Lack of action guarantees coconut industry ruin

Lack of action guarantees coconut industry ruin

This 2002 photo shows legendary monkey trainer Somporn Sae Khow and one of his naughty students who was trained as a coconut picker in Surat Thani. Bangkok Post photo
This 2002 photo shows legendary monkey trainer Somporn Sae Khow and one of his naughty students who was trained as a coconut picker in Surat Thani. Bangkok Post photo

The government and the coconut industry will do or say anything to avoid talking about the abuse of monkeys. Burying their heads in the sand or just plain lying about it isn't going to help the monkeys or the industry.

Products made from coconuts are popular, but few consumers have given much thought to where that ingredient originates. It may be hard to believe, but a Peta investigation has documented that intelligent, social primates are enduring miserable lives of servitude in Thailand's coconut farming industry. Visiting multiple coconut plantations and "monkey schools" in Thailand, investigators found terrified monkeys chained for extended periods, crammed into small cages and forced to harvest coconuts.

During training, these intelligent, social primates -- usually pigtailed macaques -- are coerced into performing the confusing task of climbing coconut trees and twisting the coconuts until they fall off. Some grow so despondent and stressed that they develop neurotic behaviour, including chewing on their own limbs in an attempt to cope. An investigator learned that some handlers may even have their monkeys' canine teeth extracted to prevent them from biting when they feel threatened.

This abuse is not uncommon. The investigators visited 13 locations, including a coconut-picking competition and several "monkey schools".

The plantations in the investigative footage were for "curry coconuts", which are used to make a wide range of products, including coconut milk, cream, chips, oil, vinegar, charcoal, nata de coco, and many others. According to workers at some of these operations, the products are marketed under the Aroy-D and Chaokoh brands.

Pigtailed macaques live in large family groups. The females stay with their families their entire lives. The mothers are highly protective of their babies, and the little ones rarely leave their mothers' sides in their first weeks of life. These monkeys have the ability to move silently through tree canopies, but they also have a wide range of calls and vocalisations and can communicate across long distances.

Although pigtailed macaques can live to be 26 years old, those used for harvesting coconuts usually end up physically, emotionally and mentally damaged and are considered too old to work by age 15.

Monkeys are rarely bred in captivity to be used for coconut harvesting -- instead, they're typically snatched out of their native homes as babies, after which they never see their families again. While doing this is illegal, once they've been sold to farmers, their origin is virtually untraceable.

Compassionate consumers will be appalled to learn that what they thought was an innocuous purchase is actually driving a merciless and mercenary industry. They don't want to see these social and intelligent animals being deprived of their natural lives and exploited by the coconut industry. Other countries produce coconuts for export without forcing animals into lives of misery and servitude.

There are many great things about Thailand -- the annual vegan festival in October is a personal favourite, along with the booming Nam Hom coconut industry, which doesn't use monkeys. It uses dwarf trees, mainly for coconut water for export by companies like Harmless Harvest whose facilities Peta has toured. But curry coconuts are here to stay, too, and the industry needs to change because consumers don't want to buy products that hurt animals.

Anyone who knows Peta knows that we are not going away while these monkeys are being abused. We're relentless, but we are also ready to listen. Months before headlines around the world began slamming Thailand's coconut industry, Peta had written to Aroy-D and Chaokoh to let them know that monkeys are abused for their products, but we never heard back.

Our letters to Thai officials met with silence, too. There were opportunities to work together to end monkey labour, and maybe today we would have been seeing headlines worldwide praising the Thai coconut industry and Thai officials for being compassionate. But instead, here we are.

So, Peta will continue to call on officials to end monkey labour. Officials must take decisive and immediate action to end this widespread abuse.

The public will not stand for cruelty to animals or the government's blanket denials about it.

Authorities can mandate that the industry operate humanely, with an animal-free method that the rest of the region has already adopted, or it can be responsible for the industry's inevitable downfall.

After Peta informed them of the results of the investigation, Waitrose, Tesco, Boots and Ocado vowed not to sell any products that used monkey labour, and Walmart-owned supermarket Asda also said that it was removing coconut milk brands Aroy-D and Chaokoh.

Increasing numbers of consumers are speaking with their wallets, and retailers are listening.

Jason Baker is Peta senior vice president.

Do you like the content of this article?