A Wildlife Article from All-Creatures.org

Coconut Controversy: The Heartbreaking Truth Behind Your Coconut Products

From FEP Food Empowerment Project
January 2024

Among the abuses that investigators found at Thai coconut farms were monkeys chained to old tires or confined to cages that were barely large enough for them to turn around in. One monkey in a cage on a truck bed was frantically shaking the cage bars in a futile attempt to escape, and a screaming monkey on a rope desperately tried to run away from their handler. In one case, an investigator was told that monkeys would have their canine teeth pulled out if they tried to bite handlers. Investigators also discovered 'monkey schools,' where the animals were trained to pick fruit, as well as ride bikes or play basketball for the entertainment of tourists. A trainer was even caught on camera striking a screaming monkey, dangling him by his tether and collar, and beating him with a chain.

Coconut is one of the world’s most ubiquitous ingredients, found in everything from food products and cosmetics to biofuel and medicines. It’s also being transformed into a fiber for vegan clothing and fashion accessories. Coconut milk, meanwhile, has long been a popular alternative to animal-based milk; it’s even mentioned in The Mahābhārata, a Hindu epic that is more than 2,000 years old.

Botanically, the coconut is a fruit rather than a nut. The tree from which the fruit grows—the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera)—has helped sustain communities for millennia, with the entire plant being used. Coconut meat, the white flesh lining the inside of a coconut, is a source of protein, fiber, iron, potassium, and manganese.

According to genetic testing carried out in 2011, the coconut originated in India and Southeast Asia. Some 2,000 years ago, Arab traders brought coconuts from India to East Africa, and they would eventually introduce coconuts to Europeans. How the word “coconut” was coined is unclear; one account has it that Portuguese colonizers called the fruit “coco-nut” because it resembled a cocuruto—head—with three dots like two eyes and a mouth and fibers that look like hair. Coconuts then reached the Americas by way of Europeans, who brought them, along with colonialism and the slave trade, to the Caribbean, where coconut palm trees thrived.

Today, coconuts are grown around the globe in tropical zones, but most of the top coconut-producing countries in the world are in Asia, including Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Malaysia, and Thailand. Unfortunately, as with other products in high demand, such as bananas and avocados, coconuts often arrive in the consumer’s hands with a troubling history.

Cruelty-Free Paradox

You may have heard that some restaurants, supermarket chains, and other food outlets have stopped selling certain coconut products. The retail company Target, for example, said it will no longer sell a brand of coconut milk sourced from Thailand due to concerns that it uses highly social monkeys known as pig-tailed macaques to climb the tall trees and pick the bowling ball-sized fruit. Global retailer Costco pulled the brand from its shelves as well, citing the same concerns. (The United States is one of the biggest importers of coconuts from Thailand.


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