Written and photographed by Douglas GayetonAdditional reporting by Madison Trapkin and Elena Valeriote
IN THE 1870s, AN AMERICAN ENTREPRENEUR NAMED MINOR KEITH nearly went bankrupt building a railroad across 100 miles of magnificently-dense Costa Rican jungle to connect the capital of San José with Limón, a port on the Caribbean coast. Nearly 4,000 workers died in service of Keith’s perilous enterprise—mostly from malaria and yellow fever—including his three brothers and an uncle. His challenges were further compounded by the Costa Rican government, which defaulted on its payments, and an unexpected lack of passengers. Keith’s luck changed when he shifted his precious cargo to bananas, which he had the inspiration to grow on small farms he built along his rail lines. His first shipments of fruit were sent north to New Orleans; the demand for bananas was so great that his plantations eventually financed not only the railroad, but also the creation of the United Fruit Company. Keith eventually married the daughter of Costa Rica’s president, officially ushering in the age of banana republics and multinational food companies.
Today, National Primary Route 32 travels much the same terrain, and together with Route 4, forms Costa Rica’s Corredor Norte-Caribe, a primary commercial artery that weaves through tropical rainforests connecting Puerto Limón on the Caribbean with Guanacaste on the Pacific.
It’s here on Route 32, an hour west of Limón, where I meet Flora Quiros Mendez and Jorge Eduardo Mora Solano. Their tiny roadside fruit stand, or puesto de frutas, is packed with fragrant bananas and just-ripe plantains dangling from the rafters alongside peach palm and other jungle fruits. The pair sources most of this tropical bounty on daily foraging trips that rarely go beyond their front yard and the surrounding forest, as is common among fruteros y fruteras in the low rolling hills of Siquirres El Chinamo.
Roadside fruit stands like these are a common sight on Costa Rican highways. Their fare hasn’t changed for decades, with the notable exception being what may very well be the anti-banana in this region: breadfruit. Native to Southeast Asia, breadfruit arrived in Costa Rica with sailors in the early 1800’s. Its versatility in the kitchen—whether in stews, fried, or dried for use as flour—once made breadfruit a ubiquitous feature in most rural diets, but this also contributed to its reputation as “poor people’s food.” With ultra-processed foods now readily available even in remote Costa Rican communities, such staples as breadfruit eventually fell out of favor, but today this bulbous green fruit is undergoing a renaissance, and I’ve come here to learn how that happened, and what it could mean for the people in this region.
IN THE EARLY 19TH CENTURY, A SELF-PROCLAIMED agroforestry expert traveled across the midwestern United States planting apple trees with missionary zeal. Nearly two hundred years later, another self-proclaimed agroforestry expert set the course for his own future by obsessively criss-crossing the network of Costa Rican rainforest villages where Minor Keith first met his destiny years earlier, except instead of building a railway or starting a banana empire, this young entrepreneur came to plant breadfruit trees.
This latter-day Johnny Appleseed’s name is Paul Zink. His folkloric journey has lasted ten years, and he’s why I’ve come to this Central American country. Zink’s calling began with a meager consignment of ten sickly small breadfruit saplings, given in hopes that he could somehow revive them enough to plant. From those first ten, others quickly followed.
In recent years, men in hillside rural communities like Pejibaye, located midway between the capital of San José and Limón, have migrated to urban areas in search of work, leaving women to manage as best they can. In this region, that means farming. These smallholders—individuals owning and operating farms less than 50 hectares—play an integral role in Costa Rica’s agricultural economy and are its second largest source of employment. Still, these livelihoods suffer greatly from the harsh arithmetic experienced by farmers the world over: international agroindustrial companies, whose operations often measure in the thousands of hectares, can grow a limited number of relatively expensive export crops—including sugarcane, coffee, bananas, and cocoa—at a fraction of the cost, creating a very real disincentive for smallholders. With fewer farmers, a number of traditional crops have begun disappearing from Costa Rican dinner tables.
In the face of these challenges, smallholder farms are banding together across Costa Rica. In Pejibaye, a group of local women led by the charismatic, soft-spoken Lorena Periera Periera, founded Cooperativo AMUPLAVIE (Asociación de Mujeres Productoras de Plaza Vieja). By pooling their resources, Lorena and her cooperative were able to rent land, grow cash crops, and eventually build greenhouses with financial support from INDER (Instituto de Desarrollo Rural).
While Cooperativo AMUPLAVIE now boasts banana trees, a vegetable nursery featuring chiles, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers, along with other cash crops that provide the women with income throughout the year, their most impressive crop is a recent readdition to this region: breadfruit. These trees begin producing fruit packed with amino acids, minerals, and vitamins A and C in three short years, and reach their peak soon after. How productive are they? A single breadfruit tree can produce up to 400 kilograms a year (enough to fill a pickup truck bed) with minimal maintenance, allowing farmers to tend to other, more labor-intensive cash crops while still providing their families with an excellent source of nutrition.
But in Pejibaye, these aren’t just any breadfruit trees. They’re the progeny of Jungle Project, Paul Zink’s thriving social enterprise—part business, part evangelical mission—that spreads the gospel of breadfruit. The company he created with Gustavo Angulo and Diana Chaves has already planted nearly 20,000 trees across Costa Rica.
Maintaining and improving biodiversity is a central tenet of Jungle Project’s agroecological farming philosophy; to propagate these trees, they’ve adapted germplasm from Samoa and Hawaii using trees acquired through a deal based on the Nagoya Protocol, an international agreement designed to guarantee the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and connected traditional knowledge. Signed in 2010, the agreement was meant to build upon the 1992 Convention of Biological Diversity. However, concerns remain that this added bureaucracy and legislation hasn’t done enough to support the continued monitoring and collection of biodiversity, conservation efforts, and future research. Further complicating its implementation is a basic question: Can a single country claim to own cacao, coffee, or other ubiquitous crops? Today, while over 100 countries have signed onto the protocol, there remain two notable exceptions: the United States and Costa Rica.
While the Nagoya Protocol presents an opportunity for biodiversity-rich countries to generate income from their natural resources, and encourages others to increase the biodiversity of their own natural environments, it’s less clear on how to equitably share germplasm, let alone a single crop. One attempt has been made in Hawaii. The process for collecting a third party royalty for breadfruit germplasm (Ma’afala and Ulu Fiti varieties) was first developed by Dr. Diane Ragone of the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Breadfruit (NTBG) Institute in Kauai. She devised a system to reward both a private company for its research and development and the variety’s country of origin; in this case, Samoa. For every tree propagated in this pilot project, $1 is donated and shared equally between NTBG and Samoa. If Dr. Ragone’s model works, countries rich in biodiversity can safeguard what is essentially their intellectual property while still providing avenues for companies to profit from their use. The first application of this royalty scheme? The very same breadfruit Paul Zink eventually planted in Costa Rica.
TODAY, JUNGLE PROJECT’S TREES mainly come from Finca Madre (“mother farm”), Paul’s home base located an hour outside San José. The expansive hillside setting offers a cacophony of edible tropical fruits—including rare peach palms, cacaos, and jackfruits—set around a central structure that includes an open air kitchen, a teaching lab and a nursery with saplings set beneath a massive shade cloth canopy.
It’s here, in what Paul calls his “germplasm bank”—the equivalent to a seed bank—where he does most of his work, with trees grown from seeds or grafted using stem and root cuttings taken from mature plants, carefully selected for their genes that offer protection from a variety of environmental threats.
A few times each year, trees are loaded into Jungle Project’s four wheeler for a cross-country journey that often ends at farms like those of Bryan Pérez and Yamileth Martínez near Cartago. Failing sugar cane and coffee yields and years of conventional farming practices dependent on petrochemical inputs left the couple with little money and heavily compacted, degraded soils. Their decision to try something new was partly a response to the dire predicament many families in this region face. To continue farming as they had done for generations was simply no longer economically viable. After extensive research, Bryan and Yamileth decided to implement a number of regenerative agriculture practices and slowly transformed their land into a vibrant multi-tiered agroforestry plantation featuring breadfruit, coffee, leguminous plants (nitrogen fixers), and bananas.
Instead of using chemical herbicides like glyphosate, they now apply mulch and use hand mowers to cut weeds. When possible, they also practice intercropping, growing coffee beneath shade trees like breadfruit provided by Jungle Project. As part of an agroforestry system, these trees can increase biodiversity, improve watersheds, enhance ecosystems, and even help enrich the soil.
Working closely with others in their village, the couple has even begun producing their own natural fertilizer, making a compost tea with mycelium collected from nearby forests. A foundational tenet of agroecological practices, this “MM,” or mountain microorganism tea, builds soil fertility while reducing farmers’ dependence on external inputs like synthetic fertilizers. The mix—which also includes leaves, soil, semolina, rice husk, charcoal, yeast, molasses, and water—is left to ferment for three weeks, diluted in water, then fermented again. The process speeds up the decomposition of these natural ingredients and allows Byran and Yamileth’s crops to more rapidly intake these nutrients when MM is sprayed in the field.
At Finca Gaitán in Limón, Elena Gaitán relies on a similar agroforestry system, using breadfruit trees to provide shade and protection for her cacao plants, which prefer the understory’s dappled light to that of full sun typical on most neighboring commercial farms. When crops like cacao and breadfruit can coexist, the relationship proves symbiotic for both plants and farmers. In fact, the cultivation of multiple crops at varying levels of the forest offers sheltering for migratory birds and beneficial insects, restores degraded ecosystems, and ultimately gives farmers like Elena greater financial stability by providing two crops to sell instead of a single product. Finally, breadfruit may also offer a powerful hedge against climate change. As a perennial plant in a diverse agroforestry system, not only can breadfruit trees remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, but they also capture carbon and store it in the surrounding plants and soil.
IN DONA AUREA’S OPEN-AIR KITCHEN, guests frequently gather to dine on a rich variety of local fare, but the one ingredient her signature dishes—from patacones to ceviche to soup—have in common is breadfruit. When eaten in its “green” or firm state, this versatile fruit can be used as a starchy replacement for potatoes in a bowl of savory, comforting picadillo or a refreshing addition to bright, citrusy ceviche, while ripe breadfruit can be transformed into delightfully creamy smoothies or smashed into golden pancakes. Such adaptability makes breadfruit an excellent addition to any Costa Rican pantry.
Here are a few recipes gathered by Diana Chaves and the Jungle Project team:
BREADFRUIT PICADILLO: 1) Boil 1 diced breadfruit for 20 minutes or until soft; 2) Cook 1 finely chopped bell pepper, 1 onion and 2 garlic cloves (the “olores”) in oil for 2 minutes; 3) add ½ tsp annatto paste and mix; 4). add 1 tsp oregano, ½ lb ground beef and ¼ cup of water; 5) stir occasionally and when water is boiling add the cooked breadfruit, mixing all together; 6) add the cilantro and serve with tortillas and salad.
BREADFRUIT SLICES and BREADFRUIT PATACONES: Ingredients: 1 whole breadfruit green (firm), vegetable oil (preferably avocado oil for patacones and coconut oil for slices), water and salt to taste. / Preparation: 1) Peel, de-core, and halve breadfruit. One part must be cut in long slices as thin as you prefer. The other part must be cut in quarters and then sliced at ½ inch wide. 2) Add the long slices to a pot, cover with water, and boil for 10 to 15 min or until soft. Drain the water and place on a pan with coconut oil to seal its borders and gain a golden color. Serve in a plate with some salt to taste, accompanied with eggs in the morning or any vegetable stew. 3) The second half pieces must be deep fried in hot oil for 5 minutes and then sifted out of the oil. On a flat surface, press each pre-fried piece down, reducing its thickness in half, and then place the flattened pieces back in the oil for another 5 to 7 minutes or until becoming golden. Finally, remove from the oil with a slotted spoon, add salt to taste, and serve with refried beans and pico de gallo.
BREADFRUIT CHEVICHE: Ingredients: 1/2 breadfruit green (firm), 4 cups of water, 1 small purple onion julienne strips, 2 minced garlic cloves, 2 sweet pepper in small cubes (colors), 1/2 cup minced cilantro, 2 tsp apple cider vinegar or rice vinegar, 3/4 cups fresh lemon juice, 3/4 cups orange juice (or mandarine juice) and salt to taste. / Preparation: 1) Peel, de-core, and cut breadfruit in small dice. 2) Boil water on medium-high heat. Add the breadfruit and cook for 5-10 minutes till tender (do not over boil). Then sift it and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process inside. Rest aside to chill. 3) In a separate bowl, incorporate the rest of the ingredients. Once the breadfruit reaches room temperature, add to the marinade and stir, covering the breadfruit cubes completely. Store refrigerated. Serve with tortilla chips or any other edible baskets.
RONDON SOUP: Ingredients: 1 lb fish cut in pieces, 1 lb mixed caribbean vegetables (ñampi or yam, breadfruit, cassava, yellow yam, sweet potatoes), 2 carrots, 1 green banana, 1 onion chopped, 1 celery stalk, a twig of thyme leaves, 1 small hot “panameño” pepper whole, 28 oz of fresh coconut milk (or 2 cans no added sugar), salt and pepper to taste. / Preparation: 1) To prepare coconut milk, cut the coconut meat into small pieces, add 4 cups of water and blend until smooth. Press through a strainer two or three times adding 1 cup of water. 2) Peel, de-core, and cube the vegetables and green banana into bite size pieces. 3) Chop the onion and celery stalk, placing them in the pot with some coconut oil. Pierce the hot pepper 2 times and add it whole. 4) Add the fish and continue frying for 2 to 3 minutes to seal. Then add the coconut milk, the vegetables, thyme leaves and seasonings. 5) When the milk separates (curdles) and the vegetables are tender, remove the hot pepper carefully and serve.
JUNGLE PROJECT SOURCES BREADFRUIT from a small network of family farms. It’s a relationship that begins before the first trees are planted. By entering into an agreement with Jungle Project, farmers are guaranteed saplings sold at a discounted rate, free training, and ongoing technical support, all with the condition that these farmers sell at least 80 percent of their harvest back to Jungle Project at rates set above market value.
At their unofficial collection center in Limón, Jungle Project’s team individually inspects each breadfruit for firmness and discoloration, discarding any diseased fruit. Next, Karen Cuvillo, Director of Traceability at Jungle Project, records the weight of each breadfruit crate and its farm of origin. Transparency, from planting to harvest to distribution, is a key component of their supply chain. Such visibility allows Jungle Project to set aside even higher prices for growers using demonstrated regenerative agricultural practices.
Breadfruit that fails to meet Jungle Project’s standards often find other uses. Instead of being discarded, these “seconds”, or less attractive breadfruit, are often transformed into products with higher value and longer shelf life. In most villages, rejected breadfruit is peeled, sliced, fried, and packaged to be sold as chips de frutapan. It can also be a lucrative business: a single rejected breadfruit can produce up to 12 bags of breadfruit chips sold for $2 per bag as opposed to the single dollar a fresh breadfruit brings in the marketplace. Developing additional markets for these “seconds” reduces food waste while also providing the increased financial security that comes with more diverse income streams. By encouraging social entrepreneurs at a community level, money stays within communities, providing additional jobs, supporting new businesses, and improving livelihoods.
Since its inception, Jungle Project has committed to a business strategy focused on three things: trees, training, and trade. This social mission offers an ambitious vision, one that extends beyond merely propagating trees to also holistically improve the wellbeing of local people and the environment.
At the same time, breadfruit is also a business. Its return as a staple in many Costa Rican households may soon be eclipsed by the competitiveness of food companies and their constant need to create the next culinary curiosity. The recent development of innovative food processing technologies has created new markets for flour made from dried, milled breadfruit. It serves as both a gluten-free alternative to conventional wheat flour and an exotic mascot for greater biodiversity on the supermarket shelf. While widespread consumer appeal may ultimately prove elusive, it’s clear for many Costa Ricans that breadfruit has returned to its “tree of life” origins and become a valuable generator of additional income for bold new companies like Jungle Project.
by Katelyn Mann of The Lexicon
edited by Diane Ragone of the Breadfruit Institute
Breadfruit is a staple food in many tropical areas of the world. Most varieties can produce fruit throughout the year (up to 450 lbs/200kg per tree per season) with low labor inputs and the fruit can be consumed ripe or unripe. Breadfruit can transform to fit many needs. Unripe or “mature” or “fit” breadfruit is starchy and needs to be cooked before eating; fully ripe breadfruit has a soft, slightly sweet white or yellow flesh. Breadfruit can be roasted, baked, fried or boiled; cooked, mature, starchy breadfruit is similar to baked potato or fresh baked bread. As breadfruit’s flavor is neutral, the fruit is sometimes cored and stuffed with foods such as coconut milk or cooked meat then cooked to allow additional flavors to permeate the flesh. In Indonesia breadfruit is commonly made into fritters and eaten as a street-side snack. In Hawaii, the staple food poi, usually made from mashed taro root, is sometimes made with breadfruit and called poi ‘ulu. A curry with coconut milk and breadfruit is commonplace in Sri Lanka. Puerto Ricans serve boiled breadfruit with salted cod fish, olive oil and onions and make a dessert custard with sweet ripe breadfruit. In short, breadfruit is adaptable to any style of cooking and almost any flavor profile.
Storing and transporting breadfruit remains a limitation to its widespread usage. Breadfruit trees produce bumper crops at some points in the year; fermentation is a traditional way to preserve breadfruit by leaving it to turn to a sticky, sour paste in a leaf-lined buried pit. Breadfruit are heavy and spoil quickly, unfortunate characteristics for worldwide shipping. Value-added breadfruit products such as breadfruit flour and canned breadfruit are increasing the availability of breadfruit outside of solely tropical regions.
Breadfruit lives up to its name, as it is largely a source of energy from complex carbohydrates. Breadfruit contains low levels of protein and fat and a moderate glycemic index. It is also gluten free. Breadfruit is a good source of dietary fiber, iron, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium with small amounts of thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. Some varieties contain small amounts of folic acid. Many varieties can be a good source of provitamin A carotenoids and flavonoids. While breadfruit contains low levels of protein, it is a complete protein, providing all of the essential amino acids necessary to human health. Breadfruit has great potential to increase food security in tropical areas as a prolific, perennial producer.
Breadfruit, as an equatorial lowland species, grows best in tropical climates with well-drained loamy soils and low elevation. The breadfruit tree needs temperatures between 61-100 °F/16–38 °C and annual rainfall of 80-100in/200-250 cm to thrive, but the tree can survive in coral sand and saline soils. If planted in the right environment, the breadfruit tree requires little maintenance. As a perennial tree crop, breadfruit cultivation minimizes soil disturbance and erosion and can be planted in agroforestry applications.
Outside of food production, the breadfruit tree is valued for its role in boat building and other construction. The timber of breadfruit is sturdy yet light, a useful material in the construction of boats and houses in the tropics. Latex, used for boat caulking, is extruded from all parts of the tree.
Breadfruit originated from seeded breadnut, Artocarpus camansi. Breadfruit is believed to have been domesticated and spread to Oceania during the Austroneasian expansion, a ‘canoe plant’ brought by sea voyagers from its native islands of New Guinea, the Philippines and the Maluku Islands to Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia 3,000 years ago. The breadfruit spread by travelers and by colonizers, brought to areas of the western hemisphere as a potential source of food for slaves.
Many are studying and promoting breadfruit as a valuable tool for food security, including organizations such as the Breadfruit Institute at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) in Hawaii.and Trees that Feed Foundation, Hawaii Homegrown Food Network, and NTBG has developed the world’s largest breadfruit germplasm repository to conserve the genetic diversity of breadfruit, and collaborates with researchers and students from around the world to further study breadfruit’s application in regenerative agricultural systems and nutritious diets.