On the morning of February 10, a cyclist climbed the curves of Rio de Janeiro’s most popular sport cycling route. A familiar scent hung in the air.
It was the smell of jackfruit, vaguely sickening and ripe with peril.
Without warning, a fruit fell from the heavily laden canopy of Tijuca National Park. He hit the cyclist in the head, cracking his helmet and sending him sprawling.
There had long been stories of the biggest tree-borne fruit bomb passers-by in the world. It was no longer an urban legend, and it was a potential problem for Marisa Furtado and Pedro Lobão, a couple who took on the challenge of rehabilitating the public image of the fruit.
Jackfruit is abundant during the southern hemisphere summer, but many Brazilians are loath to eat it. Historically, it has been consumed more by the poor or slaves; in barbecue-mad Brazil, the idea of replacing fruit with meat is viewed with suspicion.
It is considered an invasive species even though it arrived here centuries ago. Environmentalists scorn him for ousting native species in 13 federal conservation units across Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, specifically Tijuca Park, one of the world’s largest urban forests.
And now the cyclists spreading the news of the accident on message groups and Facebook were blaming the fruit of the assault. One of them reported that he had skidded on the jackfruit. Others shared close calls, like a jackfruit exploding so close it splashed shrapnel on the spokes of a bicycle. Rolling under jackfruit, said another, was like Russian roulette.
But it is not the jackfruit that Furtado knows and loves.
Furtado, 57, drinks a jackfruit smoothie every day. She dreams of a pilgrimage to the point of origin of the jackfruit, India. His 2020 Christmas card? A photo of herself next to a huge 73-pound jackfruit – enough to cook about 150 dishes. His Christmas message: “May abundance be with you all in 2021”.
She and her 54-year-old boyfriend, Lobão, collect unripe jackfruit from trees, process them to sell, donate whatever they can’t unload, and share free recipes. She scrapes main courses – cod with jackfruit, jackfruit lasagna, jackfruit pie, jackfruit fillet – and insists they are both tasty and nutritious.
“History charges the jackfruit tree with prejudices. Today we hear about the stinking jackfruit, … the violent jackfruit, the invading jackfruit, ”said Furtado. “It’s true: the jackfruit has adapted very well. So all those who have adapted well to Brazil should be exterminated?
In the 17th century, the Portuguese transported jackfruit plants to Brazil, where it was a visual curiosity, and the tree quickly reached Rio, according to Rogério Oliveira, a specialist in environmental and ecological history.
Rio’s forest was being cleared for wood, charcoal, coffee and sugar cane plantations, said Oliveira, associate professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio (PUC).
The emperor ordered massive reforestation. The jackfruit thrived in the degraded soil and produced gargantuan fruits which crashed to the ground and tumbled downward, scattering the seeds. The trees – which can reach 80 feet tall – have taken root, anchoring the ground and feeding the animals.
Thirty-four vertebrates in Brazil are participating, including agoutis and black capuchin monkeys, according to an article published this month by the journal Tropical Ecology. Golden-headed lion tamarins, also endangered. Population densities are highest where jackfruit is their main food.
This belies the potential problems, said Rodolfo Abreu, professor of ecology at the Federal Rural University of Rio.
“Instead of favoring the diversity of fauna, amphibians and insects, you give priority to those who use jackfruit. You simplify the tropical chain, ”said Abreu, a biologist who has studied jackfruit invasiveness. “Some rare species are starting to disappear or are becoming rarer.”
Since Brazilian humans consume jackfruit, it is mostly eaten ripe. It tastes like a combination of pear and banana.
Unripe jackfruit is used in savory dishes. In India, jackfruit has been an alternative to meat for centuries, even called “tree goat” in the state of West Bengal, says Shree Padre, editor of an agricultural magazine. Once considered a poor crop, cultivation and exporting have increased, coinciding with global interest in the “superfood,” he said.
In Rio’s Tony Ipanema neighborhood, the best-selling appetizer at plant-based restaurant Teva is the jackfruit barbecue tacos, said chef Daniel Biron. Its customers are often surprised by a fruit that is normally found on waste trails in a state of pungent rot.
“They are affected because they are starting to open their minds to a universe they did not know,” said Biron, 44. “Jackfruit has this ability.
Furtado and Lobao’s organization is Hand in the Jackfruit (Mao na Jaca, in Portuguese), a variation of the expression “foot in the jackfruit,” which means to slip or go too far. The phrase is evocative to anyone who has dipped a Havaiana sandal into rotting porridge, the seeds of which protrude like cloves of garlic.
Recently, Furtado and Lobão loaded 139 pounds of seeds into a squeaky caddy for delivery to a chief in Babilonia, one of Rio’s hillside favelas.
Regina Tchelly, who hails from the poor northeastern state of Paraiba, enjoyed jackfruit meat and roasted seeds as a girl. In 2018, with tight cash, she imagined a version of jackfruit-based grated chicken dumplings. It sold like crazy, said Tchelly, who runs the Favela Organica culinary project.
Tchelly has swapped some recipes, such as his jackfruit seed ceviche, for Furtado seeds. She says jackfruit could end hunger in Brazil – a new concern after the government ended social assistance payments for COVID-19.
“It’s such an abundant food, and jackfruit can bring a lot of nutrients to your body and be a source of income,” Tchelly said.
During the pandemic, the road to Tijuca Park has become a great place for social distancing exercises, and potential jackfruit targets abound. Some cyclists contacted authorities after the crash, demanding action that could include cutting branches above their heads or removing trees.
“Before, the removal of jackfruit trees was an internal problem in the park. But now there are jackfruit trees threatening lives! said Raphael Pazos, 46, founder of the Rio de Janeiro Cycling Safety Commission. “If he wasn’t wearing a helmet, or if he had run into a 4-year-old, he could have killed.”
Over the phone, Furtado tried to calm the outcry by reaching out to cyclists, including the one who had been beaten. He declined the AP interview requests.
She sought to direct them to mapping jackfruit tree locations, posting signs about their benefits and organizing fruit collection. Along the route, she said, the jackfruit trees could be hung using a truck-mounted crane and then donated to surrounding communities, with Hand in the Jackfruit holding workshops to teach sticky art and labor-intensive processing. She also spoke at length with the coordinator of the Tijuca park and made her point of view.
Furtado recognizes the importance of diversity, but argues that a centuries-old Brazilian resident should not be kicked out of the garden.
“It is a heritage that must be valued, from a social, economic, cultural and environmental point of view,” she posted on Instagram. “To eradicate it would be a huge mistake and part of the arrogance of those who do not perceive life is dynamic.”
But some scientists disagreed – at least when it comes to Tijuca Park.
“I’m 100% in the camp to get him out of the park; it’s exotic, we don’t need it, human livelihoods don’t depend on it, ”said Emilio Bruna, president of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation. “Outside of the park, we can have this conversation.”
Oliveira de PUC said there is ecologically no doubt that native species should be replaced by jackfruit in Tijuca Park. But in urban areas, it’s free fruit for people who don’t always have access to it.
Plus, it’s apparently not as invasive as you might think, he said. It becomes hyper-dominant where the soil is degraded, but an experiment on its part showed that the seeds had not germinated in a hardy forest.
“A good forest has some defense against jackfruit,” he says.
He said populations should be managed by ringing: cutting a ring of bark, which typically kills a tree in a matter of months. Abreu said injecting herbicide is more effective and his models indicate killing 5-10% of mature trees each year is enough to put a given population into decline.
The government’s management plan for Tijuca Park indicates that jackfruit eradication should be a priority; some 2,000 trees were surrounded there between 2016 and 2017. It is not known what percentage of the total park this represented, Abreu said.
On February 21, cyclists from the Safety Commission gathered at the entrance to Tijuca Park. Furtado’s efforts had worked – to an extent. They adopted his proposal to collect and distribute jackfruit to surrounding communities and decided to present it at the next meeting of the park advisory board, where the commission sits.
“We didn’t even know that an association that had done this existed,” Pazos said after the meeting, standing next to his bicycle. “There is no way you can not like the idea of giving food to the people.”
They also supported emergency hand picking in jackfruit, but always favored the cancellation of all roadside jackfruit trees. He pointed out that another jackfruit had fallen just downhill, right in the middle of the road.
Furtado admits that a few roadside trees could be removed as a last resort if collection or pruning proves impossible, and after a thorough impact study. She is vehemently opposed to ringing or herbicide and believes in management by consumption.
“If we eat the jackfruit and its seeds,” she says, “we can contain them.”
AP writer Aniruddha Ghosal contributed from New Delhi