Nirun Wongwanich, 52, a monkey trainer, trains a monkey during a training session at a monkey school for coconut harvest in Surat Thani province, Thailand, July 10, 2020.

Food

Does Thailand have a monkey labor problem?

A PETA campaign is scandalizing Thailand’s huge coconut industry. But some of its claims are overstated.

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Nirun Wongwanich, 52, trains a monkey during a training session at a monkey school for coconut harvest in Surat Thani province, Thailand, July 10, 2020.

Credit:

Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters 

A pig-tailed macaque is roughly the size of a 4-year-old human. The macaque is a lot better at climbing, though, and its front canines are like two daggers. Rile one up and you could lose an ear.

Macaques are also quite intelligent, so much so that they can do human jobs. In Thailand, one of their native habitats, some of these monkeys are put to work on coconut farms.

Imagine the fearlessness required for any human to scale a 100-foot tree — tall as a seven-story building — just to pluck a few coconuts.

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This is effortless work for macaques, however. With agile fingers, they can easily scamper up, twist off a coconut and let it drop to the jungle floor, where their hungry children await.

But doing this hundreds of times in one day — to feed humans instead of its kin — goes against a macaque’s nature. The animal must be trained to comply.

“The training of these monkeys always comes with pain. If you inflict pain, they’ll quickly figure out what you want and obey your orders.”

Edwin Wiek, Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, founder

“The training of these monkeys always comes with pain,” said Edwin Wiek, founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, one of Southeast Asia’s larger animal sanctuaries. “If you inflict pain, they’ll quickly figure out what you want and obey your orders.”

Worse yet, he says, farmers often yank out a macaque’s best means of defense: its two blade-like fangs.

Those who work with macaques may liken them to other beasts of burden, such as plow-dragging buffalo. But PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) insists they are “enslaved.” As the US-based group says in a new campaign: “This is the dark side of Thailand’s coconut industry.”

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PETA has released findings that are undeniably grim: footage of coconut-picking monkeys chained by the neck, crammed into cages, seemingly driven to madness.

This investigation is paired with a plea: “If you see a product made with Thai coconuts, such as coconut milk, oil, water or yogurt, please leave it on the shelf to avoid supporting this life of misery.”

This is PETA’s most incendiary claim: that monkey labor is so endemic in the industry that all Thai coconut products deserve a boycott.

The fallout from this campaign has already been heavy. Thai coconut products have long lined the shelves of supermarkets around the world. But in reaction to PETA’s campaign, Western stores from Walgreens to Duane Reade to Stop & Shop have pledged to stop selling any products containing Thai coconuts.

Thailand is a coconut powerhouse, producing more than a million tons of the fruit each year. Many thousands of people rely on the industry for work — from farmers to traders to factory workers.

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Some of PETA’s claims are misleading, namely this assertion: “An industry insider reported that it’s rare to find a product from Thailand containing coconut that wasn’t picked by monkeys.”

The use of coconut-picking monkeys is actually in decline. It was far more prevalent in the past, Wiek says. He is a Dutch-born conservationist who has lived in Thailand since the late 1980s and has conducted his own investigations into the trade.

He believes this practice has gone down sharply in the last decade and estimates that there are now fewer than 3,000 macaques actively picking coconuts.

“Looking at the scale of things,” he said, “at all those tons and tons of coconuts being exported, it is a small part.”

In other words, if you pick up a box of Thai coconut milk, it’s unlikely that it contains fruit handled by monkeys. When it comes to fetching coconuts, agricultural corporations have figured out how to extract more profit from humans than primates.

Monkey labor is mostly happening on small, independent farms using outdated techniques. Agricultural giants have largely switched over to genetically altered coconut trees, which make monkey labor redundant.

These smaller trees are only about 30 feet tall. In lieu of climbing their trunks, humans can use a rod with a blade fixed to the end to chop down coconuts — often taking down five at a time. This speeds up the collection process so much that corporations have even donated these trees to small farmers.

“Humans are simply more efficient than monkeys.” 

Booncherd Sethawong, assistant manager of Chao Koh

“Humans are simply more efficient than monkeys,” said Booncherd Sethawong. He’s an assistant manager with a coconut milk brand called Chao Koh (translation: “island folks”), which is sold in European and American stores.

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Booncherd oversees large plantations several hours outside Bangkok. He says the allegation that monkeys are rife in Thailand’s export-centric coconut industry doesn’t make any sense.

“In the time it takes a monkey to twist off one coconut,” he said, “a human with a long, hooked stick can chop down 10.”

Macaque labor does persist — but in a fringe corner of the industry where poorer farmers work smaller plots of land. Thailand’s officials, panicking over the bad publicity, insist monkeys are not used on an “industrial scale.”

But the damage has already been done. The parent company of Chao Koh told Reuters that year-on-year sales have dropped as much as 30%. The firm insists its supply chain is totally free of monkeys and has hired a French auditing firm, Bureau Veritas, to disprove PETA. That audit is currently underway.

PETA, meanwhile, has said this bad press blitz may have been avoidable. The organization claims to have shared its findings with Thailand’s two largest coconut exporters months ago, pressing them for an audit, but heard no response.

Asked to elaborate on its claims, a PETA representative told The World via email that several Thai farmers using monkey labor verbally told undercover investigators that their coconuts would be used by Chao Koh and Aroy-D, another large exporter.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that they’ve got these monkeys in their supply chains.” 

Edwin Wiek, Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, founder

“I haven’t seen any evidence that they’ve got these monkeys in their supply chains,” Wiek said, adding that “the supply of coconuts is uncontrolled.”

The large exporters and Thailand’s government, he says, would be wise to impose better checks to track the origins of every coconut. Meanwhile, a trade group says that some sort of traceability system is currently being put together. 

It’s possible, Wiek says, that fruit harvested by monkeys can sneak through the backdoor. For example: A small-time farmer using macaques sells coconuts to a bigger trader who then supplies a factory, effectively laundering the origins of the coconut. But this isn’t the norm, according to him.

Embellishments aside, PETA’s campaign may ultimately prove successful. The campaign has officials and exporters scrambling to prove the supply chains are totally monkey-free. And quite a few small-time farmers, fearing negative attention, are looking to free their primate workers.

The primates can’t be released into the wild. Following a life of captivity, pig-tailed macaques lack the skills — and sometimes the teeth — to survive in the jungle.

So, some of their owners are calling Wiek.

Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand or WFFT has been contacted by dozens of macaque owners, he says. In one recent rescue, they found two macaques, formerly used to pick coconuts, chained to a post by the roadside with only a rusted barrel for shelter.

WFFT now has a waiting list of more than a dozen macaques ready to be taken away. But the refuge is short on space and funding. The COVID-19 pandemic has eviscerated donations, Wiek said. “We’ve got our back against the wall,” he added.

Macaques can live to the age of 30. So taking on even a single monkey is a huge commitment. The sanctuary is in early talks with PETA to secure more funding to care for rescued macaques, but this hasn’t been finalized.

“I’m very happy that PETA has taken some kind of ownership of this issue,” Wiek said. “Very often, with large NGOs, they … blast at a problem, saying this is all wrong, but don’t come up with a solution.”

But Wiek says he fears this issue “will come to a climax in the next couple of months and we’ll have hundreds of them handed over to us … and [neither] the government nor us can deal with those numbers at the moment. That will be a big problem.”

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