How a History of Exploitation has turned into a Sustainable Industry


Blog Post #8

Kelsey Werner

Social side of Production- Guayaki

Yerba mate has been a part of South American culture for many centuries. It is a communal ‘Drink of the Gods’ that is deeply rooted in the tradition of many people groups. The Misiones region in Argentina is one of the largest producers of yerba mate, which comes from the leaves of this medium sized tree. It was native to this area and grown small scale for consumption by the local people. However, when Europeans arrived in the Americas in the 15th century, they brought with them some drastic changes. Jesuit priests who established religions missions in the area observed the local Guarani people consuming this beverage. They learned about its nutritious and energizing properties and quickly adopted its use. The colonialists greatly increased the demand for this product. The yerba mate plant was domesticated in the 18th century and plantations were established not long after. Yerba mate turned into a lucrative business that exploited the land and the local people.


Yerba Mate Plant


Unsustainable growing practices have led to the degradation of the environment. The typical commercial way of cultivating yerba mate necessitates direct sunshine in order to grow the plants faster. Acres and acres of the rainforest have been chopped down for yerba mate and other cash crops. Inadequate soil management practices and continuous monoculture has led to soil erosion and degradation. The decreasing yields have led to even more rainforest land being cleared in order to find and use soil that has not yet been stripped of its nutrients. The already fragile rainforest ecosystem is being destroyed.


Soil Erosion in a Conventional Yerba Mate Plantation


Small-scale farmers became increasingly marginalized throughout this history. However, in response to this “small and medium-sized yerba mate farmers initiated a series of social movements in order to revitalize declining livelihoods in the 1990s. With the ten largest companies controlling 80% of yerba mate production in Misiones, small and medium-sized farmers began to organize into cooperatives. As cooperatives promoted an ethic of solidarity, integrity, and equality, combined with an institutional structure and economic power within the yerba mate market, cooperatives began to find their voice within the political economy of yerba mate” (Montagnini 62).


Yerba Mate Harvesters


Many cooperatives have been able to transform production practices into ones that help preserve the environment and empower the local people. They began to use more sustainable growing methods that do not involve destroying the rainforest. Many farmers have begun to implement shade-grown and intercropping practices. These agroforestry techniques have served to be “a useful tool to rehabilitate land degraded by intensive agriculture. Agroforestry systems (SFS) can minimize erosion, reduce or eliminate the uses of fertilizers due to increased nutrient cycling or the use of nitrogen fixing trees, reduce or eliminate the use of agrochemicals due to weed suppression and/or pest management, and provide additional income to the farmer through diversification of products” (Montagnini 63). In addition to the environmental benefits, there have also been many social benefits. These cooperatives have led to more jobs, better working conditions, and higher wages.


Shade-Grown Coffee Plants


Guayaki is an organic, fair-trade Yerba Mate company that gets its product from these local cooperatives. They focus on quality instead of quantity and ensure that the mate is grown sustainably for the environment and the local people. They partner with farmers to train, advise, and support them. They then will buy their product if the farmers agree to continue their conservation efforts. Guayaki helps promote preservation and restoration of the land and the people. It has been a positive step towards transforming an exploitative industry into a sustainable one.


Guayaki Products


Organic Yerba Mate

Montagnini, Florencia, Eibl, Beatriz I., and Barth, Sara R. (2011). Organic yerba mate: an environmentally, socially and financially suitable agroforestry system. Bois et Forets des Tropiques, 308 (2), 59-74.



How a History of Exploitation has turned into a Sustainable Industry

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