No monkey business in the Thai coconut industry
Recent claims made by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) that eight Thai coconut farms have been exploiting monkeys by forcing them to pick coconuts for industry are not only false but have hurt small scale farmers who are not involved in Thailand's coconut industry in any way.
Peta alleged that these farms forced every monkey to harvest up to 1,000 coconuts a day. This accusation is completely false. For such a large-scale operation to be possible, machinery is needed to acquire enough coconuts for processing, which is something monkey labour cannot achieve.
It's best to begin with how Thais and monkeys coexist. The issue should be understood in Thai cultural context. In many parts of southern Thailand, monkeys are traditionally raised as companions, pets, and family members and thus are trained to pick coconuts for small scale farming for the livelihood of the family. The bond between monkeys and their owners is genuine and undeniable. It is similar to how dogs and eagles are trained to assist in hunting or sports. While the practice of retaining animals for traditional use exists in Thailand, they are not connected to the modern industrial supply chain. Monkeys are intelligent animals and will not respond positively to torture or abuse. Thai society does not tolerate acts of cruelty towards animals and any individual act violating animal welfare laws is strictly enforced in the country.
For this purpose, Thailand has promulgated the Cruelty Prevention and Welfare of Animals Act for this purpose. The Act forbids any act of cruelty to animals without justification. Offenders can be jailed up to two years or face a fine of up to 40,000 baht. Mistreatment of animals can be reported directly to the Division of Animal Welfare and Veterinary Service and Department of Livestock Development. Sections 381 and 382 of the Criminal Code also impose penalties on any act of animal mistreatment. Since the macaque is also a protected species under the Wildlife Conservation and Protection Act, ownership of macaques is strictly controlled and monitored by the Ministry of Natural Resources.
The intentional damage
Thanks to Peta's accusations, the coconut industry and the livelihood of tens of thousands of innocent local Thai communities and small scale farmers are being victimised and punished for crimes they never committed. In the meantime, the monkeys that Peta claims have been brutally abused in Thailand are not being rescued. Why? Because Peta never mentioned in their claims exactly where and when the atrocities took place. By choosing to withhold such vital information and not reporting on the cases, Peta has also chosen not to allow authorities to investigate and verify these claims, not to save the monkeys, and not to put the real perpetrators to justice.
Instead, Peta has chosen to campaign with consumers' emotions. Consumers in many countries have therefore pressured importers, distributors and retailers to remove Thai coconut products from their shelves. The two brands that have often been mentioned are "Aroy-D" and "Chaokoh". Local Thai farmers, despite being disconnected with this industrial supply chain, have had their livelihoods disrupted, as the price of coconuts has fallen markedly.
The Thai Food Processors' Association (TFPA), with Aroy-D and Chaokoh as its members, have stressed repeatedly that no monkeys were used in harvesting coconuts for the processing of coconut milk. The coconut processing firms have even signed MOUs with their international partners and suppliers to confirm that no monkeys were involved in their supply chain. An auditing process of random inspections has also been put in place to verify this. Moving forward, the TFPA will now implement a stringent traceability system to guarantee there will be no animal mistreatment in the food production process.
Campaigns to promote awareness against animal cruelty has an understandably just cause. But if such campaigns are tainted by an irresponsible generalisation with no facts, how can consumers trust that Peta is driven by genuine intentions especially when their claims have harmed innocent Thai coconut farmers, and suspiciously vet for coconut industries in other parts of the world?
Narisroj Fuangrabil is a former Thai ambassador to Argentina.