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Thailand's coconut-picking monkeys trigger ethics debate

Local food processors promise traceability to head off threat of boycotts

Thai companies have been accused by animal welfare activists of abusing monkeys, which are sometimes used to harvest coconuts.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand's coconut industry finds itself in an unwelcome spotlight over complaints that food processors are using fruit harvested by tethered monkeys.

In a YouTube video that has gone viral, monkeys are shown chained to poles in dirty surroundings and left in small cages in the rain. The video, which was made by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and published July 2, claims that most coconut products from Thailand contain fruit picked by "enslaved" monkeys.

One clip uploaded by a PETA branch had more than 187,000 views as of noon Thursday.

The animal rights group said the monkeys are "treated like coconut-picking machines," as they are forced to climb up and down trees to collect up to 1,000 coconuts a day. In a statement published on its website, PETA said the monkeys are abducted from their families and social groups as babies.

Thai coconuts go into products such as coconut milk, flour, and oil. They are popular with vegans, who avoid consuming animal products in their diets.

PETA named two major Thai coconut milk brands, Aroy-D and Chaokoh, as companies that use fruit picked by monkeys. It said more than 17,000 stores worldwide, including Walgreens and Duane Reade in the U.S., have agreed to stop stocking products from the two Thai companies following the expose.

PETA also said British supermarket chains Tesco, Sainsbury's, Co-op, and Asda will pull Chaokoh products from its shelves, while Waitrose said it would not knowingly use any products linked to the abuse of animals.

"As part of our animal welfare policy, we have committed to never knowingly sell any products sourced from monkey labor," Waitrose said in a statement. "As an ethical retailer, we do not permit the use of monkey labor to source ingredients for our products," Co-op said.

Carrie Symonds, fiancee of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, called for stronger action against such abuse on July 3 on Twitter, saying it was "time for [all] supermarkets to do the same."

Retailers in the U.S., Australia, and other parts of Europe are contemplating similar action.

The Thai coconut industry is worth $400 million annually, according to a local report. Thailand grew 885,751 tons of the fruit in 2018, making it the ninth-biggest producer in the world, according to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization. Indonesia and the Philippines were the world's top two producers that year, growing 18.5 million tons and 14.7 million tons, respectively.

But Thailand is the world's top exporter, with shipments valued at $70 million in 2018, followed by Indonesia with $65 million, based on data from market research company IndexBox.

Jurin Laksanawisit, Thailand's deputy prime minister and commerce minister, said on July 6: "Coconut-picking by monkeys on an industrial scale no longer exists in Thailand." A video clip uploaded in 2016 by Theppadungporn Coconut, a supplier to Chaokoh, showed coconut growers using long pruning shears to cut the fruit from the trees.

Kriangsak Theppadungporn, managing director of Theppadungporn Coconut subsidiary Ampol Food Processing, said that only 5% of coconuts grown in Thailand are harvested by monkeys, and that even then it was done as a tourist attraction. He said using long shears was a much more efficient way to harvest the fruit, and that the company was never approached by PETA.

Kriangsak said 50% of his company's coconut products are sold in China. Government data show that roughly 8% of Thailand's coconut milk exports go to the U.K.

Atthawich Suwanpakdee, secretary-general of the Kla Party, questioned PETA's impartiality. "In the Western world, hogs are trained to find truffles, which are then used as ingredients in their food as well," he tweeted on July 7.

"I do not want to see any harm against any animal, and I do hope that every country is vigilant with imposing its own law for animal welfare," he said in a tweet. "I am disappointed if the campaign for animal welfare will go as far as to be a campaign against any Thai coconut products. This is clearly an act of bullying and implying a trade war."

Global views toward coconut harvesting using monkeys have shifted. A clip on YouTube dated February 2010 was focused on an old Thai coconut farmer and his bond with a trained monkey, whereas another clip that dates from March 2016 strongly criticizes the cruel ways that monkeys are trained. It shows a Thai trainer forcing a monkey to climb a coconut tree using a whip.

Dealing with the ethical concerns of consumers has become much more important than preserving tradition, especially for farmers who want to sell abroad. The rise of veganism in developed countries has accelerated the trend. Vegans are generally extremely conscious not only about what is in the food they eat but how it is produced. According to the Vegan Society, the number of vegans in the U.K. quadrupled to 600,000 between 2014 to 2019.

Thai manufacturers of coconut products have agreed with the government to set up a traceability framework that gives importers, distributors and supermarkets access to information on the entire production process, from plantation to shelf.

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