In Langscape Magazine Articles

Cultivating Respect: Reviving Forgotten Plant Knowledge in Costa Rica

March 11, 2019

Felipe Montoya-Greenheck

Puriscal is a rural canton in the Province of San José, Costa Rica. It is located in the northern foothills of the Talamanca Mountain Range that divides the plains of the western Central Valley. Its capital, Santiago, was established in 1868. Before the colony, Puriscal and its surroundings were the territory of the Huetar people, where Native communities still persist in the Indigenous territories of Zapatón and Quitirrisí. Despite its broken topography and fragile soils, Puriscal was long known as the granary of the urban Central Valley and the capital city of San José because of its abundant production of basic grains cultivated by a predominantly peasant population.

pejibaye in Caribbean islands

A cluster of pejibaye found throughout the Caribbean islands, northern South America, and Central America. Photo: Kalamazadkhan, 2012

In Puriscal, several varieties of maize were grown, as well as a large number of local varieties of beans. The name Puriscal refers to the flower of the bean, known as purisco. Peasant farming in Puriscal was mostly for subsistence but also partially directed at the small- and medium-scale markets. The tapado system was the traditional way of cultivating beans, whereby lands left fallow for a season were cleared, then beans were scattered among the fallen brush, which provided the seeds with cover against predators and later became nutrients when decomposed. This system, inherited from the Indigenous people of the area, allowed for a continual and sustainable recovery of the fertility of the fragile soils of the area.

But Puriscal also became livestock territory for landowners who began acquiring smaller farms and concentrating land under extensive cattle grazing. As a result, subsistence production has been relegated to increasingly smaller farms, leading to the gradual disappearance of the area’s capacity to feed the population of San José with basic grains. The fragile soils of Puriscal eventually succumbed to the effects of overgrazing, degrading, and losing much of their productive capacity.

The traditional tapado system of cultivation allowed for a continual recovery of the fertility of the fragile soils, but growing pressure on the land limited fallow periods.

Puriscal was also subject, like the rest of the country, to the processes of “modernization” and “development.” In the 1960s a daily bus route linking the canton with San José was established. By the 1970s the income of families was rising, and ordinary people could buy shoes and battery-powered radios. Electric current and potable water services were established. Changes in agriculture also occurred during this time. New chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and “improved” seeds of basic grains temporarily increased harvests. But growing pressure on the land limited the possibilities of leaving fallow plots in the tapado style of cultivation for their recovery. According to the farmers, the lands became “tired” and the crops “did not flower without chemical fertilizers.”

These trends began expelling peasants from the area and, with them, the traditions associated with a life of subsistence more rooted to the land and its biodiversity. Puriscal changed from being a predominantly peasant community to a dormitory city of workers engaged in other activities outside the canton. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, less than ten percent of the economically active population of Puriscal was engaged in agricultural work.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, less than ten percent of the economically active population of Puriscal was engaged in agricultural work.

The agrarian policies of the Costa Rican state, dazzled by the ideologies of “modernization” and “development,” prescribed Green Revolution technological packages with intensive external inputs and supported extensive monocultures with market value rather than small-scale, biodiverse peasant production based on natural cycles, native seeds adapted to local conditions, and the use of wild plants and animals to complement the local peasant diet. Modernization, with its devotion to the new and contempt for the old, undermined traditional knowledge and practices, including food traditions.

Pacaya palm

An arboretum example of siplina, or Pacaya palm, Chamaedorea tepejilote. Photo: H. Zell, 2009

Wild Plants in the Food Tradition of Puriscal

Puriscal is renowned nationwide for its chicharrones (fried pork rinds). Less well known, however, is its food tradition based on certain plants, which in the past formed an important part of its peasant and Indigenous diets. Many older Puriscaleños remember with longing eating siplina, minced chicasquil, or zorrillo when they depended on the local vegetation to supplement their meals. These and other plants, which formed an everyday part of the local diet, were allowed to grow in the traditional cerci or home garden, whereas others were only found in the wild, increasingly remote and diminished by the advance of development and extensive cattle grazing.

The food tradition that includes many wild and underutilized plants still persists among some of the older generations and Indigenous populations.

Despite the transformation of the local economy, and the ensuing migration of the peasant population to work away from agriculture, the food tradition that includes many wild and underutilized plants still persists among some of the older generations and Indigenous populations. “Here there are many wild plants and trees with edible tender leaves, fruits, and tender roots,” says Socorro Para, an Elder from the Zapatón Indigenous territory. “Nowadays, the young people don’t even know how to eat those things, because here in the school the teachers used to punish the children when they spoke of them with the ancient names of those plants.” Needless to say, the accelerated transformations of globalization increasingly threaten to extinguish these practices and knowledge.

The Indigenous Origins of Puriscal’s Foodways

Paleobotanical studies in Costa Rica suggest that the diet of Indigenous populations was based on hunting, planting some domesticated plants, and harvesting other wild plants.
The archaeological record indicates the consumption of plants such as avocado (Persea americana), corn (Zea mays), beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), and pejibaye (Bactris gasipaes), among others.

The cultural exchange between Indigenous and peasant populations in the Puriscal region undoubtedly contributed to the adoption of many Indigenous practices among the new white and mestizo (people of mixed ancestry) settlers, eventually forming a hybrid culture, especially in terms of food. Thus, the peasant populations of the area subsisted with an important variety of plants in their daily diet. But this was only possible while maintaining ecosystems similar to those that existed ancestrally. As these were transformed, the repercussions were felt in the food traditions, as the remnant forests were increasingly remote, the soils overexploited by livestock, and the natural diversity of native plants reduced by Green Revolution practices, such as the use of herbicides to eliminate so-called weeds. Local resident Nelly Vargas doesn’t mince words: “When the great technology came, everything went to hell!”

Traditional Food Plants: Once Savored, Now Neglected

The plants of the Puriscal food tradition currently underutilized can be placed in three general categories: (a) wild plants collected in the forest or brush; (b) plants commonly grown for other uses but used to supplement the diet; and (c) plants grown for food, a portion of whose edible parts go unused because their uses have been forgotten.

Among the wild plants collected in the forest are tacaco (Sechium tacaco), siplina, or Pacaya palm (Chamaedorea tepejilote); estococa, or Panama hat plant (Carludovica palmata); surtuba (Geonoma sp.); and suara, or wild papaya (Carica papaya). Among the plants found in the brush are coyol, or spiny palm (Acrocomia aculeata); ortiga, or nettle (Urera baccifera); zorrillo (Cestrum racemosum); and verdolaga, or purslane (Portulaca oleracea). Those that come from the forest are especially threatened due to the destruction of their habitat.

Chayote

Chayote. Photo: Hillary H., 2007

Agustín Chavarría, an older member of the Puriscal community, pinpoints a basic factor that encourages erosion of traditional food knowledge: the lure of convenience. “Siplina can be found on the banks of streams, or anywhere that is humid. There are some poor vagabonds who gather them to sell at the farmers’ market. A little bundle of four sells for five hundred colones (approximately one dollar). People buy siplina instead of going to look for it themselves.”

Other underutilized plants are those that are cultivated for non-food uses but are incorporated into the local cuisine or support it indirectly. These include various species used as components of the live fences that abound in the rural landscape of Puriscal.

Still other underutilized plant parts come from plants grown for their nutritional benefits, but whose main food use obscures the potential of other edible parts. Such is the case of chayote (Sechium edule), papaya (Carica papaya), banana (Musa sp.), and yuca or cassava (Manihot esculenta). The first three are cultivated for their fruits, the last for its tuberous root. But they all have other edible parts. The quelites or tender shoots of chayotes and papayas are a delicacy in the traditional cuisine, and the leaves of papaya and yuca are also part of the food tradition being lost in Puriscal.

Casado: Costa Rica’s Signature Meal

example of a casado

An example of a casado, showing some of the usual ingredients: rice, beans, fried plantain, meat, and salad. Photo: Richie Diesterheft, 2005

The quintessential Costa Rican meal is the casado, consisting of rice and beans; some type of meat; picadillo, a hash made of some vegetable; salad; and fried plantain. This is a diverse and nutritionally balanced meal. It is from the picadillo especially that the casado provides the necessary micronutrients for a balanced and healthy diet. In picadillos the vegetables are chopped into small pieces. These vegetables, which may be leaves, tender shoots, flowers, inflorescences, fruits, stems, hearts of palm, roots, or tubers, are usually fried or sautéed and combined with some type of ground meat or broth.

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example of a picadillo

An example of a picadillo with rice. Photo: Cary Bass, 2007

This is the generic way to prepare picadillos, but it’s vital to pay attention to the traditional knowledge of those who still have experience with their preparation; otherwise, the results can be, at best, an insipid hash or a picadillo with an overly bitter flavor. At worst, the picadillo can even provoke a toxic reaction unless the necessary precautions are taken in its preparation to eliminate indigestible or poisonous components. “You cut the tender flowers,” explains Johnny Alpízar, an experienced gatherer. “You have to cut off the little head of the flower, because that is poisonous. Only the petals of the flower are what you eat. The leaves are very poisonous. Our grandfathers used to boil the leaves to kill field rats when they would come to eat the grains of maize planted in the fields.

Displacement and Replacement: Threats to the Tradition

With the arrival of Spaniards, and subsequent population growth, introduction of exotic crops and promotion of Green Revolution practices, the agricultural frontier in Puriscal was expanded at the expense of the native forest. Then livestock expansion accelerated deforestation and started seriously degrading the land, in addition to concentrating ownership in fewer and fewer hands. The remaining peasant farmers were forced to intensify their production systems on smaller plots, making them increasingly more susceptible to degradation through the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. All this seriously compromised the recovery of the forests. This is the first threat against the sustainability of certain forest plants, such as the estococa and the siplina, that play a major role in the peasant and Indigenous food tradition of Puriscal.

The second threat is the disappearance of the peasant sector. The concentration of land in fewer hands, coupled with state policies that favor large monoculture farms mainly for export, displaces large numbers of peasants and, with them, many aspects of their food traditions.

The third major threat has to do with the dominance of the global market over everyday life, which makes capitalist logic a creed, one favoring money, consumption, speed, and packing more activity into available time. It is easier to buy canned or ready-made meals in supermarkets, or go to fast-food restaurants, so as to return quickly to work than it is to collect food from the garden or brush to bring home to prepare. Time, it seems, must be used for more lucrative initiatives.

Cultivating Respect: Proposals to Revitalize the Tradition

Despite trends over the last five decades that have degraded the land, displaced peasant production, and eroded their knowledge systems, including their food traditions, there are signs of possible recovery of the land, the family farm, and local knowledge. The recently created Costa Rican Institute of Rural Development (INDER) has as its goal the sustained improvement of the quality of life of rural territories according to their cultural identities. The perspective that guides INDER seeks to bring together consideration of the sustainability of the land and the well-being of the people, including respect for their livelihoods and local knowledge systems.

It is easier to buy canned or ready-made meals than to collect food from the garden or brush to bring home to prepare.

For the revitalization of the threatened food traditions of Puriscal, major structural changes are required, such as a readjustment in the distribution of land or in state policies, so that they favor Indigenous and peasant agricultural production. Also, specific activities might trigger revitalization, such as agro-ecotourism following routes focused on traditional cuisines, food festivals, official recognition of Indigenous contributions to the agro-alimentary traditions of the area, and intergenerational exchange events, among others. Above all, it’s fundamental to recognize how safeguarding peasant lifeways and revitalizing their food traditions leads to improved well-being and environmental sustainability. Each reinforces the other in a beneficial cycle.

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Felipe Montoya is an environmental anthropologist with many years of work with Indigenous and peasant communities in Costa Rica. He’s a professor at the School of Anthropology in the University of Costa Rica and at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, Toronto. He also grows coffee and cacao.


Further Reading

Alfaro, G. (2013). Platillos y bebidas tradicionales del pueblo Güetar. Fundacion Etno Agroecologica SüWak de Costa Rica.

González, R. (2012). 15 alimentos subutilizados: De alto valor para Costa Rica. Retrieved from https://www.ministeriodesalud.go.cr/index.php/material-educativo/tradiciones-alimentarias-y-alimentos-sub-utilizados/2504-15-alimentos-subutilizados-de-alto-valor-para-costa-rica/file

González-Arce, R. (2008). De Flores, Brotes y Palmitos: Alimentos Olvidados. Agronomía Costarricense, 32(2), 183–192.


biocultural diversity

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