The Marxist Guide to Coconuts

Tara Brady picks the best coconuts for the consumers who love coconuts and love pan-primate solidarity.

Coconuts have a million uses. They can make hair smell nice and make cake taste great. They can be splendid prizes should you find yourself at a turn-of-the-century fairground attraction. They can be clopped together in lieu of a horse. 

Coconuts are great. 

And, sad to say, they are also the most evil commodity to ever sprout from a palm tree. Coconut farmers across Sri Lanka and the Philippines are typically mono-crop producers working in a typhoon-stricken environment who sell to middlemen for $0.12 – $0.25 per nut. According to the Philippines-based news service Rappler, the average annual income for a coconut-farming household is around $355 a year; pickers work for less than a dollar a day. 

Voguish products like coconut water – Vita Coco was one of the first products to disappear from US supermarket shelves during the Covid-19 crisis – continue to put pressure on farmers to chop down rainforest and place international demands ahead of self-sufficiency. 

Most of our coconuts and coconut products come from Indonesia, where slavery is rife. In 2015, more than 1300 fisherman from Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos were rescued from the Indonesian fishing industry alone. Many had been at sea for years.

Across the Philippines and Indonesia, pig-tailed macaques are chained by the neck and trained to pick coconuts

With coconuts, humans are not the only slave labourers. Connoisseurs of coconut products  will likely be familiar with an increasingly common logo, a standard that may well constitute the world’s lowest bar: ‘Not Picked By Monkeys’. Across the Philippines and Indonesia, pig-tailed macaques are chained by the neck and trained to pick coconuts. When not tethered, they are caged. They cannot socialise with other monkeys. As adept climbers, they can pick between 300 and 1000 nuts daily.

Just as Marx observed in The German Ideology, “As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce.” But with tails. 

The importance of checking for coconut derivatives in your shopping basket cannot be overstated. Is that a pack of three dishcloths? Check for coconut ingredients. Is that a hammer? Check for coconut components. The importance of buying FairTrade coconut produce is, for thousands of small farmers, the difference between life and ruination. 

If only there were more FairTrade coconut products. Of the commonly-available coconut milk drinks – Alpro (nope) – Koko Dairy Free milk alternative isn’t the worst.

The product “isn’t FairTrade”, they say.  “But we believe that the company’s approach to the welfare of the people involved in the farming of the coconuts at our plantation is equivalent or exceeds their standards. The plantation and factory is located in a remote area of Indonesia, and 30,000 people are employed. The Company provides proper housing for employees and their families. It also provides medical facilities, a school, and places for worship, as well as a store for buying food and clothing. So employees have all the benefits of living in a village community.”

Lucy Bee coconut products include coconut oil, coconut flour, coconut milk drink and a skincare range. They are ethically sourced and produced in the Philippines, they are FairTrade, vegan, organic, and packaged in biodegradable, recyclable wrappings. The Lucy Bee line has been named Best Buy – as awarded by the Ethical Consumer Guide – for Coconut Oil, Coconut Milk, Creamed Coconut, Soap and Skincare. They are amazing products, although several lines have been hit by the Covid-19 crisis. 

Sourced from small-scale farmers and processed in the heart of Sri Lanka, Ma’s FairTrade Coconut Milk is 100% Organic, promises “Happy Life’ on the tin and delivers to the farmers involved. They are equal employers who provide accommodation and meals for their workers and school stationery and books to the children of all employees. 

Tiana FairTrade Organics, with its emphasis on sustainable agriculture, is another good pick. The company has run a Fairtrade coconut project in the Philippines since 2009 to produce a range of raw extra virgin coconut oils.