Who Picked Your Coconuts?
Who would have thought the question of ‘who picked the coconuts that make your coconut oil’ would come up as we discuss the pros and cons of using coconut oil in skincare? It wasn’t something I saw coming even though researching the stories behind our cosmetic industry supply chain is what I do and yet here we are, looking into this very thing.
‘Who do you THINK picked our coconuts?’ Is my immediate response wondering if we are about to uncover another child labour or workplace safety issue? Coconut harvesting is dangerous business, these things grow on trees, tall trees, 25-32 metres high with relatively shallow roots that allow them to be blown clean out of the ground on blustery days. We also know that coconuts are heavy and very solid, natures bowling balls suspended upon high just waiting for the right moment to come crashing down to earth and onto your head with a force equivalent of a one tonne weight after the height and speed of the fall have been factored in. Ouch! Coconuts can kill but my customers are not worried about the number of people that might have died while harvesting this tasty drupe, no, they are asking me about monkeys.
I’m not sure how I feel about this to begin with, about how captive monkeys are trained to climb up trees and handpick the coconuts thus saving humans the job. Having not seen this with my own eyes I can only think this through theoretically and use what I can see online as evidence of what goes on in order to think this through and hopefully bring my conscience to a conclusion.
It goes without saying that monkeys climb trees better than humans, they have evolved that way whereas humans have evolved brains that enable them to think through all the millions of ways to avoid doing things that other people or animals can do for them. So in terms of monkeys actually undertaking this activity I can’t see a problem as such but doing it for a job? What is the morality of that?
Animals and humans have been working together since we lived in caves. If we take dogs as an example, relatives of our modern pooches lived in our caves with us as hunting companions and mutual ‘friends’. But we all know that humans can be cruel and sometimes use our power to restrict or control others, companion and working animals included. As such there is always that nagging question of whether the relationship between working animal and boss animal is equitable.
Many of us feel comfortable with the idea of animals working in the police force – sniffer dogs, guard dogs and police horses. We have also heard of using pigs to sniff out truffles although few of us have probably experienced them. Cats may not know they are working but they do serve the purpose of chief rodent control officer on many a farm or dry goods store. Elephants, camels, Reindeer and donkeys are used as transport; thousands of dogs are employed by the vision-impaired community and to help round up sheep and seals that are used to detect mine fields by the Royal Navy. In fact there are around 300 million working animals across the world, which is a heck of a lot of animals!
But there is employment and there is slavery and with animals one can never be too sure how the animal feels about all of this and whether, if given the choice they would continue on with their human-serving existence.
So where do monkeys fit into this?
As far as I can see monkey harvesting is mostly practised in Thailand and Malaysia. I’ve not been able to find evidence of it elsewhere although I’d be foolish to think that means it can’t possibly happen in other countries, especially given that coconut and monkey habitat is one in the same. For this reason I’ll focus on Thailand but with the mindset that this could happen anywhere. Keeping monkeys as pets and training monkeys to work in a farming environment are both culturally acceptable in Thailand with many farmers claiming to love and care for their furry friends. As it would be impossible for anyone to know if that is indeed true and it would be difficult to monitor if things remain as friendly one can either decide to take that at face value or not. In terms of the philosophical argument I think it is important to look more closely at the type of monkey involved in this in order to establish their mindset and suitability for this level of captivity.
How suited are Pig-tailed macaques to picking coconuts?
According to primate information net from the National Primate Research Centre, University of Wisconsin Pigtail macaque’s live off a mainly fruit diet (74% of their diet) and that includes coconuts. They live in large family groups of between 9 and 81 individuals and spend lots of their day on the forest floor foraging. They typically cover large areas each day and have home ranges between 1-8Km2 – that’d be the equivalent of us humans walking between 2000 and 10,000 steps per day. As farmland has encroached on their forest these monkeys have become adept at stealing crops and are often the targets of farmers wrath especially given their love of raiding crops during rainstorms when farmers are not looking! These monkeys have an average life span of 26 years and are about the size of your average one year old.
From this we can see that these are active and sociable monkeys with a taste for fruit although they might naturally spend more time on the floor than in the trees. In terms of animal welfare I’d want re-assurance that these monkeys were having these basic needs met and respected before we look into everything else.
Training the monkeys.
What is clear is that these monkeys require training, as they wouldn’t naturally keep scaling coconut trees hour after hour, selecting the right fruit then delivering it to someone else. Also they wouldn’t be ‘hunting’ alone. Much of the controversy over the monkey harvest starts with how these primates come to be trained and then the methods used to train. There are stories of monkey babies being ripped away from their mother then beaten into submission but there are also reports of Buddhist training schools that breed the monkeys and train them through positive re-enforcement. To me this sounds very much like the situation we get with any agendered human/domestic animal interaction. Exploitation on the one hand vs. careful and loving interaction on the other. The questions are, is the worst-case scenario avoidable and is the best-case scenario ethical?
Those are big questions and ones, which require a much closer relationship with the issue, an understanding of local laws, sentiments and workplace dynamics. We might feel it reasonable to treat the monkeys as you would treat any other worker, give them rights, rewards, rest and variety but that means nothing if human workers are not afforded those rights or frequently have them discarded. Suffice to say the situation is complicated and while it looks possible that these monkeys could enjoy a life as good as any other domesticated working animal we are no closer to knowing if that is probable and enforceable.
So what to do?
Well do we want to save ourselves or dig deeper into the problem?
1) Avoid the issue.
The easiest short-term solution is to ask all of our coconut oil suppliers if monkeys are used in the collection of coconuts and if they do dump them. Looking at the data sheets for our current coconut products information around how the nuts get from the tree to the processing plant is never given, the process flow diagram typically starts from the factory where the whole, felled coconuts are treated as step one. This says to me that the question of how the coconuts get off the tree is not widely asked yet so challenging that is a good first step.
However, moving (if necessary) to monkey-free plantations would not necessarily mean our coconuts come with a clean conscious. One thing I’ve learned through my research is that monkeys are attracted to the plantations and are often shot or trapped and killed if caught stealing. With no incentive to train them maybe they will be hunted into extinction or at least dramatically reduced populations. Also there is the issue of human working conditions. Humans employed to pick coconuts face many risks including falling out of the tree, being bitten by snakes that live in the trees waiting for bats to roost or having coconuts fall on their heads. ‘But humans have a choice’ you say. I ask ‘but do they?’
2) Engage with the issue.
The next possible course of action as a coconut product buyer is to get involved in understanding the situation a little better then putting our dollars in to supporting and encouraging ‘best practice’ – rewarding the great! The thing to keep in mind here is that this type of action is usually more long-term and does not necessarily mean we become a ‘monkey free’ or ‘happy monkey’ zone straight away. At this point we’ve still got to establish how big this money picking issue really is and if it even can be improved upon.
3) Minimise the issue.
As I mentioned in option one the suppliers that I have been working with don’t currently give us information on how the coconuts are harvested. I also know that the vast majority of these coconut supplies come from countries not known for being monkey hot spots. Doing nothing could be an option here but I feel that once the subject is out in the open minimising concerns do tend to come back and bite you!
I feel that by far the best thing that can be done at the moment is embarking on option 2. If there is a problem with monkey labour and /or human labour and we know about it, we can at least make a conscious choice to affect it, hopefully in a positive way. As with all supply chain issues it is likely to be a while before I have a full set of data back from each of the many suppliers coming into this market.
So, what started as a rather odd and left-of-field question has ended up in a moral and ethical dilemma of mass proportions but I’m sure, with your help we can work together to make the world a better place.
For the love of coconuts and monkeys!