After Case on Child Slavery, Scrutiny Returns to Cargill CEO David MacLennan ’81

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that claims about Cargill’s alleged aiding and abetting of child slavery abroad could not be processed in the U.S. This is not the first time Cargill, whose CEO is Amherst trustee David MacLennan ’81, P’14, has faced criticism for its ethical practices.

Over the summer, the Supreme Court sided with global food corporation Cargill in a case related to child slavery in the Ivory Coast. Cargill is run by CEO and Chairman David W. MacLennan ’81, P’14, an alumnus and trustee of the college. The Court’s decision was nearly unanimous and has come under fire in the context of growing public scrutiny over the company’s ethical and environmental practices.

Work by environmentalist groups has revealed that the company utilizes supply chains that rely on deforestation and accelerate global climate change. Mighty Earth, a global advocacy organization for protecting nature, has deemed Cargill “the worst company in the world.” While the company claims to adhere to a pro-climate action plan, activists and Amherst community members have expressed frustration that one of the nation’s largest private companies by revenue has faced little to no ramifications for seemingly unethical and environmentally unfriendly practices. Amherst students have previously protested MacLennan on campus for the company’s role in the deforestation of the Brazilian Cerrado.

The case began in 2005 when six Malian individuals alleged that Cargill “aided and abetted” their condition as child slaves. As children, the six Malians were enslaved on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast from where the company bought cocoa.

The case rested on an interpretation of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a federal law written in the 18th century that allows district courts to “have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” In other words, non-U.S. citizens may, under specific circumstances, file a lawsuit in U.S. courts for egregious violations of international law, such as war crimes or genocide.

The Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision that the Malians “impermissibly seek extraterritorial application of the ATS. Nearly all the conduct they allege aided and abetted forced labor — providing training, equipment and cash to overseas farmers — occurred in Ivory Coast. Pleading general corporate activity, like ‘mere corporate presence,’ … does not draw a sufficient connection between the cause of action respondents seek and domestic conduct.” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the Court’s opinion, and Justice Samuel Alito was the sole dissenter.

Lawrence Douglas, Amherst’s James J. Grosfeld professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought who served as a signatory on an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiffs, described how the Court deemed Cargill’s actions constitutional by using the ATS. “The ATS goes back all the way to 1789, and it raises the possibility that a foreigner could use the U.S. court to sue another foreigner for a major violation of international law. There needs to be some kind of sufficient conduct that the company in the United States did that connects it to the bad thing happening abroad.”

In this case, Douglas said, “For the allegations of the plaintiffs that they were forced to work as child slaves in the Ivory Coast in these cocoa fields, there would have to be some kind of showing that Nestle [the co-defendant in the Supreme Court case] or Cargill was aware of that, or basing their decision to buy the cocoa was based off of that information. The holding here, which was 8-1, showed that there was insufficient conduct.”

During the oral argument in Nov. 2020, Justice Alito said that the plaintiffs’ claimed that Cargill “should have known” about the slavery, but not that the company “knew.”

Parker Richardson ’22, who served on the executive board of Amherst’s Food Justice Alliance (FJA) when she was at the college, posited that the fact that the Court found Cargill to be innocent doesn't necessarily mean the company is morally upstanding. “There are a few different narratives out there, and I have found it difficult to hold them together and know what the truth is,” she said.

“David MacLennan claims that Cargill does not tolerate child labor. Mighty Earth, who FJA worked with in the past to protest Cargill's destructive practices, claims Cargill is responsible for countless human rights violations. Because there was insufficient evidence to prove the plaintiff's allegations, this case became about the application of the ATS to extraterritorial defendants.” Richardson noted.

Richardson is more concerned about “the larger questions of when corporations can be held liable” in the same way as individuals. She thinks that it is of the “utmost importance that corporations be held responsible for their actions” because, in many scenarios, their violations are rooted in systemic behaviors that inflict more damage than individual decisions.

“Cargill's size protects the corporation, which allows human rights violations and environmental degradation,” she said.

Senior Lecturer in Biology and Environmental Studies Rachel Levin also acknowledged the difficulty of holding large companies accountable. She noted that “one can certainly trace connections between Cargill purchasing soy that’s contributing to deforestation,” but, “If you can’t track the supply chain then it becomes really difficult. It connects in a way to your original court case because you can easily deny it [environmentally damaging practices] because the supply chains are so complex.”

To remedy this problem, Levin suggested that “Companies like Cargill should [make] a corporate commitment to only commit to areas that have good farming practices or don’t use deforestation for production, and then you have to have monitoring to enforce that.”

Additionally, Richardson said that Amherst student groups can be a useful resource. “We have the power of protest and pen, and of community. Groups like FJA and Sunrise empower individuals to collectively hold corporations like Cargill and Amherst accountable.”

In spite of the solutions available, many students believe that there is no sustainable way for Cargill to exist. Given this reality, some students think that it is unconscionable to have MacLennan on the board of trustees.

“Amherst cannot be completely carbon-neutral if it depends on money from destructive industries,” Richardson said. “While I understand the importance of a diversity of opinions and experiences, because of Cargill's emissions and lack of initiative to offset them fully, there is no place for MacLennan on a pro-climate board.”