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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

Fair Is Fair

Author: Jane Hodges Young
February, 2009 Issue

Those of us who have the good fortune to live and work in the North Bay enjoy a cornucopia of wonderful things—artisan cheeses, world-class wines and a bevy of talented chefs more than capable of quelling the strongest hunger pangs. We’re blessed with a multitude of cultural opportunities and enthusiastically celebrate our artistic bent. We like our imported coffees and delicate teas, we dress in fine threads and accessorize in gold beads and silver bangles (or vice versa). All in all, we’re a fairly wealthy lot, sharing this very special slice of paradise.

And we’re lucky. While we sip our tea, swirl our wine and give in to the temptations of consumerism, millions of disadvantaged people are living in poverty, exploited by trade policies that hurt many for the benefit of the few.

In response to this injustice, there’s been a groundswell of support across the United States for fair trade practices. The movement advocates payment of a fair price for labor and sets both social and environmental standards related to the production of a wide variety of goods. And it’s gaining real momentum here in the North Bay, as more companies adopt ethical business procedures under the fair trade umbrella.

A tropical connection

Another fair trade devotee is Chris Mann, CEO of Guayaki, which imports Yerba Maté, a beverage made from the leaves and stems of a rainforest tree that grows in South America. Mann describes it as a drink with a “stronger, more stimulating profile like coffee, but made from green leaves like tea. It rivals coffee, but it’s not overwhelming and you don’t get the crash.”

Guayaki, which relocated to Sebastopol from San Luis Obispo nearly four years ago, was co-founded by David Karr of California and Alex Pryor of Argentina. The two were food science students at Cal Poly University, and Guayaki was their senior project. Pryor maintains an office in Argentina and manages the supply side of the business.

According to Mann, Guayaki works with small family farmers and pays them two to three times the going rate for their labor. For this fee, the farmers are required to manage the rainforests in a specified manner and restore it to a certain level. They also need to provide health benefits and to hire their workers legally.

“Lots of time, they prefer to get paid under the table so they can avoid paying taxes,” Mann says. “But when they do that, they usually don’t get paid minimum wage and they don’t get any benefits. So we require them to be legally hired and trained. We also provide three pairs of uniforms, which we maintain. Lots of them were working in their own clothes, which would get ripped and would have to be replaced. We also provide bus transit so they don’t have to pile into the back of a truck or hitchhike. We give them equipment—cutters, clippers, machetes and, most important, boots. We provide lunch and training. We also provide bathrooms. What we’ve noticed with the workers is that sometimes they don’t recognize what’s been missing from their lives, simply because they’re not used to the higher standards.”

The company is also working with a community of the Ache Guayaki people (from which the company derives its name) in one of the first indigenously run, sustainable preserves.

“Our company is named after the Ache Guayaki, and our partnership with them is a good example of our social justice mission,” says company co-founder Karr. “This tribe was driven from its lands and subjected to genocide in the 1970s, and it’s struggling and trying to regroup in the rainforest of Paraguay. For several years, the Ache has partnered with our company on sustainable agriculture projects. We have planted thousands of yerba mate trees below the rainforest canopy to provide them with future economic means. The inaugural harvest will be in 2009. Guayaki also has provided the initial capital to provide salaries, training, tools and technical assistance and has helped establish a yerba mate tree nursery that the community uses to supply other farms in the region. We also pay the tribe royalties for the honor of using its Guayaki Ache tribal name as a brand.”

“But we don’t want them to be solely dependent on maté, so we also have them growing sesame seeds to sell to co-ops,” Mann says. “And we’re making arrangements for them to get consulting contracts with other indigenous tribes that want to do the same. It’s amazing what you can do with a little information and a little money. And when you’re working with people who haven’t had access to benefits, and who are now being valued for who they are and the work they do, the results are astonishing. They’re passionate, and they’re so willing to learn, grow and share.”