In the Misiones region of the Amazon’s Atlantic Forest (along the conjunction of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay), a treasure lies hidden beneath the canopy. It has the potential to regenerate the rainforest and empower local populations; it’s neither a mystic gem nor the fountain of youth, but a tea leaf known as yerba mate. Indigenous peoples of the region have consumed it in the form of hot or cold tea for centuries out of hollowed gourds through a straw, called una bombilla.
The mate plant naturally thrives in the understory shade, so local populations never had a history of farming it; they simply gathered leaves as needed. However, in the 17th century, Jesuit missionaries enslaved natives and established large yerba mate plantations throughout Misiones. Even after the imperialists left the region, colonialism still lingers today in the forms of continued mate monoculture and drastically depleted soils. 4 large mate companies reign over the South American market, which constitutes roughly 85% of global mate demand. These powerhouses have adopted intensive agricultural practices that heavily rely on toxic fertilizers and pesticides, while also contributing (alongside the local timber industries) to deforestation such that only 4% of the Atlantic Forest remains. In the face of such agricultural giants that can offer the lowest prices, small family farms using traditional methods struggle to succeed.
A glimmer of hope lies in the abandonment of Green Revolution-esque practices and the union of organic agroforestry with ethical, ecologically-conscious mate companies such as Guayakí. Guayakí is the largest yerba mate company in North America and sources all its products from only organic and Fair Trade-certified farmers in Misiones. Most of these family farms take advantage of mate’s love of shade and grow it in agroforestry systems, in which the plant is intercropped with trees. Not only does this aid in reforestation, but yerba mate agroforestry systems have been proven to maintain and even improve soil quality long-term as opposed to nutrient-depleting monocultural mate farms. Furthermore, farmers growing mate in agroforestry systems and without the use of pesticides and fertilizers can bolster their profits. Farmers can earn twice as much for organic-certified products than non-organic. There isn’t even much need for pesticides because the trees of agroforestry systems provide habitat for natural pest control, like birds. Growing mate in the shade as it does in the wild prevents the leaves from becoming sun-scorched, deeming it a higher quality than mate grown on plantations in the open sun. Thus, yerba mate grown in agroforestry systems offer solutions to environmental issues of deforestation and soil degradation while also empowering local farmers with opportunity for greater earnings.
Of course, no solution ever comes without trade-offs. It can be difficult for many farmers to obtain organic certification, and there still remains little demand for organic products in South America. A Guayakí representative says that many South Americans simply don’t “have that culture of paying more for something because it was produced in a certain way.” Resultantly, most of the ethically-produced mate is shipped out to the high end markets of North America. While some may deem this model still relatively imperialist, Guayakí honors mate’s roots. They pay their farmers fair wages, compensate the Guayakí tribe for the use of their name, and encourage their consumers to explore and understand the origins and traditions of yerba mate culture. Given its environmentally-conscious and small farmer-friendly practices, Guayakí can serve as a model for sustainable mate farming and perhaps for organic agroforestry altogether.