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Guayakí Yerba Mate - A Powerful Rainforest Experience

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The Story of Yerba Mate
From The Herb Quarterly Summer 1999

When the adventurer Sebastian Gaboto sailed up the Paraná river in 1526, he believed that at the fountainhead of its brutal waters he would find Eldorado, the fabled land of silver and gold that drove the ambitions of early European explorers. Gaboto was certain the inexhaustible cache of precious metals would transform all of the lands down river (in the area now occupied by Paraguay) into the richest and most powerful region in South America.

He was wrong. But in the area Gaboto pioneered, Mother Nature hid a treasure, not aureate, but green in color, which would both reward those lands with commerce and burden them with a history of human tragedy no less appalling than that caused elsewhere by the discovery of gold. The verdant gift concealed in her bosom was a stout evergreen of the holly family known to the aborigines as Caa, but eventually christened by the Spaniards: yerba mate (Ilex Paraguariensis).

The Spaniards were disillusioned by their failure to find precious metals, and exhausted from the travails of jungle survival. A small break-off group decided to settle along the Paraná River, in an area where they found abundant food and friendly reception among the Guaraní Indians. These hospitable Native Americans were well-built, vigorous, and healthy. They seemed gifted with good character and abounding joy. Naturally the Spaniards wanted to know why. The secret, they were told, was to drink an infusion of dried leaves from the Caa bush, a gift from the spirit Tupá.

Informed about its supposed virtues and magical origins the confirmed the indisputable effect it had on their physical welfare. The surprising renewal of body and spirit brought by the native decoction but not only restored their health but inflamed their commercial instincts – and an industry was soon born. Two centuries later, the Argentine gauchos of the great Pampean plains and the effete oligarchs of Buenos Aires would share the daily habit of drinking mate with thousands of Paraguayans, Uruguayans, Brazilians, Bolivians, and people as far north as Peru. By the end of the 20th century, the Guaraní herb would be cultivated for worldwide consumption by a $400 million agricultural industry producing more than 300,000 tons of the processed plant every year.

A Vilified, and Vindicated, Brew Even though yerba mate is relatively unknown in the United States, people throughout South America, Europe, and the Middle-East have long appreciated its healthy attributes and epicurean appeal. A letter written in 1628 by the Jesuit priest Nicaolás del Techo sheds light on the health benefits being touted centuries ago. “Too many virtues are attributed to the herb,” he complained. “It acts as a soporific at the same time as it stimulates; calms the appetite at the same time it aids digestion. It restores strength, brings happiness, and cures many diseases. All I see is that those who develop the habit can’t seem to get along without it.”

Considering its mythical origin and seemingly magical properties, the early Jesuits’ mistrust of this powerful Guaraní herb was understandable. They voiced opposition to its use, deeming it a “demonic” pagan beverage given to the “tribal witches” by Tupá – none other than Lucifer himself. They forbade its consumption in their territories and decreed the worst of all punishments for those who disobeyed, excommunication.

This had a disastrous effect, because the use of mate had become so widespread that the church found itself confronting the possibility of losing almost all the faithful. In spite of the harsh decree, people continued sipping their favorite beverage. To make matters worse, a Dominican priest branded the herb an aphrodisiac. Contrary to his intentions, this caused the use of mate to spread like Viagra, until it reached a level of nearly 345 kilos per person every day!

This explosion in popularity marked, unfortunately, the beginning of a sad chapter in mate’s history. As consumption spread throughout South America, a mate gold-fever resulted in the virtual enslavement of thousands of Guaraní Indians, exploited by Spanish encomenderos (contractors) in the most brutal fashion. The Guaraní were forced to open paths through the rainforest with machete blows from the Paraguayan capital of Asunción to the heart of the mate groves in Guairá Marazón, Iraí, and Alto Uruguay. These paths were watered by the sweat and blood of thousands of aborigines, and paved with their bones. In the annals of New World exploitation no single industry brutalized its labor force more than those first encomenderos of yerba mate.

For their part, the Jesuits by now had realized the failure of their attempts to discourage mate , and began to embrace it instead. They sanitized its pagan origin by substituting Santo Tomé (Saint Thomas) for Tupá in the myth of its inception, and became so closely associated with the drink that many still know the plant as yerba missionera, the missionary herb. Happily, their change of heart helped attenuate, somewhat, the plight of the Guaraní.

-Dr Myrtha Elba Ruiz de Pagés and Fernando Pagés