Several coconut producers in Thailand were in hot water with consumers last month when it was revealed that they were using monkey labor to pick their coconuts.
PETA and other animal rights groups have alleged that Thai producers are abusing the animals by forcing them to pick coconuts.
But are the monkeys really exploited slaves? Or is this issue being deliberately overblown?
One thing is for certain: if customers are concerned about Thai monkey labor, they’ll likely be looking elsewhere for coconut products.
In Thailand, using monkeys to harvest coconuts is a traditional practice that dates back centuries. Crab-eating or long-tailed macaques, a small species of primate native to Southeast Asia, are often used on smaller plantations, picking as many as 1,000 coconuts per day.
Monkeys often work from 4 to 6 hours a day, and spend the rest of their time at rest, often in cages or on a chain. PETA and others have accused producers of keeping the monkeys in cramped, unsanitary conditions.
But many in the Thai coconut industry suggest that the claims of monkey labor are exaggerated. The Thai minister of trade has addressed the claims, saying “There is a difference between coconut harvesting using monkeys because of tradition, and picking coconut on an industrial scale. It’s not profitable to use monkeys on an industrial level.”
PETA and others have accused coconut growers of abusing monkeys.
The Thai government also cites the fact that monkeys are generally only used for Tall coconut varieties, which can reach up to 15 meters in height. For Dwarf coconut plantations, human labor is much more effective.
So what’s really going on? Are coconut consumers participating in the brutal enslavement of otherwise happy, carefree monkeys? Or are animal rights activists trying to make mountains out of molehills by blowing the story as far out of proportion as they possibly can?
A Monkey On Their Back
The truth, as is often the case, is not black and white. Yes, there are coconut plantations making use of monkey labor for coconut harvesting, and yes, those practices can certainly be considered exploitative.
But monkey labor may not be as abusive or as widespread as has been claimed. Nukul Luk-in, President of Thailand’s Coconut Farmers Association, stated that “most farmers are hiring pickers with cutters on long poles to pick coconuts. Macaques are used, but very rarely.”
But monkey trainers in Thailand tell a very different story. “It would be difficult to find a coconut product made in Thailand that wasn’t picked by a monkey,” said Arjen Schroevers, head of the Monkey Training School in Surat, Thailand. According to Schroevers, monkeys pick 99% of the Thai coconuts sold for their oil and flesh.
He also says that claims about animal cruelty in regard to monkey labor have been drastically overstated. “It is always relaxed, no shouting, no punishing. Every few trees the monkey hugs his owner, who then checks the monkey for red ants (who live in the trees) and the monkey gets a massage.”
While notions of monkey massages seem a tad spurious (do they give the monkeys a cocktail after work? A cigar perhaps?), the general consensus is that monkey labor is not too different from other kinds of animal labor like horses and donkeys.
Many of those familiar with the practice have expressed skepticism. “During our time in southern Thailand, we never observed or heard of cruelty or abuse of the monkeys,” said Leslie Sponsel, a researcher at the University of Hawaii.
“They are fed, watered, bathed, groomed and otherwise cared for,” Sponsel continued. “They often ride to the coconut palm plantation on the back of a motor bike or in a cart driven by the handler.”
Trouble in Paradise
It would seem that Thai coconut producers need all the help they can get.
With their existing coconut resources aging into senility (the end of a tree’s productive lifespan), the expansion of industrial scale palm oil plantations, and little in the way of support from the government, the Thai coconut industry faces a myriad of challenges.
Despite the increases in imports, Thailand’s domestic production is declining. Its supply chains are highly informal, and growers receive a very small portion of the value of their production. It’s no wonder they’re trying to cut costs with monkey labor.
As Thailand works to confront problems with its coconut industry, producers in regional trade rivals Indonesia and the Philippines are also facing similar challenges. Changing weather patterns, scant genetic resources, and the influence of palm oil are looming over the industry.
As Thailand and other principal coconut exporters work to formalize and optimize their supply chains (as well as confront legitimate concerns about monkey labor), look for producers in other regions to step up their game. Coconut is on the rise, and someone has to meet the supply – although preferably sans monkeys.