By Jennifer & Nathan Winograd

A lot of attention has been paid within the vegan community to the terrible harm associated with the production of palm oil. With a food industry that has recently begun to move away from the use of partially hydrogenated oils in light of the serious hazard they pose to human health, the demand for trans-fat free oils has caused a boom in the palm oil industry—an industry which was already thriving given the many applications for palm oil and its derivatives in the cosmetic, cleaning supply and chemical industries, among others. Many vegans are now aware that in response to this growing demand for palm oil, tropical rain forests in Southeast Asia are being decimated in order to make way for palm oil plantations, destroying vital habitat for the animals living in these forests. The United Nations Environment Programme has announced that palm oil plantations are now the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia. Deforestation for the establishment of palm oil plantations is responsible for habitat loss of the Asian elephant, tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros and the orangutan. But even worse is the fate suffered by those animals who are found eating palm fruit on these plantations, cutting into plantation profits. They are shot, beaten to death and even set on fire.

News of the atrocities associated with palm oil production has inspired some vegans to reject the use of palm oil, and that includes the use of vegan butters which contain it. With a compassionate, DIY spirit, many intrepid vegans have experimented with making homemade vegan butter, based not on palm fruit, but that darling of the vegan and raw food communities alike, coconut oil.

Likewise concerned about issues relating to palm oil production and inspired by their example, we created a recipe for our own palm oil-free, vegan butter in the third edition of our cookbook, All American Vegan. But before we did so, we did a little research to ensure that in offering people an alternative to vegan butter based on palm oil with one based on coconut oil, we weren’t simply encouraging the use of one ethically problematic tropical oil for another. Sure enough, what we discovered about the production of coconut oil is deeply troubling: the use of monkeys to harvest coconuts; pig-tailed macaques to be exact.

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Agile and adept climbers, such monkeys—native to coconut growing regions in Southeast Asia—are capable of harvesting several hundred more coconuts a day than a human can; reports vary widely has to how many coconuts a day one monkey can pick, ranging from 300 to 1,000. Monkeys are chained by the neck and trained to pick only ripe coconuts and are then forced to do so, day in, day out and all day long. They are trained at monkey training facilities one visitor described as such, “The primitive, primate campus, a simple, open sided shed,” contains, “individual, meter high stakes, driven into the dirt floor… Onto each perch is tethered a solitary monkey by collar and chain. There are a dozen such perches, each one just out of reach of its neighbor.” During training and beyond, the monkeys are tethered or caged 24/7, sometimes with little to no opportunity for socialization. Where do these monkeys come from?  According to one monkey handler, “Sometimes the monkeys are offspring of berok (already trained monkeys); sometimes they are caught on the forest with nets or traps. Often though, nursing mothers are shot and their babies are taken.”

Harvesting coconuts with this method is prevalent throughout Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, nations that together account for much of the world’s coconut production. Indonesia is the number one coconut producing nation in the world, producing over 18 million tons of coconuts annually. Some reports also suggest that due to a labor shortage in Kerela, India where coconut palms are grown, harvesting coconuts with monkeys may begin occurring there, as well. Picking coconuts is difficult, dangerous, labor intensive work, something younger generations of Indians are becoming increasingly unwilling to do.

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Unfortunately, much of the reporting you will find on this issue approaches it from a disturbing “entertainment” angle in which the subjugation and forced labor of primates is treated as a curious, amusing oddity rather what it really is: exploitation of highly intelligent individuals. Instead of living fulfilling, autonomous lives in deference to their natural instincts and will—lives that would include social interaction with others of their kind, mating, raising young, moving about freely and resting whenever they choose—these monkeys spend their lives in endless toil and forced obedience to the will of humans. Monkey training facilities are popular destinations for tourists, so much of the information available about the lives of these monkeys is whitewashed  for the purpose of encouraging that  tourism,  glossing over the grueling labor and often dangerous conditions the monkeys are forced to endure, including climbing tall trees over and over again during the course of a day, retrieving fallen coconuts from thick brush, retrieving coconut cutting tools for their handlers that include long, sharp blades, and loading hundreds of coconuts onto trucks which then transport them from picking location to picking location. And though many articles about these monkeys contain quotes from handlers who state that they care about their animals, it is impossible to square such assurances with the long hours, hard labor, constant shackling and lack of autonomy these animals are forced to endure day in and day out for no personal benefit. It is, in a word, slavery. And as human nature and history demonstrate again and again—where there is a profit to be made on the backs of non-humans, those backs are strained and often broken.

And by all accounts, the increasing popularity of coconuts, coconut oil and its various derivatives means that things are only going to get worse for these animals. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, “World coconut oil production has been increasing over the past decade” and coconut production worldwide now stands at 62 million tons a year. Nor has this trend escaped the vegan and health food communities, in which the use of coconuts has become ubiquitous: in raw food dishes, vegan cheeses, and the current rage for coconut water.

In light of the conflict between the humane values motivating so many to embrace a vegan diet and the treatment coconut harvesting macaques are forced to endure, we wanted to bring this issue to greater attention and to welcome any additional information about this issue that might exist.

To see photos and video of coconut-picking monkeys, click here and here and here and here.


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