Did A Monkey Pick Your Coconuts?
Please be sure to read my follow up post with additional information and insight about this topic
Were the coconuts harvested for use in your coconut oil containing products picked by enslaved pig tailed macaques?
The use of animals for agricultural labor is nothing new, but taking animals from the wild to be used for human gain is another problem entirely.
Human beings have a great capacity for love, compassion, kindness, and advancing our civilization and culture to great heights.
And yet, we are also excellent at exploiting and mistreating others in the name of profit and progress.
From unsafe and inhumane working conditions in many of the garment factories producing the clothes to feed our fast-fashion habits, to the gross mistreatment of farm animals on factory farms, I've learned some pretty unsettling truths over the years as I try to be more conscious of how the products I use are made.
Until I read a short excerpt from a Bangkok News article bringing this issue to light, I had never known that, in some supply chains, pig tailed macaque's are used to pick coconuts used for coconut oil.
I've been to Southeast Asia and I'm well aware how both the animal tourism industry and the working animal industry is very much alive and central elements within their economies, especially in Thailand.
In fact, it was upon witnessing the underlying (and overt) horrors of the elephant tourism industry during my visit to Thailand that prompted my interest in animal rights.
I suppose I was so focused on learning about the exploitation of elephants that I never heard of any of the many "monkey training" schools where monkeys are trained from a very young age to harvest coconuts. Many monkey trainers soon realized that there is good money to be made in animal based tourism, so they opened their doors to tourists and have expanded to include circus-like shows where their monkeys perform tricks for an audience.
It's no surprise that these places are lightheartedly marketed to tourists as a unique and entertaining experience for the whole family.
It is yet another example of humans regarding other beings as mere objects of entertainment; their only value comes from the pleasure and joy gleaned by tourists willing to pay money to watch them pick coconuts or perform silly tricks that rouse "oooh's" and "aaah's" from the crowd.
And while tourists marvel at these monkeys as tiny curiosities, they snap photos using the monkeys as props, smiling broadly as a monkey shackled by the neck and chained to a pole sits idly by.
All I see when I look at these photos is willful ignorance in the face of pretty obvious cruelty.
The sad reality to all of this is that these animals were stolen from the wild.
While some are born into captivity on breeding farms, many were purchased from poachers who trap them in the forest or kill nursing mothers to steal the babies. After all, a monkey trained from a young age will be easier to handle and will become more skilled in his ability to yield the most coconuts.
Why Pig-Tailed Macaques?
Pig-tailed macaques, whose conservation status is vulnerable, can live to around 30 years in captivity.
Could you imagine living the duration of your life in shackles, laboring for long hours harvesting coconuts, or performing silly tricks, with little time to socialize with members of your group? To live a life with no free will?
Training takes several months and physical punishment is typically used to force the monkeys into submission. Monkeys who are well trained will be resold to coconut farmers for a high-price, making this aspect of the industry quite profitable for trainers.
The economic benefit to the coconut farmers who use these monkeys is obvious. While some sources seem a bit dubious on the matter, I've read that these monkeys can harvest hundreds of coconuts per day, with estimates ranging widely from 300-1000.
I have also read that a typical day in the life of a working pig tailed macaque begins at 8 am and ends around 5 with only a small break for lunch. The day is quite long and exhausting to say the least.
The most comprehensive article I read, Pay Coconuts, Get Monkeys, gives us an idea of what life is like for these monkeys, how valuable they are economically, and how legal loopholes enable trainers and "zoos" to essentially get away with animal abuse and neglect.
Early on in the piece a man called Noi Petchpradab, who has been training macaques to harvest coconuts for thirty years, was interviewed and discusses daily life for these working monkeys:
When they are not working, the animals are chained to tree stumps, which Mr Noi said is due to their aggressiveness. They are given three daily meals, consisting of rice mixed with Lactasoy milk.
The article also goes on to say:
Due to their ability to work for long hours, the macaques are capable of collecting 600-1,000 coconuts per day, compared to only 100-200 for humans. On a few occasions, he admitted, the monkeys are so tired they faint. (bold and italics added for emphasis)
This practice will surely continue as long as there is both a market for coconut oil and consumers who are ignorant to the fact that this is even happening. Also, there will always be an economic incentive for people in these areas to use monkeys as performers as long as tourists are willing to spend money to visit them.
I really do thinks it is important to note that this information is not to suggest that these people are "bad" or that they set out to intentionally bring harm to these animals. In fact, the use of animals as labor has been widespread as long as animals and humans have existed together.
It's important to shed light on these issues for many reasons, but also to remember that these are people who, at the end of the day, are trying to make a living.
As someone who comes from a wealthy nation, I do not have to contend with the fact that my options for employment and supporting my family might realistically be limited to an industry that, for now, relies on the use of wild animals and has done so for many years.
One must also consider the privileges that one may take for granted. For example, in these areas of Thailand, about half of a family's yearly income may be earned by the pigtail macaque retrieving the coconuts. (http://pin.primate.wisc.edu/factsheets/entry/pigtail_macaque/behav)
While I don't have the answers to this, it is my hope that the more knowledge we have about this will inspire change and eventually bring other alternatives to these people to make their income in a way that does not exploit animals.
Although the yield is far less, an obvious alternative is for coconut farmers to hire fairly-compensated human workers.
What can you do to try and make changes?
- Firstly, don't buy products that contain coconut oil from coconuts harvested by these monkeys. At the bottom of the article I've included a list of companies who I know use fairly traded coconut oil harvested by humans. The list is by no means exhaustive; just because a brand you use isn't included does not mean they are using monkeys. Simply reach out to a representative to the company to find out.
- Don't visit these types of tourists attractions. I connected with Ashley Fruno, Senior Campaign Manager from PETA Asia, and she says:
The most important thing that we can do to end this practice is to never patronize animal attractions and to educate others to do the same. Many coconut plantations offer tours, and some facilities double as circuses. The money spent at these facilities pays for this exploitive industry to continue.
- Spread the word! We can't really affect positive change in the world if we don't know there are problems that we may be unwittingly contributing to.
- Write letters to the governments who enable this type of abuse. In talking with Ashley Fruno, Senior Campaign Manager from PETA Asia, she says:
Animal protection laws in many countries in Asia are weak and often poorly enforced. Fighting industries like these is not usually possible from a legal standpoint because no laws are being broken.
One can only hope that making enough noise and expressing disdain for these practices could encourage some legal change within these countries.
BRANDS WHO CONFIRMED COCONUTS ARE PICKED BY FAIRLY COMPENSATED HUMAN WORKERS
3 Buddhas Coconut Water
Better Body Foods
Big Tree Farms
Coconut Magic (Australia)
Earth Circle Organics
La Tourangelle Artisan Oils
Native Pacific “Banaban” (Queensland)
Ojio (Ultimate Superfoods)
Sanso-Boeki LLC (Japan)
*UPDATE 1: I have been contacted by someone from the First Monkey School in Surat-Thani, Thailand. Per their website, this school touts itself as the first training school established to train monkeys. The school uses non-aversive, rewards based training with their monkeys instead of punishment. I have been in correspondence with them and although my invitation to have a Skype interview was declined due to language barriers, I did send over a list of questions for them to answer that will hopefully shed more light on the practice of training monkeys and using them as labor. I will update as I can.
*UPDATE 2: Check out my follow up post on this topic here, which includes some information about the First Monkey School, in addition to my overall view on the subject and some interesting information about the coconut picking industry in India.
*this post was originally published on my old blog, My Kind Closet, in 2015, but all facts still remain*