AP investigation of palm oil industry wins Bingham Prize
“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 provided 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.
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.”