I recently wrote a piece about the coconut-picking macaques of South East Asia, who are made to work on coconut plantations picking coconuts.
Prior to writing the piece this wasn’t anything I had ever heard of before, and I was surprised to learn that some of the products I use at home might have had working monkeys in their supply chain.
As someone who, on principle, does not believe animals should be taken from the wild – especially to work as a means to an end for humans – I wanted to learn more and share with others so they too could make more informed choices as consumers if they so wish.
I did some research, but was honestly not able to come up with as much information or sources as I would have liked. I tried to no avail to get information on any of the larger plantations who use monkeys, but came up empty handed.
Some of the information I did learn came from an article in the Bangkok Post (which has since been locked and can only be accessed through a paid subscription with the publication) that exposed animal cruelty in the coconut picking industry and included an interview with someone who has been a monkey handler for thirty years.
It’s legal in these countries to use monkeys as labor. There is little to no regulation and animal abuse laws in many Southeast Asian countries are hard to enforce so one cannot be certain that the conditions for monkeys on coconut farms are up to any sort of acceptable standard or that the monkeys are properly cared for in general. Similarly, trapping monkeys to use on coconut farms is legal in places like Thailand, but there are undoubtedly poachers using illegal hunting methods. As I mentioned in my initial post, it has been reported that poachers sometimes kill mother monkeys to steal their babies as it is easier to train a monkey from a young age, in addition to the fact that monkeys are hot commodities in the illegal wildlife pet trade.
Most issues are more complex than they appear on the surface. And while we may feel very strongly in our convictions we ultimately need to be grounded in reality. Not everything is black and white, so it’s important to learn to exist in the grey area even though it may make us uncomfortable, or provoke feelings that might contradict our beliefs and challenge our ethics.
A couple months after posting Is Your Coconut Oil a Product of Animal Exploitation?, I was contacted by Arjen Schroevers of The First Monkey School in Surat Thani , Thailand. As far as he knows his institute, which is a school that trains monkeys to pick coconuts, is the only one of its kind and utilizes non-aversive, rewards based training methods to train pig-tailed macaques. The handlers are also trained in how work with their monkeys and to use the appropriate commands and hand signals. As Schroevers explains it, the training is more like a game to the monkeys and they quite enjoy the challenge and reward.
While I still do not condone or accept the use of wild animals as labor, especially when one can use machines or humans as an alternative, my conversations with Schroevers have enabled me to see the grey area within this complex issue.
He explained that the monkeys harvest brown ripe coconuts used for oil, which grow high up in the palms canopy. This oil is sold to companies who then refine it for use in common household items like soaps, toothpastes, and beauty products like lipsticks. The coconuts used for coconut water are from a different species of coconuts, which grow on trees lower to the ground, and are always picked by humans.
Picking the type of coconuts used for oil is inherently dangerous to humans because the trees are extremely tall. The only two currently practiced methods for humans to pick coconuts include: actually climbing up the tree, or using a pole to release the coconuts. The first is dangerous for obvious reasons, and the second is dangerous as the picker risks being struck and killed as he must stand directly beneath a shower of falling coconuts. I obviously do not want people risking their lives for the sake of coconuts, but I also don’t want monkeys stolen from the wild made to do the dirty work either. Nor do I want the whole other host of issues that accompany the use of wild animals for profit: the illegal wildlife trade,the use of monkeys as performers for entertainment, or any mistreatment or neglect, etc.
In areas of Thailand the use of monkeys is entrenched in both the coconut industry and the tourism industry. There are businesses that disguise and market themselves as monkey training facilities to appear legal, but are really places where monkeys are made to dance, don costumes, and perform silly tricks for tourists. And it’s not just pig-tailed macaques, other wild animals (some endangered!) are used as tourist attractions, too. Despite the fact that this is illegal, it’s pretty widespread and Schroevers points out that many of these so called training schools are located far away from any coconut plantations.
I was relieved to learn that the monkeys at The First Monkey School do not perform or learn silly, unnatural tricks. Tourists can pay a fee to visit his school, but they are watching a training demonstration, not a performance. In fact, he’s opposed to using wild animals as tourist attractions and doesn’t think that monkeys should ever be forced to perform. He says,
I have visited many places where they use monkeys for shows for tourists. They are all very sad places, monkeys do not look happy, and are kept in small cages. I know also many monkey owners with working monkeys. They are treated very well and you can see clearly affection between the owner and the monkey. Problem is that most people (I guess 99% from foreigners who visit Thailand) only see the monkeys in shows for tourists. Misleading from these places is also that they say they train the monkeys for harvesting coconuts.
In response to the animal neglect reported in the article from the Bangkok Post, which is what first alerted me to this issue, Schroevers says:
The trainer quoted in that article is a good example of a person who I, and my wife not like, and this is certainly not how we do it. It is a pity that those people are allowed to work with animals. We get at least once a month the request to train monkeys for shows for tourists. They offer really big money. We always refuse this. (edited for clarity as English is not Schroevers first language)
So, again, while I may not personally agree with the notion of using wild animals as labor, I do believe it is important to distinguish people who neglect these monkeys and abuse the system for their gain among individuals like Schroevers and his staff who love and care about the well being of their animals and are simply working in an industry that has been using monkeys for many years and currently has no other viable options. One could argue that if the industry must operate this way for now, it is important that a facility like The First Monkey School exist because it educates the public in treating animals well, teaches the monkey handlers the importance of caring for the well-being of their monkeys, and also not to punish or harm them.
Although this doesn’t change anything for me personally – I will continue to do my best to use only products picked by fairly compensated human workers – I do respect the efforts of Schroevers and his staff to educate their customers to care for their animals well and also to help stop punishment-based training methods that would cause monkeys to suffer.
I also have more of an open mind with respect to the fact that one can’t expect to change something like this with the snap of a finger. Addressing an issue like this takes time and there is no clear answer or road map to a solution that will benefit everyone, including the farmers, their local economies, and the animals involuntarily involved. One must also consider the sensitive nature of topics when livelihoods are at stake.
So, where do we go from here?
Honestly, I’m not sure. The use of monkeys is so widespread in these areas and one of the main arguments used by proponents of coconut picking monkeys is that it is the only viable way, as the job is too dangerous for humans.
But, I want to look at the bigger picture: I wonder if the use of these animals enables the industry to continue on without having to address the safety issues humans face when picking coconuts subsequently thwarting any efforts in working to create innovations that would enable humans to do so. With the worldwide demand for coconut oil growing one would think that this could create job opportunities for individuals in communities where there are coconut plantations and enable them to make living wages to support their families. Unfortunately, there is really no incentive to invest into any of that if money is being made right now using monkeys as labor. As the old saying goes : if it’s not broken don’t fix it. But, unless efforts are seriously made to make coconut picking a better option for humans, the use of monkeys will continue business as usual.
Coconut Picking in India
With all of that said, I am hopeful that it is possible for these plantations to transition to fair human labor in the future.
I look at areas in India as an example, as the use of coconut-picking monkeys is not commonplace.
In India, particularly in the state of Kerala (which literally translates to “land of the coconut palm”) where coconut picking is a very important part of their economy, you’ll notice marked improvements in the implementation of measures that make coconut picking safer and more cost effective for human pickers.
The reasons they’ve been so motivated in investing in these improvements are two-fold : firstly, the farmers in these area have been dealing with a labor shortage – the younger generations are moving away from manual labor in favor of more corporate type jobs they consider to be more prestigious. To address this problem farmers considered other methods of coconut harvesting, including the use of monkeys , but it didn’t work out so well. This lack of labor coupled with the failure of other options, like monkeys, has prompted myriad efforts in the industry to make coconut picking more appealing to a steadily diminishing pool of perspective workers, while also stimulating efforts to mechanize the coconut picking process and/or invent better climbing devices.
Established in 1981, the Coconut Development Board, which operates within the Ministry of Agriculture, is tasked with the continued development of coconut industry in India and an increase in its productivity and cultivation. In response to the need for laborers, the board implemented the Friends of the Coconut Tree program to recruit new workers – particularly women – to pick coconuts and to revitalize and bring esteem back to the profession. The Friends of the Coconut Tree program offers a 6-day training retreat where participants have practical, hands on instruction and gain the skills necessary to climb the trees and to use the climbing devices, which are relatively cheap, and are offered in standing and seated versions.
Climbing devices in various iterations have been around for years, but they have seen more recent improvements as it becomes necessary to appeal to new workers and make human labor more cost-effective.
Newer innovations have produced these types of climbing devices:
Further innovations have led to ergo refined devices that enable the climber to be in a more comfortable, seated position, like the one below.
Participants in the Friends of the Coconut retreat are also educated in the general cultivation of the trees, including disease/pest treatment and management. The retreat is also geared toward empowering the participants to value and have pride in this type of labor, which is frequently looked down upon.
Other efforts to address the labor shortage have been directed at building better machines and robots to harvest coconuts. In 2012, in efforts to really motivate the progress of mechanizing coconut picking, the state of Kerala held a contest offering a cash prize of $20,000 to the best robotic coconut picker. Unfortunately, all of the approximately 140 prototypes submitted for review were deemed impractical for one reason or another and no prize was awarded. But, the point is, efforts are being made to find other options and a functional machine could be right around the corner.
It just goes to show that with all of the strides made with the improvements of climbing devices, and the focus on continued innovation, that this industry can thrive without the use of animals, all the while providing job opportunities for humans. In rural areas of Thailand where there is less access to education or other jobs, this could be an appealing opportunity to someone who needs work.
I would love to see these devices made available to farmers who use monkeys to harvest their coconuts in Southeast Asia and hope that it will eventually happen there. Who knows, it could be quite successful and influence a movement to gradually phase out the use of monkeys in the coconut industry.
If anyone has been to a coconut plantation in Southeast Asia that uses climbing devices please let me know. Similarly, if you have been to a plantation that uses monkeys I’d like to hear about it.
What are your thoughts on this?
*Featured image from Huff Post Green