1 Nov 2019

How a shade-grown traditional tea is protecting Paraguay’s forests

In San Rafael National Park, conservationists and local people are transforming a ‘paper park’ into community-owned forest surrounded by shade-grown yerba mate agroforestry. This new business venture is set to become self-sustaining, ensuring a bright future for forest and people alike.

Just 7% of the original Atlantic forest remains. Pictured: San Rafael © Mily Corleone
Just 7% of the original Atlantic forest remains. Pictured: San Rafael © Mily Corleone
By Evelyn Brítez, Nonie Coulthard & Nathalia Aguilar

This project is part of our Forest Landscape Sustainability Accelerator initiative


It’s a common scene in Paraguay: a group of friends chatting, one holding a cup three-quarters-full of dried leaves (for the perfect strength), taking a few sips from a metal straw, savouring the taste of the herbal infusion, refilling with hot water, and passing it on. Yerba mate (pronounced matt-ay) is as culturally entrenched in Paraguayan culture as tea is to the English. Its leaves are part of Paraguayan families’ basic household basket, used to make hot mate, or cold tereré, and are part of several rituals of indigenous Guaraní communities, who first cultivated it centuries ago.

A cup of any caffeinated drink can spark great conversation and ideas, and in this case a cup of shade-grown yerba mate has launched a ground-breaking social and environmental ownership model in Paraguay – one that is helping protect some of the country’s most threatened forest.

A traditional yerba mate preparation © Davide Ragusa / Unsplash

San Rafael National Park is one of the biggest remnants of Atlantic Forest in Paraguay, stretching across 72,000 hectares. But despite being granted National Park status way back in 1992, it remains a ‘paper park’ today (the government only provides two rangers for the entire area) and it is part of just 7% of the original Atlantic Forest cover left in the region. Most of the park’s surroundings are occupied by private landowners dedicated to conventional agriculture and cattle ranching, with soybean as the most important crop. Alongside them, smallholder farmers and Guarani indigenous communities live in vulnerable conditions in and around the park, drawing on the land’s natural resources in a way that cannot be sustained in the long term. As well as farms encroaching upon the forest edges, illegal wood extraction and ‘hidden’ illegal marijuana plantations are degrading the inside.

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In a ground-breaking land-purchase initiative, Guyra Paraguay (BirdLife Partner) bought a 7,000 hectare core forest area, co-owned with the indigenous community. These communities and other smallholders around the reserve grow yerba mate in a 'buffer zone' around the forest edge. Guyra Paraguay is showing that a yerba mate agroforestry system, grown in the shade of native forest trees (as the plant had originally evolved to do before the emergence of intensive full sun plantations), can provide habitat to conserve Atlantic Forest wildlife, protect soil and watercourses and store carbon, all while providing a sustainable income for local communities – and better tasting mate.

So far, a total of 45 producers from four farmer communities and one indigenous community have planted 48 hectares of shade-grown yerba mate. The crop has the capacity to expand in the area, generating a fair and differentiated price that represents significant annual income for the families.

Felix Caparro, member of the indigenous community, planting yerba mate © Daniel Espínola Jara

How did the success start? With a cup of yerba mate, of course. The commitment and dedication of the producers has been crucial, including people like campesino leader Eger Báez (better known as Lalo), whose exceptional enthusiasm and responsibility is sparking new ideas in Oga Ita. Usually, a mate in his house kicks off most of Guyra’s training workshops, where they teach agroforestry management, financial management, environmental awareness and fair trade.

Local people are key to this initiative. All the project producers rely on the shade-grown yerba mate, not only for the benefit of their families, but also for the protection of their home, the forest. Take, for example, Urpiano Azuaga and Ramona López, who work together to achieve these goals with their crop, supporting each other in planting trees, attending all the training workshops, and recording all activities carried out in the yerba mate plots. Many villagers strive to promote the importance of recognising the efforts of men and women equally, even when their duties differ according to traditional gender roles.

In 2017, Guaraní leaders Eusebio and Felix Chaparro attended the South American Yerba Mate Congress in Brazil. This awoke great enthusiasm among all of the participants, who recognised the effort and dreams of a better future for this community.

With yerba mate popping up as a key ingredient in natural energy drinks in Europe and North America, demand is growing fast, and the next step is marketing forest-friendly yerba mate for commercial success. This year’s yield was particularly successful, with 15 families harvesting 14,000 kilograms of yerba mate. For the first time, the product was harvested completely under organic and fair trade standards, opening up great exciting opportunities to market the crop as a premium product. Going forward, this certification will enable 45 producers to manage 100 hectares of land without artificial chemicals, and sell their product for a premium price.

 Guyra Paraguay is a permanent presence at the site, offering their support to farmers and monitoring the biodiversity of the area. But for them, the aim is for the business to eventually become self-sustaining, run by local communities on their own.

BirdLife’s Forest Landscape Sustainability Accelerator helps local Partners to attract long-lasting investments and explore forest-friendly business opportunities that will safeguard the whole landscape for decades to come.