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‘Slave monkey’ scandal forces rethink of coconut trade

A monkey picks coconuts at the Khlong Noi Monkey Training School in Muang district, Surat Thani province, in October last year. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
A monkey picks coconuts at the Khlong Noi Monkey Training School in Muang district, Surat Thani province, in October last year. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

Thailand, the world’s top producer of coconut milk, said it will enable retailers and consumers to trace coconuts back to their source to show whether monkeys have been used for harvesting.

The $400-million industry, which relies on monkeys at some plantations, is facing possible boycotts in the US, Europe and Australia after the People of the Ethical Treatment of Animals, known as Peta, alleged that monkeys are being abused and “treated like coconut picking machines” for Thai growers and producers.

Officials from the country’s commerce ministry, animal welfare agency, and representatives from the industry met in Bangkok on Wednesday, and have agreed to create measures that ensure the traceability of Thai coconut products, according to a statement. Packages will be marked with a code that can be used to track the products back to their source, which will show whether they came from monkey-free plantations.

The Peta report caused waves across the world, with several British supermarkets saying it will stop selling some Thai coconut products, according to local media reports. A major Thai producer also said it’s receiving inquiries from US and Australian retailers. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds, also weighed in, issuing a series of tweets urging stores to boycott products using monkeys.

Peta alleges that an undercover investigation at eight farms and several monkey training schools revealed “shocking abuse” where “monkeys are chained, confined to cramped cages, and forced to climb trees and pick coconuts.” The organisation called on the Thai government to ban the “enslavement of monkeys.”

Still, not all coconut plantations in Thailand use monkeys. Some coconuts that are harvested for its water are often grown from dwarf trees, allowing them to be collected by humans using tools like a long bamboo stick or a pole pruner. Coconut trees that are harvested for milk tend to be taller than 15m, so monkeys are often used instead.

Monkey school

“We have to understand that climbing tall trees for humans is a very dangerous job that could end in injury or death,” said Somjai Saekow of the First Monkey School, a training center for coconut-collecting monkeys in southern Thailand. “It would be great if we can find an alternative way to collect coconuts. Many of us will be happy to change.”

Other coconut-growing regions, such as Brazil, Colombia and Hawaii, harvest coconuts using methods such as tractor-mounted hydraulic elevators, humans, ropes or ladders, Peta said.

Using monkeys to collect coconuts is an old tradition that may need to change with time even if very few growers still practice it, according to Naris Khamnurak, a lawmaker from southern Thailand, the biggest coconut-growing area.

Thailand’s two major coconut producers that Peta alleges are using monkey labour denied the claims. Theppadungporn Coconut Co, the maker of Chaokoh coconut milk, said that the company buys coconuts from plantations that use humans to harvest, adding that retailers abroad have been contacting the company on this issue. Thai Agri Foods, the maker of Aroy-D coconut milk, said its products aren’t sourced from plantations that use monkeys.

Thailand is among the world’s biggest producers of coconuts, producing about 1.3 million tons of each year. It exports a range of products, from fresh and desiccated coconuts to coconut milk and oil. The Peta campaign has affected sales in the UK, as well as other European countries, Thai Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit said.

On the Thai measures to improve traceability, Peta responded on Thursday by saying that while the new system is welcome, it requires companies to be forthright.

“Peta and every kind consumer looks forward to seeing a Thai coconut industry that leaves monkeys alone,” Jason Baker, the group’s senior vice-president of International Campaigns, said.