Restoring the Ecology and Culture of the Atlantic Forest with Yerba Mate
Stretching out along the east coast of South America, spanning four countries, is an extraordinary tropical forest ecosystem. Charles Darwin, on his voyage of the HMS Beagle in 1832, overwhelmed by its magnificence wrote, “No art could depict such a stupendous scene.”
The Mata Atlantica or Atlantic Forest is one of the most ecologically diverse ecosystems on earth. It is home to 20,000 species of plants, of which over 9000 are found nowhere else. 450 different tree species have been found in just one hectare. Thousands of species of birds, mammals and amphibians, many which are endemic, make their home in Mata Atlantica.
The Atlantic Forest is still revealing its inimitable wonders; between 1990 and 2006 over a thousand new flowering plants were discovered. As recently as 1990, a new monkey species, the black-faced lion tamarin, was also discovered. Considered one of the world’s richest and most endangered forests, it has been identified in a study published in the journal Science Advances as one of the priority tropical forests around the world for conservation and restoration because of its biodiversity, climate mitigation and water security benefits.
But the Atlantic Forest is under threat. Of the original 1.3 million square kilometers, only 7 % remain. 11,000 species of plants and animals are considered threatened by a colonial legacy and the current economic system that does not value a standing forest or respect the rights of nature “to exist, persist, maintain itself and regenerate its own vital cycles, structure, functions and its evolutionary processes (Constitution of Ecuador, Article 71).”
Exploitation of this global treasure started in the 1500’s when the Portuguese landed in Brazil and began logging and exporting timber to Europe. Later deforestation accelerated in order to grow coffee, sugar cane and graze cattle exacerbating the ongoing destruction by the timber and wood pulp industries. Today monocrop GMO soybean production is a growth industry on cleared land that was once capable of supporting an astonishing diversity of life. Clearing forests for agriculture is currently one of the largest causes of deforestation.
Yerba mate is a tree native to the Atlantic Forest that can grow 50-foot tall and live for 100 years. Its small red berries reveal its membership in the holly family, but it is its caffeinated leaves that are prized for their health benefits and mental and physical stimulating effects.
But unfortunately, this native tree is being used to further contribute to deforestation. As demand for yerba mate grows, domestically and globally, agribusiness is clearing land to plant yerba mate in the sun in monocrops where the flavor quality and nutrient contents are lower, but yields and profits are higher.
Guayakí Yerba Mate (a Bioneers sponsor) has a different business plan. They call it Market Driven Regeneration™. They work with small farmers and indigenous communities sourcing forest-grown, organic, fair trade yerba mate, and restoring cleared forest land using yerba mate as the economic and ecological driver. As California’s first B Corporation, Guayakí has a triple bottom line making them accountable economically, environmentally and socially.
Vicente Romero Riveros is a Regenerative Production Technician who works for Guayakí in the Mata Atlantica in Paraguay. He describes how a triple bottom line informs his approach to agroecology, “Our farming practices consist of a series of activities under strict principles that guide us in community work, in harmony with nature, and promoting a new form of farming that values the importance of organic agriculture and sustainable production.”
Working with Indigenous Communities
One of those communities is the Aché Kuetuvy who were forcibly removed from their ancestral homeland in the subtropical humid forest of northeast Paraguay in the 1970s, but managed to return in 2000. Historically, the Aché were enslaved and victimized in a genocide campaign that brought them to near extinction.
Today, Aché teams, who work for Guayakí in the forest stewarding and harvesting shade grown yerba mate, make a “living wage” significantly higher than the average farmer in the region. Market Driven Regeneration™ is establishing the economic value of a standing forest and stemming the tide of its destruction. Equally important, this work has provided the Aché the opportunity to thrive in their traditional cultural environment and puts forest stewardship in the hands of people who, for millennia, have proven they know how to live and care for that environment in ways that that allow it “to exist, persist, maintain itself and regenerate its own vital cycles, structure, functions and its evolutionary processes.”
In a Guayakí produced video, Margarita Mbygwangi, an Aché leader and long-time partner of Guayakí, said “For me there is life in this forest. I feel a very strong energy here and developing our traditions of our wild fruit and food keeps us healthy and our grandchildren healthy as well.”
In a written interview, I asked Guillermo Garay, also a Regenerative Production Technician who works with producer communities in Paraguay, how Fair for Life, the fair trade organization that Guayakí works with, benefits those communities.
“Guayakí gives back 10% of all purchases of yerba mate to communities in the form of a fair trade premium to invest in social and/or environmental projects. These projects include improvements of community roads to facilitate access to schools and health centers, food and nutrition programs, food sovereignty, construction of schools for communities, drinking water, and more. The use of Fair Trade Premiums is decided by a fair trade committee made up of the producers themselves, where constant community dialogues lead to the best use of the funds.”
The article Green Gold: Making Money (and Fighting Deforestation) with Yerba Mate (Harvard International Review, May, 2020), in reference to criticism of neoliberalism and exotic marketing by white-owned businesses, said that critics “ignore the lengths companies like Guayakí and Mi Mate have gone to consult the indigenous communities involved, fund projects of actual interest to the community, and pay far more than market price for mate.”
Regenerative Agriculture and Agroforestry
A fundamental tenet of regenerative agriculture and agroforestry is the concept of learning from and working with nature. Guillermo Garay said, “We consider yerba mate to be our tool for conservation of these areas, and through this, keep providing benefits to maintain forests…
Yerba mate’s natural habitat is the Atlantic Forest and it was always under the shade of native tree species within an environment of high biodiversity. This means that plants in these conditions grow healthier and stronger, with less problems of [pest] plagues and diseases, which affect conventional plantations that do not have a natural balance… When you take a plant out of its natural habitat and incorporate it into a system which is not favorable for the plant, this reduces its quality and lifespan.”
Vicente Romero Riveros added that “Shade grown systems protect the soil, minimizing erosion and provide higher amounts of organic material on the ground, allowing for a permanent organic mass in decomposition. In the same way, the forest cover protects the yerba mate from the wind, maintaining humidity and biological interaction. With the production of conventional yerba in the sun, producers are looking for higher amounts of sunlight and leaf production per hectare, but in doing so are not taking care of the quality of the plants, wildlife, and biodiversity. In conventional growing of yerba mate in the sun, the plant is affected more heavily by the consequences of climate change like drought and heat.”
The Ethics of Business
When working in complex socio-ecological landscapes like the Mata Atlantica, agroecology is not only good business, it can help achieve the other two bottom lines of social benefit and ecological responsibility. Studies have shown that growing yerba mate in the forest is an effective strategy to maintain bird species diversity as well as support amphibian and reptile species richness. Guayakí’s Iguazu Agro-ecology Foundation in Argentina captured images of a jaguar never seen before in the region. Top predators like jaguars are essential to ecosystem balance and health.
In a recent interview with Ann Armbrecht, author of The Business of Botanicals: Exploring the Healing Promise of Plant Medicines in a Global Industry, I asked her if a business could be ethical while operating in an unethical economic system. Her book is her journey to find the answer. The reality is that it’s difficult. There are many pressures to compromise, cut corners and do anything you can to stay in business or, on the other end of the spectrum, extract inordinate and unethical profits at the expense of culture, community and environment.
In response, she gave this example, “Mike Brook, from Organic Herb Trading Company (OTHC) in the UK, talked about the cultural relationship they have with producer groups. OTHC doesn’t want to be the “white trader” coming in and imposing their quality control standards and values without understanding and respecting the relationship and the needs of the growers and collectors.”
Relationship is paramount to ethical conduct. Are we taking care of each other and our world? Are we in right relationship with culture, community and environment, not just our own but those of others? Can that be the guiding principle to stanch the momentum of the corporate dominance and destruction? It can be done and is being done by companies like Guayakí and others.
The Aché people have a strong community ethic of caring and sharing. Aché children have a lot of latitude to roam and play without a great deal of parental restriction. If they show up at a neighbor’s house they will be fed and loved. Almost crushed by the greed and madness of colonialism and capitalism, the Aché people once again have the opportunity to be in right livelihood with their beloved homeland by working with their cultural plant in its native environment. As Margarita Mbygwangi said, “There is life in this forest.”