Nieman News

Hands of five generations of women from a family that has worked on the same palm oil plantation since the early 1900s, ranging in age from 6 to 102. They each hold products made by iconic Western companies that source palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia.

This combination of November 2020 photos shows the hands of five generations of women from a family that has worked on the same palm oil plantation since the early 1900s, ranging in age from 6 to 102. They each hold products made by iconic Western companies that source palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Cambridge, Mass. – “Fruits of Labor,” an exhaustive two-year investigation into widespread abuses in the palm oil industry by Associated Press reporters Margie Mason and Robin McDowell, is the winner of the 2020 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism. Presented annually by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, the award includes a $20,000 cash prize.

Mason and McDowell provide an in-depth look at the dangerous conditions laborers face on large palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. The reporters interviewed more than 130 current and former workers from eight countries at two dozen companies. They revealed an industry in which poor and vulnerable harvesters are regularly exposed to toxic agrochemicals and face serious hazards ranging from trafficking and rape to child labor and slavery.

In their series, the reporters linked the palm oil fruits harvested by workers to the supply chains of some of the world’s largest food and cosmetic companies — manufacturers that use the crop to produce roughly half the consumer products available on supermarket shelves today. Mason and McDowell also showed how banks and other financial institutions support the industry with billions of dollars in funding, and exposed problems related to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a global organization that certifies ethically sourced palm oil.

A child carries palm kernels collected from the ground across a creek at a palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia

A child carries palm kernels collected from the ground across a creek at a palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017.

The reporters took special precautions to gain access to the plantations, meet with sources in secret and shield those who agreed to share their stories from retaliation. The journalists themselves were filmed, photographed and followed by plainclothes police as they did their work.

Bingham judge Gabe Johnson said: “The reporting was done in dangerous conditions far from home and about complicated issues. It’s beautifully written, heartbreakingly sad, and has brilliant narrative juxtapositions. The reporters accomplished what I think is most commendable in journalism: They discovered injustice and wrote a story that compelled action.”

Another judge Christopher Weaver added: “It’s an under-the-radar story; its success is born of the reporters’ diligent enterprise, not a discreet leak or a well-positioned response to a major news story.  And, while some nonprofits and government officials might have harbored concerns about this industry for years, it took this rugged shoe-leather reporting to convert those worries to action by lifting the veil of obscurity. The reporters deserve credit for piercing the ‘easy tolerance’ that has protected this industry. And, along the way, they appear to have helped at least one source escape de facto slavery.”

Following the publication of the AP’s series, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection banned imports from two of the world’s biggest palm oil producers — Malaysian-owned FGV Holdings and Sime Darby Plantation — and announced findings from their own investigation that echoed those of the AP. In addition, in a December letter, Democratic lawmakers from the House Ways and Means Committee urged the U.S. government to clamp down harder on palm oil imports.

The stories also prompted complaints to the UK Home Office, questioning Sime Darby’s disclosure about its protection of human rights under the country’s Modern Slavery Act, and to the Malaysian stock exchange, regarding the companies’ commitments to sustainability. The Malaysian government, which has relied heavily on foreign migrant labor, has also announced plans to train and build a local workforce. Additionally, a number of Girl Scouts throughout the U.S. announced they will no longer sell cookies after learning that child labor had been traced to the bakeries’ palm oil supply chains.

Bingham judge Erika Dilday noted: “Two things in particular stood out for me: The centrality of the voices of trafficked individuals and the following of the palm oil supply so that consumers will know what it is and what to look for, allowing them to take action if they are so inclined. The impact goes beyond the story not just for the subjects and potential perpetrators, but for the readers as well.”

In addition to Mason and McDowell, a number of AP staff members in both Southeast Asia and the U.S. contributed to the reporting, including some who were not named due to the sensitivity of the topic. Team members who worked on the series include photographers Binsar Bakkara and Gemunu Amarasinghe, senior editor Kristin Gazlay, global investigations editor Ron Nixon and digital storytelling editor Raghu Vadarevu.

Mason, a 2009 Nieman Fellow at Harvard, and McDowell were part of the AP team that produced another powerful supply chain story, “Seafood from Slaves,” which won the 2016 Pulitzer for Public Service and a number of other top investigative reporting awards.

The seven journalists who judged the Bingham submissions this year are: Wall Street Journal reporter Christopher Weaver and Gabriel Johnson, a former Wall Street Journal video journalist, who together won the 2019 Bingham Prize for “Forsaken by the Indian Health Service,” an investigation by the Journal and PBS’s “Frontline” that included the documentary “Predator on the Reservation”; Erika Dilday, CEO and executive director at The Futuro Media Group and a 2021 Visiting Nieman Fellow who will start a new position as executive editor of American Documentary in May; Shaheen Pasha, co-founder/executive director of the Prison Journalism Project and a 2018 Visiting Nieman Fellow; Stuart Watson, an investigative reporter, host of the “ManListening” podcast and a 2008 Nieman Fellow; Matthew Dolan, investigations editor at the Detroit Free Press and a 2020 Nieman Fellow; and Andras Petho, co-founder of Direkt36, an investigative journalism center in Hungary, and a 2020 Nieman Fellow.

The Worth Bingham Prize honors investigative reporting of stories of national significance where the public interest is being ill-served. Worth Bingham, who died at the age of 34, achieved prominence as an investigative journalist and was vice president and assistant to the publisher for the Louisville Courier-Journal. He was a 1954 Harvard University graduate. His family and friends created the annual prize in his memory in 1967.

The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard educates leaders in journalism and elevates the standards of the profession through special programs that convene scholars and experts in all fields. More than 1,600 journalists from 99 countries have been awarded Nieman Fellowships since 1938. The foundation’s other initiatives include Nieman Reports, a website and print magazine that covers thought leadership in journalism; Nieman Lab, a website that reports on the future of news, innovation and best practices in the digital media age; and Nieman Storyboard, a website that showcases exceptional narrative journalism and explores the future of nonfiction storytelling.