By David Biller

On the morning of 10 February, a cyclist chugged his way up the curves of Rio de Janeiro’s most popular sport cycling road. A familiar scent wafted in the air.

It was the smell of jackfruit, vaguely cloying and ripe with peril.

Without warning, one fruit plummeted from the heavily laden canopy of Tijuca National Park. It hit the cyclist on the head, cracking his helmet and sending him sprawling.

There had long been stories of the world’s largest tree-borne fruit divebombing passersby. Now it was no longer urban legend, and that was potential trouble for Marisa Furtado and Pedro Lobão, a couple who have taken up the challenge of rehabilitating the fruit’s public image.

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Above: Pedro Lobao ropes a jackfruit to lower to his partner Marisa Furtado, on the grounds of the state's government palace in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They process the fruit for sale, donate whatever they can’t sell and share free recipes, all with the aim of landing the jackfruit into ever more Brazilian kitchens and school cafeterias.

Jackfruit is abundant during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, but many Brazilians are loath to eat it. Historically, it has been consumed more by the poor or enslaved; in barbecue-mad Brazil, the idea of fruit substituting for meat is viewed with suspicion.

It’s considered an invasive species, even if it arrived here centuries ago. Ecologists disdain it for crowding out native species in 13 federal conservation units across Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, especially Tijuca park, one of the world’s largest urban forests.

And now cyclists spreading news of the accident on message groups and Facebook were accusing the fruit of assault. One posted that he had skidded out on jackfruit. Others shared close calls, like a jackfruit exploding so close it splattered a bike’s spokes with shrapnel. Riding under jackfruit, another said, was like Russian roulette.

But this isn’t the jackfruit Furtado knows and loves.

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Above: Director of the Hand in the Jackfruit organisation, Marisa Furtado carries a box with jackfruit seeds as she arrives at the "Favela Organica" project in the Babilonia favela of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Furtado and her partner Pedro Lobao run the organisation, a twist on the Portuguese phrase “foot in the jackfruit,” which means to slip up or go too far.

Furtado, 57, drinks a jackfruit smoothie every day. She dreams of a pilgrimage to the jackfruit’s point of origin, India. Her 2020 Christmas card? A photo of herself beside a whopping, 73-pound jackfruit — enough to prepare roughly 150 dishes. Its Yuletide message: “May abundance be with you all in 2021”.

She and her 54-year-old boyfriend, Lobão, collect unripe jackfruits from trees, process them for sale, donate whatever they can’t unload, and share free recipes. She rattles off entrees — jackfruit cod, jackfruit lasagna, jackfruit pie, jackfruit tenderloin — and insists that they are both tasty and nutritious.

“History loads the jackfruit with prejudice. Today we hear about the jackfruit that stinks, ... the violent jackfruit, the invasive jackfruit,” Furtado said. “It’s true: Jackfruit adapted very well. So everyone who adapted this well to Brazil should be exterminated?”

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Above: Guarani women cut a jackfruit in the Sapukai village near Angra dos Reis, Rio de Janeiro state in Brazil.

In the 17th century, the Portuguese transported jackfruit seedlings to Brazil, where it was visual curiosity, and the tree soon reached Rio, according to Rogério Oliveira, an environmental and ecological history specialist.

Rio’s forest was getting cleared for timber, charcoal, coffee and sugar cane plantations, said Oliveira, an associate professor at Rio’s Pontifical Catholic University (PUC).

The emperor ordered massive reforestation. Jackfruit thrived in the degraded soil and produced gargantuan fruit that crashed to the ground and tumbled downhill, scattering seeds. The trees — which can reach 80 feet tall — took root, anchoring the soil and feeding animals.

Thirty-four vertebrates in Brazil partake, including agoutis and black capuchin monkeys, according to a paper that the journal Tropical Ecology published this month. Endangered golden-headed lion tamarins, too. Population densities are higher where jackfruit is their primary food.

That belies potential problems, said Rodolfo Abreu, an ecology professor at Rio’s Federal Rural University.

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Above: To the extent Brazilians consume jackfruit, it’s mostly eaten ripe. It tastes like a combination of pear and banana.

“Instead of favouring diversity of fauna, of amphibians, of insects, you prioritise those who use jackfruit. You simplify the tropical chain,” said Abreu, a biologist who has studied jackfruit’s invasiveness. “Some rare species start to disappear, or become rarer.”

To the extent Brazilian humans consume jackfruit, it’s mostly eaten ripe. It tastes like a combination of pear and banana.

Unripe jackfruit is used in savoury dishes. In India, jackfruit has been a meat alternative for centuries, even called “tree goat” in West Bengal state, says Shree Padre, a farming magazine editor. Once considered a poor person’s crop, cultivation and export have increased, coinciding with global interest in the “superfood,” he said.

In Rio’s tony Ipanema neighbourhood, plant-based restaurant Teva's top-selling appetiser is BBQ jackfruit tacos, said head chef Daniel Biron. His clientele is often surprised by a fruit normally encountered littering trails in a state of pungent rot.

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Above: Head chef Daniel Biron poses for a photo holding a plate of his top-selling appetizer BBQ jackfruit tacos at the plant-based restaurant Teva, in the Ipanema neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“They’re impacted because they start to open their minds to a universe they didn’t know,” said Biron, 44. “The jackfruit has that capacity.”

Furtado and Lobao’s organisation is Hand in the Jackfruit ( Mao na Jaca, in Portuguese), a twist on the phrase “foot in the jackfruit,” which means to slip up or go too far. The expression is evocative for anyone who has plunged a Havaiana sandal into decomposing mush, from which seeds protrude like garlic cloves.

On a recent day, Furtado and Lobão loaded 139 pounds of seeds into a squeaky shopping cart for delivery to a chef in Babilonia, one of Rio’s hillside favelas.

Regina Tchelly, who hails from poor, northeastern Paraiba state, enjoyed jackfruit flesh and roasted seeds as a girl. In 2018, with money tight, she dreamt up a spin on shredded chicken dumplings made from jackfruit. It sold like crazy, said Tchelly, who runs culinary project Favela Organica.

Tchelly swapped some recipes, like her jackfruit seed ceviche, for Furtado’s seeds. She says jackfruit could end Brazilian hunger — a fresh concern after the government ended COVID-19 welfare payments.

“It’s a food that’s so abundant, and the jackfruit can bring lots of nutrients to your body and be a source of income,” Tchelly said.

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Above: Chef Regina Tchelly who remembers eating jackfruit flesh as a girl cooks a recipe utilizing jackfruit seeds in the kitchen of her culinary project Favela Organica, in the Babilonia favela of Rio de Janeiro.

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During the pandemic, the road into Tijuca park has become an ideal venue for socially-distanced exercise, and so potential jackfruit targets abound. Some cyclists contacted authorities after the accident, demanding action that could include cutting overhead branches or tree removal.

“Before, removal of jackfruit trees was an internal issue of the park. But now there are jackfruits threatening lives!” said Raphael Pazos, 46, founder of Rio de Janeiro’s Cycling Safety Commission. “If he hadn’t been wearing a helmet, or if it had fallen on a 4-year-old, it could’ve killed.”

By phone, Furtado tried to calm the outcry by reaching out to cyclists, including the one who was struck. He declined interview requests from The Associated Press.

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Above: (LEFT) A jackfruit sits sliced open at the home of Marisa Furtado and Pedro Lobao, who run an organisation that promotes the culinary use of the fruit, in Rio de Janeiro. Between the flesh, fibre, seeds, core and rind’s internal lining, she and Lobao use most of each fruit. (RIGHT) Peeled jackfruit seeds fill a bowl at the culinary project Favela Organica run by Chef Regina Tchelly, in the Babilonia favela of Rio de Janeiro. Tchelly, who hails from poor, northeastern Paraiba state, enjoyed jackfruit flesh and roasted seeds as a girl.

She sought to steer them toward mapping jackfruit trees’ locations, posting signs about their benefits and organising the collection of fruit. Along the road, she said, jackfruits could be snagged using a truck-mounted crane then donated to surrounding communities, with Hand in the Jackfruit holding workshops to teach the sticky, labour-intensive art of processing. She spoke at length with Tijuca park’s coordinator, too, and made her case.

Furtado acknowledges the importance of diversity, but argues a centuries-old Brazilian resident shouldn’t be cast out of the garden.

“It’s an inheritance that needs to be valued, from the social, economic, cultural and environmental points of view,” she posted on Instagram. “Eradicating it would be a huge error and part of the arrogance of those who don’t perceive life is dynamic.”

But some scientists disagreed — at least as far as Tijuca park is concerned.

“I’m 100 percent in the camp of taking it out from the park; it’s exotic, we don’t need it, human livelihoods aren’t depending on it,” said Emilio Bruna, president of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation. “Outside the park, we can have this conversation.”

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Above: (LEFT) A harvested jackfruit sits on the grounds of the state’s government palace in Rio de Janeiro. The jackfruit tree was originally imported from India by the Portuguese, and the invasive species proliferated in Brazil’s lush Atlantic Forest. (RIGHT) Chef Regina Tchelly, left, and director of the Hand in the Jackfruit organisation Marisa Furtado, peel jackfruit seeds at the culinary project Favela Organica run by Tchelly, in Rio de Janeiro's Babilonia favela. Tchelly said she believes jackfruit could end Brazilian hunger.

PUC’s Oliveira said there’s no doubt ecologically that native species should be substituted for jackfruit in Tijuca park. But in urban areas, it’s free fruit for people who don’t always have access to it.

Further, it’s apparently not as invasive as believed, he said. It becomes hyper-dominant where the soil is degraded, but an experiment of his showed seeds didn’t germinate in a robust forest.

“A good forest has a certain amount of defence against the jackfruit tree,” he said.

He said populations should be managed through girdling: slicing off a bark ring, which usually kills a tree in months. Abreu said herbicide injection is more effective, and his models indicate killing 5-10 percent of mature trees annually is enough to put a given population on the decline.

The government’s management plan for Tijuca park says jackfruit eradication should be prioritised; some 2,000 trees were girdled there between 2016 and 2017. It isn’t clear what percentage of the park’s total that represented, Abreu said.

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Above: Visitors stroll and pedal at the Tijuca National Park in Rio de Janeiro.

On 21 February, cyclists from the safety commission convened at Tijuca park’s entrance. Furtado’s efforts had worked — to some degree. They embraced her proposal to collect and distribute jackfruit to surrounding communities, and decided to present it at the next meeting of the park’s consultative council, where the commission holds a seat.

“We didn’t even know an association that did this existed,” Pazos said after the meeting, standing beside his bike. “There’s no way to dislike the idea of giving food to the population.”

They supported emergency collection by Hand in the Jackfruit, too, but still favoured girdling all roadside jackfruit trees. He pointed out that another jackfruit had dropped just downhill, smack in the middle of the road.

Furtado concedes a few roadside trees could be removed as a last resort if collection or pruning proves impossible, and after careful impact study. She vehemently opposes girdling or herbicide, and believes in management through consumption.

“If we eat the jackfruit and their seeds,” she said, “we can contain them.”

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Above: A cyclist pedals past a fallen jackfruit at Tijuca National Park in Rio de Janeiro.

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Bleed image — Pedro Lobao holds a jackfruit he harvested on the grounds of the state's government palace in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Lobão is part of the Hands in the Jackfruit organisation that promotes the culinary use of the fruit.

— All photographs courtesy of Silvia Izquierdo for The Associated Press