a five week trip, they gave me the opportunity to fall in love with and become a part of a community that means just as much to me now as the one I returned to in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I have already been able to incorporate, in some small way, what I have learned in Ghana into my palm oil advocacy work at home, through a speech at the United Nations celebration of the International Day of Forests. And until I return to Ghana this summer, I look forward to continuing to give back to this community who gave me so much.

~Rhiannon Tomtishen
Amizade Alumnus, Ghana 2013