Thai officials concerned as import figures from other ASEAN countries registered a decline yet prices of the essential crop dropped sharply.

What authorities in Thailand suspect may be the smuggling of large quantities of undocumented coconuts into Thailand poses a threat to Thailand’s uniquely important coconut industry. Prices for coconuts have plunged recently in Thailand causing consternation among Thai government officials as figures for imported coconuts from the AFTA, the ASEAN Free Trade area have dropped. This prompted decisive action from the Thai government to help protect a crop that is especially important to the country. Coconuts are a key basic in Thailand’s powerful agricultural sector and are at the root of many homegrown Thai industries up along the chain. The country produces nearly 1 billion coconuts every year.

Along with tourism, agriculture is a mainstay of Thailand’s economy providing income and employment to many rural Thai people across the country. The country has various important crops and is the world’s leading exporter of many popular agricultural products, one of which is the coconut. In fact, Thailand has been ranked as the sixth-largest producer of coconuts in the world, producing 1,721,640 tons in 2009, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Today, however, the market is anything but easy for coconut farmers in Thailand. The price has plummeted due to unfair competition from what appears to be imported products that have bypassed official controls.

Price for coconuts dropped sharply even as imports registered a decrease. The problem has prompted an enquiry by Thai authorities with suspicions that undeclared coconuts are reaching the Thai market. The coconut crop is very important in Thailand and is behind a thriving industry from delicious Thai food and consumer products to secret health and beauty applications. 90% of Thai coconuts are harvested by Thai farmers running family concerns with the assistance of monkeys specially trained for the job and who become part of the extended family.

It is widely known that, though being a significant grower, Thailand still allows Thai companies and factories to import coconuts from other countries, especially after joining international free trade pacts, such as the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) agreement. Thai coconut farmers and middleman-run warehouses, however, are now facing huge challenges as some factories appear to have abandoned locally grown coconuts and instead opting to rely on imported products.

Apparent lack of domestic demand and lower price for coconuts has confounded growers

The lack of domestic demand has severely impacted the sales of locally grown coconuts, splashing farmers and sellers’ income as well as causing them to incur massive debts. High unsold stock is also causing the coconut retail price in Thailand to decrease considerably. Somkiet Laonark, the Associate President of the Coconut Farmers association in Chumphon, points to a dramatic drop in profitability as each coconut sold for only 1-2 baht, which was not enough for farmers to even break even. Mysteriously, imported coconuts under AFTA have decreased by 27% to 167,723 tons for the past 8 months. This means, in theory, that the coconut price should have increased as a result of more limited supply. The answer to the conundrum, however, appears to be quite sobering: illegally imported products.

Recently, Thailand’s Department of Foreign Trade randomly checked 20 companies that process coconuts in Thailand. It found that 10 of the companies could not clarify the origin of some quantities coconuts they had imported. The department is now considering whether to impose penalties on the concerns. Meanwhile, Adol Chothinisakorn, the General Director of Thailand’s Department of Trade, has demanded that companies wishing to import coconuts from state members of AFTA, should have to apply for permission from Thai authorities.

Coconuts are an integral staple in Thailand’s culture and a valuable interconnected industry

Coconuts are an integral part of not only Thailand’s agricultural economy but also its culture. The crop is important to many people in Thailand. From small traders in Bangkok who sell freshly cut coconuts from stalls as pleasant drinks to cooks and chefs who use coconut oils for cooking. The small island of Koh Samui is one of Thailand’s most exotic tourist destinations and a star performer in recent years. The island is famous for its coconuts with coconut trees growing near pristine beaches adding to the perception of paradise that is one of the key motivators for western foreigners who flock to the island in Thailand from all over the world. In the 1970s and 80s, a famous TV advertisement in the UK and Europe featured a chocolate confection called the Bounty bar with the advertising sales slogan – a taste of paradise. It is associations like this that today help drive the enthusiasm for Thailand among many westerners particularly those of that age group.

Thailand is famous for its coconut farms that use skilled, trained monkeys to harvest the crop

However, what is just as important for Thailand is that the island of Koh Samui sends over 2 million coconuts to Bangkok every year. Thailand is famous for its coconuts farms that use monkeys to harvest the crop. Unfortunately, this has drawn the ire of some animal rights groups online and in the media. The practice is essential to harvesting the crop for small farmers in Thailand and has been a practice for up to 400 years. A male monkey can climb the coconut trees and harvest 1,600 coconuts per day while a female monkey can extract 600 coconuts a day. By comparison, a human being who had to climb the tree, hack the coconut off and toss it down can only manage 80 coconuts a day with those who are extremely fit being able to manage 100 coconuts. It is estimated that up to 99% of coconuts produced in Thailand are harvested by monkeys. The monkeys are raised at special facilities in Thailand including Thai temples for the purpose. Those who support that practice say that the monkeys and their human guides work quietly and harmoniously together.

US professor and wife support monkeys working on Thai farms despite some criticism

Nevertheless, there continue to be some US-based animal rights groups who call for a ban on Thai coconuts being picked by monkeys. However, Leslie Sponsel who is a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii and who, working with his wife Dr Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel has published many academic papers and studies on the unique relationship between Thai coconut farmers and monkeys in Thailand disagrees. ‘During our time in southern Thailand, we never observed or heard of cruelty or abuse of the monkeys,’ Sponsel said. ‘Indeed, the monkeys are very similar to family pets, and for some households, even like family members to some degree. Young ones are trained, and they are kept on a chain tethered to the handler or shelter when not working. They are fed, watered, bathed, groomed and otherwise cared for. They often ride to the coconut palm plantation on the back of a motorbike or in a cart driven by the handler.’ The professor is certain that there is no systemic cruelty or abuse of the monkeys employed by the Thai farmers.

Coconuts are part of a very competitive Thai economy where lower prices endanger livelihoods

He is sympathetic to the plight of the Thai farmers who work hard and diligently in a very competitive economy. One that may now be threatened by the suspected practices of some large importers who, it is believed, may be responsible for driving the price for the staple down. The market for coconuts in Thailand underpins a network of industries from farmers at the beginning of the chain to end consumers and factories who use the crop to produce a huge range of products. These products can range from confectionary to beauty products. The disruption to the market caused by a sudden price drop is dangerous to livelihoods and the smooth running of the Thai economy which is very dynamic.

The importance of coconuts to Thai people

Everyone knows about the unique nature of Thai cuisine. A worldwide boom in Thai restaurants and international food products has been spawned upon it. The cuisine is based in natural and fresh ingredients found in abundance in Thailand. One of the reasons why Thailand has such a unique culture in the first place is in fact that the Kingdom, despite its modern-day propensity for army coups, has had centuries of relative stability as a functioning state and society. One reason or factor for this is the abundance of food in Thailand and the self-sufficient nature of the country and its cuisine. This is the essence of Thai food and one of the biggest ingredients in that cuisine is coconuts. From coconut oils that are blended with other ingredients to produce different Thai sauces to exquisite confectionery and flavouring, the coconut is an essential factor. But the use of the versatile product does not end there.

Coconuts are the basis for an endless variety of snacks and treats in Thailand sold everywhere

As well as being used for cooking oils, coconuts, in various forms, are consumed by Thai people as an inexpensive snack or treat. From cool coconut water to the use of coconut ‘meat’ in frozen desserts to cool down from the year-round heat in Thailand, the range of products is endless. Coconuts can be served frozen or roasted with a spectrum of products in between.

Coconuts are also a highly effective beauty secret in Thailand well known to Thai women

Coconuts are also widely used in Thailand as an inexpensive but highly effective beauty product. Coconut oil, used in its simplest form, is a highly effective skin moisturiser, a secret known to many Thai women who also use it on their hair to give an extra sheen and lustrous look. Coconut oil is known to confer many health benefits including being an antidote to bacteria and infection which can be a concern in Thailand’s very hot, tropical climate.