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Guayakí Yerba Mate - A Powerful Rainforest Experience

Buzz in the Press
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Buzz in the Press

Buzz in the Press

Beyond

Jay Walljasper

Published 21 May 2007

A new wave of young entrepreneurs is using our passion for healthy lifestyles as a way of promoting global economic and social justice

Our small boat bobs along the unimaginably wide Amazon River, then heads up a fast-flowing tributary into the heart of the rainforest. Monkeys scamper in the trees above us as the motorboat chugs more and more slowly until the stream becomes too narrow to travel. This is where José Luiz de Oliveira and his 17-year-old son, Alex, live on a small farmstead alive with bird calls. Piglets frolic in the cool mud below the dock, while ducks march in formation.

The de Oliveiras live as people have for centuries - drawing their daily meals and livelihood from the land, the river and the livestock. But the tiny house has no electricity, no telephone, no fans, no mosquito screens in the windows.

Is it possible to bring the de Oliveiras some of the advantages of modern life - for example, schools and shoes for Alex - without in the pro cess destroying valuable things such as the Amazon rainforest itself, crucial to us all as a source of ecological balance and new medicines?

José invites us to sit under the palm-thatched shelter at the end of their dock. For them it's a welcome break from working in the heat as well as an opportunity to show off baskets of freshly picked açaí, which they gathered from the tops of palm trees surrounding their home.

Açaí - a fruit slightly larger than a blueberry with a similar colour - is our reason for coming up the river. It has recently been discovered outside the rainforest as a "superfood" - a nutritious bundle of amino acids, fibre, essential fatty acids and more of the highly coveted antioxidants than either red wine or blueberries. People often report feeling a surge of energy after eating it - I certainly did when gobbling some after a long day on the river without lunch. Now that açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) products are beginning to appear in health-food shops around the world, the berry offers hope that development in the Amazon can be more than a choice between environmental ruin and continuing poverty.

My boat mate, Travis Baumgardner, a 31-year-old Texan working for a US food company, believes açaí will prove to the people of the Amazon, in cold cash, that it is more lucrative to leave the rainforest standing than to chop it down to raise cattle or grow soybeans.

His company, Sambazon, is part of a new wave of entrepreneurial companies promoting ecological restoration and economic justice as an integral part of their business - a concept known as "market-driven conservation". Such firms hope to push the natural foods industry "beyond organic". Rather than simply rejecting dubious practices such as the use of chemical pesticides and genetic modification, they want to create products that make a contribution to the environment and local communities.

Sambazon sells açaí throughout North America, Europe and Brazil in the form of ready-to-drink smoothies, frozen packets, powder and capsules. Last November, alongside General Motors and Goldman Sachs, the company won a State Department Award for Corporate Excellence, for US businesses operating abroad. But Sambazon operates by principles quite different from those of most corporations. It purchases açaí from co-ops and growers at prices higher than those paid by the usual brokers and it pays workers at its own fruit-processing plant in Macapá, near the mouth of the Amazon, three times the local wage. The firm also helps farmers become certified as organic (expensive, and complicated for people not used to paperwork).

Sambazon's founder Ryan Black, 32, a former professional US football player who first encountered açaí on an off-season surfing trip to Brazil, sees market-driven conservation as the next logical step for the booming organics in dustry. "We want to give something back as part of the production process."

He believes this can help bring democracy to the market place. "It means giving people what they want - a chance to vote with their dollars. People can become policy-makers, spending their money on the future they want to see."

That's an ambitious mission, but one winning the support of respected figures in the fields of ecology and business. Meindert Brouwer - a consultant working with the WWF and Hivos, the Dutch sustainable-development institute - says: "Sambazon is doing a great job. The açaí is harvested in an ecologically sound way. These guys are quite young, and are an example of young entrepreneurs who are doing things differently. They represent a new generation of business."

Brouwer predicts that the emerging movement will become influential because it fits directly with a number of other business trends he observes, including a growing emphasis on transparency throughout the international business world; mounting interest in social responsibility; consumer demand for authenticity in products that we all use; and increasing concern among corporate leaders about diminishing natural resources.

Gourmet ice cream

Jan Oosterwijk, who brought the Body Shop and Ben & Jerry's to the Netherlands and other countries in western Europe, is another champion of "market-driven conservation". He's an investor in Sambazon and is considering putting capital into Guayakí, which he believes has gone the furthest in creating a new paradigm for organic businesses.

Guayakí markets maté, a tea-like drink from South America made from the yerba plant, which is grown in large fields in the usual manner of industrial agriculture. But yerba maté can also be grown in the shade, like coffee, and Guayakí pays a premium price for organic yerba cultivated in the rainforest. The company offers growers a better deal for preserving their trees than they could get cutting them down to make way for cattle, lumber or conventional yerba.

Guayakí is pushing the frontiers of organic agriculture with one project that supports farmers planting native rainforest trees in the middle of their yerba fields. Rather than just avoiding unsustainable farming methods, notes Oosterwijk, the company is pioneering ways to reverse environmental destruction.

"They show how business can be more of a force of restoration," Oosterwijk says of both Guayakí and Sambazon. "To save wildlife spe cies. To promote fair trade for workers. To restore the earth."

Such projects "can be like an ice-breaker in frozen waters", Oosterwijk contends, "and then the big boats follow". After all, gourmet ice cream, sustainable outdoor wear and natural body care products - all huge markets now - were seen as niche products when socially responsible firms such as Ben & Jerry's, Patagonia, the Body Shop and Aveda rose to prominence in the 1990s. Indeed, the market forecasters Min tel named Amazon superfoods (including açaí) number one in its top ten supermarket trends for 2007, with ethical products ranking second.

These initiatives are emerging at an interesting time, with the future of the organic industry and the idea of socially responsible business up for grabs. Recently, several leading natural-product companies have been snapped up by huge corporations; they include the Body Shop ('Oréal), Tom's of Maine (Colgate-Palmolive) and Green & Black's (Cadbury Schweppes).

And what happens now that huge firms such as Kellogg's and Heinz, along with retailers such as Wal-Mart, have entered the organics market?

"Industrial organics will only get bigger," says the noted US environmental author Michael Pollan. "[But] there are issues that organics don't deal with. When they were formulating organic rules, they focused on a number of concerns mostly having to do with chemicals. They ignored social-welfare issues, they ignored labour; they didn't insist on animal welfare. There are many issues, like energy use. It's not clear, for instance, that organic production by itself will make any difference on global warming."

Greg Steltenpohl founded the juice company Odwalla in 1980 with a simple aim: to promote good health by offering a tasty alternative to sugary soft drinks. He succeeded at that, in part because his company was taken over in 2001 by Coca-Cola, which has access to nearly every corner shop and convenience store around the world.

"In the past, organic and natural foods were about personal health," says Steltenpohl, "which is why they have become mainstream today. And that's very important. But it's impossible to separate the organic movement from environmental and social-justice issues. The idea now is to make the whole process of what you do the thing that does good in the world."

Guayakí was founded by Alex Pryor and David Karr, two students at California Polytechnic State University, in 1996. Pryor is a native of Argentina, where yerba maté outsells coffee seven to one, and he brought a big supply with him to school. While delivering a caffeine boost, maté contains far more nutrients than coffee or tea, which many drinkers (including me) report leaves them with a smoother feeling. Pryor's friends at college all started drinking maté during finals week, surprised at how they could study all night without the usual coffee jag. That convinced Pryor to undertake a class project, marketing maté around campus, and things just took off from there. He soon invited Karr, his best friend and confirmed maté fanatic, to join him in introducing the drink to North Americans.

Pryor is now back in Buenos Aires, running Guayakí's South American operation, while Karr oversees the business in North America, which sells yerba maté in tea bags, packets of loose leaf and ready-to-drink beverages. Guayakí's yerba supply comes from the Ache Guayakí indigenous people of Paraguay, who cultivate the crop beneath trees in their rainforest preserve, as well as from Argentinian farmers who are preserving or reforesting endangered subtropical rainforests and a Brazilian farmers' co-op that harvests one of the remaining stands of wild yerba.

"We want to be a bridge between consumers looking for health products and growers who want to take care of the earth," Pryor tells me, as we finish lunch in the garden that separates his home from Guayakí's office.

His English is quite good, but Pryor looks concerned, as if he hasn't made his point as forcefully as he would like. He jumps up and hurries into his office, bringing back a picture from the wall, which he hands to me. It's a photograph of a forest. I look up at him, a bit perplexed. "I went up in a plane to get this picture," he tells me. "It's one of our yerba maté fields in Paraguay."

It's a steamy spring day in Iguazú National Park, one of the last remnants of rainforest in north-eastern Argentina. Less than 10 per cent of the original subtropical Atlantic Forest in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil still stands. The rest has been chopped down for timber and agriculture, including plantations growing yerba for maté, which Argentinians drink all day long.

Just outside the park boundaries, Alfonso and Gladys Werle give me a tour of their yerba fields, which look noticeably different from those I stopped to inspect along the highway a few miles away. The leaves are greener, which Alfonso says is because he farms organically - still a rarity in Argentina. He also claims that organic maté tastes sweeter because it contains more of the vitamins, minerals and amino acids that gently balance the drink's caffeine kick.

But the most striking difference here is the trees: 14 different varieties such as cancharana and lapacho, all native to the Atlantic Forest, that Alfonso and Gladys have painstakingly planted throughout their fields. Their dream, and the dream of Guayakí, which buys their crop, is that in a few years this field will become a natural extension of the park's rainforest, while still producing top-quality maté.

The Werles' farm already serves as an im portant wildlife corridor, allowing jaguars and other threatened species to move freely between Iguazú and another national park in nearby Brazil. Alfonso, Gladys and Guayakí hope this land - which also grows organic bananas, lemons and pineapples, and rings with the sound of birds, cows, pigs, chickens, dogs and children - will become a showcase, proving that the Atlantic rainforest can be restored while offering farmers a secure livelihood and providing the world with ample food.

Alfonso suddenly strides into the middle of the field to examine one of the trees he and Gladys planted. He looks at it intently and then turns back towards us with a smile. "This is redesigning agriculture," he shouts.