Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Climate Change Killing the Thai Coconut Culture

Somehow you’d think that the day something as big and important as climate change started eroding the ancient Thai culture, that someone would have noticed or reported it or something. Sadly not. It strikes me that the huge changes in our lives and cultures do often go unremarked.

Before I explain how climate change is already having a huge impact on Thai diet, environment and natural medicine, I need to fill you in on a few basics about Thailand and coconuts. You don’t need to have ever been here to equate a coconut tree with Thailand and tropical bliss. Every Thai market has at least one coconut shop – “raan grati” – where they grind up the coconut meat to make coconut milk and sell various coconut products. Coconut milk is used extensively in everything from sweets to curries, and coconut oil has been used for centuries for cooking. It’s only in recent years that the incredible nutritional and skin benefits of cold pressed virgin coconut oil have been researched and publicized. But the wise Thai grandmothers always knew that. Traditional Thai medicine has always used coconut oil as a base for “ya mong” – the therapeutic herbal balms used for massage, headaches and natural healing. Sadly, in recent years, vaseline has become the “ya mong” base of choice among many Thai people because it is cheap and easier than blending hot coconut oil and wax. But Arun Thai Natural still uses and celebrates the basic methodology and ingredients – starting with coconut oil and beeswax – that have been known here for centuries.

One more bit of background you need to understand. Coconut oil is produced in 3 basic ways. (1) Virgin cold pressed, which is made under pressure and preserves the long-chain fatty acids, yielding a totally clear, fragrant healthful oil which solidifies at about 21C. Low yields and a corresponding substantial price. (2) Heat extracted coconut oil which is almost clear, also highly fragrant in a slightly more toasted way, but lacks the same quality of long chain fatty acids and is therefore higher in free radicals. High yields and a very fair price. (3) Chemically extracted coconut oil which is very, very cheap, a golden yellow colour and is often used as a massage oil base; even the unscrupulous vendors here sell it with a verbal warning, “No eat! Dangerous!”.

Arun Thai Natural sells virgin cold-pressed coconut oil and also uses it to make our Care+ Body Treatment Oil. But for our “ya mong” massage balms, foot balms and lip balm, we use the highest quality heat extracted coconut oil, since we have to heat it anyway to melt the wax into it and there is simply no value in using the cold pressed oil. We also use the heat extracted coconut oil as the base for our Phlai (warming) and Ginger Cassia (cooling) Traditional Massage Oils because, you guessed it, we make them the traditional way which involves heating the oil and therefore makes the cold-pressed oil a non-option.

So the last 7 weeks have been a total shock and mystery in our little Thai world. No heat-extracted coconut oil to be found, anywhere in Chiang Mai. For the first three weeks we thought our suppliers were just being very Thai about their ordering at the end of a long slow rainy season – cash strapped, unwilling to invest in new stock and fibbing a bit. Then came the stories from all the various suppliers, vendors, shops and agents we visited and talked to. The floods. No transport. Too expensive. Coconuts “paeng” (expensive) at the end of the rains. Now we do experience this little price glitch at the end of every rainy season, where the price of all things coconut goes up a bit, only to fall again, but it has never resulted in a complete drying up of supply all over Thailand’s second biggest city.

Now you also do need to appreciate that although coconut trees grow everywhere in Thailand, the trees in the north here don’t produce nearly as much oil due to it being less tropical and more temperate, so the northern coconuts are pretty much worthless for oil extraction. 95% of all Thai coconut production comes from the area just a bit south of Bangkok, with the real hub being located around Chumpon and Prachuap Khiri Khan. Now this area has just been hit by flooding issues from two sides. Massive water run-off from the north and north east, which collides with the two highest king tides of the year. Huge parts of Thailand have, in the last weeks, sustained the heaviest flooding in 50 years.

There have been articles in the papers in the last month suggesting that in as few as 7 years, large parts of Bangkok will be submerged. Being Dutch, knowing the power of the sea and also having seen the flood devastation this rainy season, I think that is beyond possible and moving towards likely.

Determined to get to the bottom of the coconut oil supply issue, we hit the road and the phones today to get past the frustrating veneer of Thai politenesses, excuses and downright lies. I schlepped through 3 different major markets to eyeball and confront the suppliers and vendors while Naa, my production manager, sat on the phone to growers and factories in Chumpon and Phrachuap Khiri Khan and also to the distributors of their products in the north.

And the story we finally pieced together is a sobering one. The coconut tree growers have been devastated by the floods, which are not yet fully receded. They are estimating 25-50% of their trees to be damaged to the point of them needing to be removed. They are not yet able to calculate how much can be salvaged. The growers and factories therefore, are using the fruit they have to obtain the highly profitable virgin cold-pressed oil (for that we are very thankful!) and then heat processing the dregs to produce the abundant chemically derived product, which is so awful we don’t even want to know about it. The volume of fruit left for heat extraction has shrunk enormously, resulting in a wholesale price hike of over 130% in the last week alone, and continuing to climb. The vendors in Chiang Mai are unwilling to buy this much pricier product and so have been fudging and fibbing and simply not ordering it in. And they’re not going to change that. Nearly every vendor I spoke to argued the benefits of palm oil - price and availability. The other Thai herbal product makers are embracing palm oil with open arms as an alternative to coconut oil – the vendors could not understand why Arun Thai Natural is vehemently opposed to and won’t ever be using palm oil.

So this afternoon we sat down and made some decisions. We will discontinue the use of heat treated coconut oil in our balms and traditional massage oil products, and substitute a mix of the used-to-be-more-expensive rice bran and cold pressed sesame oils instead. They are much better quality oils and, in combination, will produce a much smoother and richer product. Previously we have erred on the side of tradition and the price difference had been such as to support that choice. But because Arun Thai Natural is growing fast and we are producing more product, we will be able to buy our oils in greater volume and therefore should be able to hold our current pricing.

I should be delighted, and at one level, I am. Circumstance has pushed Arun Thai Natural to increase product quality, albeit in a way that moves us a little bit further away from the traditional Thai roots that we celebrate and cherish. But I can’t help feeling a little bit sad about the demise of the coconut culture. A couple of days ago I tried to order a fresh coconut for my daughter, Ploi, at a restaurant and was told “no have – too expensive”. Unthinkable.

Realistically, the Thai government lacks the resources and the funding to address the massive infrastructure issues that are needed to offset rising sea levels, subsidence and flooding from the north each season. In 10 months time, the remaining coconut trees will get another dose of very wet feet and another nail will be driven into the coconut culture’s coffin. Some climate and engineering experts predict as few as 7 years before parts of Bangkok will need to be evacuated. I wonder what the price of coconuts and coconut oil will be in 7 years time….? I wonder how much more pristine Asian jungle will have been slashed to plant more palms for palm oil, and how many species will have lost their habitat and be on the brink of extinction.

Sustainable. It’s an easy marketing word to toss about but today Arun Thai Natural came hard up against what that means. We think it means we have to change to protect the world we live in, and we’re ready to do that. We are even happy about the better quality product that we will be able to offer. But we’re just a bit sad about climate change and the end of the Thai coconut culture.


  1. Who would have thought? Thanks for exposing this sheltered American to the cold harsh realities of global warming...I had heard about the price of cotton increasing due to flooding in SE Asia...but nary a word about the coconut.

  2. Well written blog post, and i already learned that some groups are more inclined than others (since many of us are different) would share the same idea. I hope you bare this blog functioning well. I have posted a blog related to your blog if you need any Massage and London massage related information please visit massage related site http://www.themassagerooms.com