23 Sep 2016

Fancy a mate? Only if shade grown

Vinaceous Amazon © Vagmak/Flickr
Vinaceous Amazon © Vagmak/Flickr
By Louise Jasper
Organic yerba mate receives a healthy infusion from Darwin Initiative grants scheme. Guyra Paraguay (BirdLife in Paraguay) and its local partners awarded more than £300,000 to protect Paraguay’s Atlantic Forest through their shade grown yerba mate project.
When you think about plantations, several images may spring to mind. Rows of uniform trees stretching as far as the eye can see, scorched earth and withered weeds crunching beneath your feet as you wonder what chemical cocktail has been sprayed there. But visit a shade grown yerba mate (pronounced yer-bah mah-tay) plantation in Paraguay and you’ll have to throw your preconceptions out the window. Here, rain drips from the forest canopy above, unseen birds and frogs call from the undergrowth and indigenous people harvest yerba leaves according to tradition dating back centuries.
This is the agricultural model that Guyra Paraguay, in a multi-layered partnership with indigenous Mbya Guarani people, campesinos (rural people), private sector, government and civil society, is keen to recreate in the globally important San Rafael Reserve in south-east Paraguay. The reserve protects over 72,000 ha of Atlantic Forest, a biodiversity hotspot and Endemic Bird Area (EBA), containing more Critically Endangered endemic bird species than any other neotropical region. In fact, San Rafael is the largest and highest priority area of Atlantic Forest in the country, home to Jaguar, Brazilian Tapir and 400 species of birds. The reserve also falls within the indigenous people’s ancestral domain, with 600 Mbya Guarani people living in 22 communities.

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These communities are extremely isolated: most people live in severe poverty, lacking basic health, education and sanitation services. Without technical skills or access to markets, they rely on subsistence and cash-crop agriculture that is ultimately inadequate for basic needs, leading to food insecurity and child malnutrition. The Mbya Guarani depend heavily on native forest resources, but poverty forces them, as well as campesinos from the surrounding area, to clear more Atlantic Forest for agriculture. Despite the ratification of a “zero deforestation” law in 2006, effective enforcement over such a large area is difficult. A market-driven solution to provide alternative livelihoods is therefore crucial if the remaining forest is to be saved.
Yerba mate Ilex paraguariensis is a South American tree related to the familiar European Holly Ilex aquifolium. It is used to make mate, a hot beverage traditionally consumed in central and southern regions of South America. A shade grown yerba producer, Guayaki says proudly that it “combines the strength of coffee with the health benefits of tea and the euphoria of chocolate”. It is usually grown in full sun plantations, but there is growing demand for shade grown, organic yerba for export to foreign markets.
Using the Darwin Initiative funds, the partnership will create 50 ha of organic shade grown yerba and develop guaranteed international markets, providing communities with sustainable alternative employment. The proceeds from sales will be distributed to communities for much needed development projects. Evidence from monitoring, research and grassroots will also help to inform government good practice policies on equitable conservation of Atlantic Forests using the shade grown yerba model. So next time you fancy an invigorating cup of mate, reach for shade grown!