So I’m a vegan. I fully admit I care about animal rights and health food. If it’s cold out, I wear socks with my sandals – I’m that kind of vegan. Does my gleeful obsession with durian make sense now? I care a lot about where my food comes from and how it was grown. A lot. And durian troubles me. I’ve now spent so much time in orchards all over the world that sometimes I wonder if even my beloved fruit isn’t very vegan after all.
Six years ago, I went vegan because I was angry with the factory
farming industry in the United States. I was also an eighteen year old
living in Eugene, Oregon, and it was a hip thing to do. So was riding a
unicycle to university classes (which I saw a lot of other people do) but that’s besides the point.
Let’s just say going
vegan was one of my better decisions. It was the reason I discovered durian in the first place. Going vegan inspired me to think for the first time about how
my food decisions affected not only the health and well being of my own
body, but of the farmers who grew it and the ecosystem at large. Still, it wasn’t until I started visiting durian orchards that I figured this out:
not just that pesticides kill insects, or fertilizers
wash into rivers and watersheds, killing fish and polluting groundwater.
It’s also not the fact that most fruits are grown in enormous
monocrops, hundred or thousand acre plots of stale homogeneity that take
up precious habitat and drain surrounding rivers and aquifers. Those
problems can largely be avoided by small scale, organic farming
There are a few other things that even small, organic fruit farmers around the globe do that bother my vegan sensitivities.
Like shooting stuff.
One of the most intense experiences we had on our Year of the Durian was when a
farmer shot down a squirrel nibbling durians and then taunted his five mangy
dogs with the carcass.
I was more
than a little uncomfortable.
But apparently, getting rid of vermin is a necessary part of life on the farm, even the fruit farm. Otherwise it wouldn’t happen everywhere in the world with every type of fruit crop. Farmers in my home state
of Oregon regularly knock off coyotes, possums, raccoons, gophers, and, apparently, the
occasional Big Foot. In Australia, where I’m writing from now, farmers take down feral pigs, fruit bats, and cockatoos. In Italy, the fruit bowl of Europe, farmers routinely hunt rabbits and the wild boars that uproot the famous vineyards.
In Malaysia, it’s monkeys, civet cats, and wild boars.
In Indonesia, it’s sometimes elephants.
The reality of fruit farming is more complex. For one, netting or electric fencing is expensive and difficult to use correctly. Most small farmers, especially in third world countries, don’t have the resources or economic incentive to pay for the more expensive solution. Many are just barely eking it out as it is. Bullets are cheap. Poison is cheaper.
Feral pigs or wild boars make up the biggest percentage of the body count. They have few natural predators left and breed like crazy. Some
countries, like the United States and Australia, encourage hunting just
to keep the population under control. Wild pigs are incredibly destructive, gouging meters wide holes in the ground, uprooting trees, and generally creating a giant, head-ache inducing mess. They can wipe out a farmer’s livelihood in a few nights, ending years of patient labor and waiting with a few leisurely mud baths.
I’ve now seen a lot of dead pigs at durian orchards. I’ll spare you the photos.
One of the farmers we visited kept a rifle over his shoulder the entire time we visited, just in case a wild boar appeared.
Another pointed at the muddy hills and hollows left by boars and gleefully told us he’d poisoned them the night before, using a durian laced with pesticides. In his face I could see relief that, for the moment, his trees were safe.
Fruit laced with cyanide or pesticides is a common way to finish off an unwanted orchard robber. But sometimes, it misses its mark and gets human thieves instead. In December of 2013, two boys were admitted to the hospital after eating a poisoned durian intended for marauding boars. In 2004, a man died.
Dead pigs make me upset. Dead people make me more upset.
And somehow, dead elephants make me the most upset.
Elephants are very good at destruction. They’re big, they’re bulky, they knock down young fruit trees as easily as my dog ruins a game of scrabble by meandering onto the board.
They’re also very fond of durian. Who could blame them for that?
In Malaysia, there’s a government department that deals with human-elephant conflict: the Elephant Management Unit. When a 50 year old bull wandered into a durian orchard in 2012 and started in on a durian feast, the unit mobilized to haul him away to a conservation area. Injured or orphaned elephants go to the Elephant Sanctuary.
Not everywhere with elephants has an Elephant Management Unit. Or a conservation area.
Some areas are left to manage their elephants themselves, and usually not in ways approved by the WWF. Currently, elephants are dying in Borneo and Sumatra at a rate that should alarm everyone. The main cause of death: poisoned fruit from farmers trying to protect their crops.
I realize now that anytime I buy durian at a market, or any fruit for that matter, it’s likely that more than one or two animals met its end during the growing of that fruit. It’s the result of animals and humans competing for the same thing – food (and amazing durian) – and humans being really good at winning.
I also know that, compared to fruit industries like bananas, pineapples, or – shudder – palm oil, the number of animals dying in durian orchards is pretty minor. That doesn’t really make me feel any better.
Durian demand is growing worldwide as more people fall under its hypnotically creamy spell. That means farmers are incentivized to plant more durian orchards (yay!) and at the same time, more animals will find themselves unwanted trespassers on what used to be free land (oh noes…).
I’d like to believe that there is a way for fruit farmers and wildlife to live in harmony. I’d love if my fruitarian friends were right, and a diet of fruit really doesn’t cause any death or suffering. My friend Mango has written an entire book about the topic, which you can read here.
I’m not convinced that Mango’s fruitopia can ever happen. To be perfectly honest, I’m even questioning if my dietary avoidance of causing animal suffering isn’t just a self-delusion. I love durian too much to ever give it up, no matter how many squirrels get shot. How’s that for ethical purity?
It would take an unimaginable amount of resources and community support to stop farmers from protecting their crops via lethal methods. There would need to be organizations to remove problem animals from the farms, and safe places to leave them. Also necessary would be ways to control population sizes, so that conservation areas don’t get overrun with mud bathing piglets. Most importantly, there needs to be people who care enough to make it happen.
That said, I’m sure we can come up with a solution to preserve both elephants and durian farms. The solution starts here, with you. Leave your comments and ideas in the box below.