Opinion: Thai Monkey Business in Coconut Trouble

A reporter photographs monkey trained for coconut harvesting in Chumphon province on July 11, 2020.

In Thailand, monkey business is real business with the beasts trained to collect coconuts for human consumption. But for how much longer?

The U.S.-based animal rights group, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, has launched a boycott campaign against Thai coconut-related products due to alleged cruelty against monkeys used to collect coconuts. As of press time, some British retail chains have already pulled Thai coconut products off their shelves and the boycott could spread wider in the days and weeks ahead.

This is part of what PETA says: “The terrified young monkeys are forced to perform frustrating and difficult tasks, such as twisting heavy coconuts until they fall off the trees from a great height. An investigator learned that if monkeys try to defend themselves, their canine teeth may be pulled.

“An investigator saw monkeys being transported in cramped cages that were barely large enough for them to turn around in and others left in locked cages in the back of a pickup truck, with no shelter from the driving rain.

“One monkey seen frantically shaking the cage bars in a vain attempt to escape,” its campaign statement stated, adding that many monkeys are illegally abducted from their families and homes when they’re just babies. “They are fitted with rigid metal collars and kept chained or tethered for extended periods.”

The government has since denied any animal cruelty but attempt to prove to PETA that there’s no monkey cruelty involved in the coconut industry fell flat on Wednesday even before the meeting with PETA took place. PETA vice president Jason Baker said Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit “should stop lying” to the public.

“PETA hopes that they will stop lying to the public and acknowledge the industry’s exploitation of monkeys. Our document is clear and unequivocal,” Baker said in a statement. It is both unfortunate and ironic that Baker’s statements was made prior to the meetings with Jurin. 

AROY-D one of the two exporters accused by PETA of monkey cruelty on Tuesday denied its contract farmers even use monkeys, however.

“We insist that AROI-D products on sale around the world do not use animal labor,” the firm said on its Facebook page.

Denial on Wednesday that there is no monkey labor at all by army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong isn’t helpful either. Since when did the army chief become an expert in monkey business? Where is the counter proof? 

To be fair to the Thai side, there exists no hard evidence that cruelty against these monkeys is pervasive and common. It’s possible that a few rotten monkey owners is about to ruin coconut exports. PETA should try harder to prove beyond doubt that it is widespread. 

It’s a deadlock and the longer it lasts the more damage will be done to the Thai coconut-related export industry.

There are at least two ways to go about rectifying the situation.

First, proper census and scrutiny of the use of monkeys, particularly southern pigtailed macaque, for coconut collections should be made. How many monkeys are being employed? Is there proof that they are not caught in the wild? Have their canine teeth been removed in some cases? What kind of working and living conditions do they face?

Then a minimum labor and living standards should be set and monitored. Microchip to trace each monkey’s identity and health should also be introduced.

Are these monkeys supposed to collect as many as 1,000 coconuts per day? Is that even possible as alleged by PETA and what should be the maximum allowable number of coconuts collected in order to ensure humane working conditions then?

Hopefully, this will enable both PETA and western consumers to feel assured.

I am not very optimistic about the first option, however. These present serious logistic challenges and the money spent on monitoring monkeys at work is not easy at all if not almost impossible.

Thailand is thus left with a hard choice or whether to keep using monkey labor and face a likely continued boycott or bring about an end to the use of monkeys for coconut harvesting.

It seems it makes more sense to end the use of monkeys for coconut collection altogether. Unless one wants to risk seeing how far reaching and severe the boycott will be in the weeks ahead.

Thai coconut industry depends on exports. Last year, the month between January to July 2019 alone saw the export of coconut milk amounting 7.46 billion baht, according to a local media report. Then there’s also fresh coconut water and other coconut-related products.

Ending the use of monkeys for coconut works seems the most logical and possibly humane way out. Return or reintroduce them into the wild where they truly belong. Farmers using these monkeys should be assisted to use machines instead and plant dwarf coconut that’s easier to harvest instead.

Actually, there’s option three and some Thais are content with it. PETA’s campaign has infuriated a good number of Thais who cried false accusations or double standards. For those crying foul, please refer to option one.

Some Thais say: what about foie gras? Why are they not boycotting French restaurants and producers? What about using dogs to seek explosives?

For the record, PETA is against foie gras as well although its campaign has been less effective and failed to stop France and many western countries from selling them.

As for those who wants to play the nationalistic card, please think about those whose jobs are dependent on the coconut export industry. They may lose their jobs if exports fall significantly. This is what we face since Thailand is dependent on export. 

And please do not forget the monkeys. If they could communicate with us humans, I wonder if they would take the side of PETA or Team Thailand. They have an average lifespan of 25 years and there must be enough time left for retirement in the wilderness.