A Paraguayan indigenous community's effort to produce and care for the sacred plant 'yerba mate'
Indigenous Peoples of the Ava Guaraní community grow yerba mate to be consumed as a drink, to generate income, to mitigate the impacts of climate change, and above all, to maintain their ancestral culture.
Ariel Benitez and Treli Fernández
The air is different from the city here. It is because there is a forest surrounding the community where one of Paraguay's most traditional plants, known as Yerba mate, is being grown in harmony with nature.
"For us, yerba mate is a sacred plant," explains Ariel Benítez, leader of the Ka'aty Miri San Francisco indigenous community, who sums up what this renowned plant with long, green leaves means for his culture.
Ariel had just been born when the Indigenous community settled in the middle of 600 hectares of forest and yerbales (an area where maté is plentiful), in the Capiibary district, in the department of San Pedro, located 231 kilometres from the capital city, Asunción. Replicating the ancestral techniques practised by the Guaraní peoples since before the arrival of the Spanish in the country, the Indigenous families here consume and sell the yerba.
Ancestral techniques are still applied in the community during the annual harvests to cut, smoke, toast, grind and season the leaves and branches.
"We use yerba mate for our consumption and as a natural remedy. When there are religious ceremonies, it is always present," says Ariel.
Thanks to its popularity as a healthy drink, yerba mate has become one of the community's main sources of income. In countries with Guaraní influence, such as Paraguay, drinking mate, tereré and cocido (infusions of yerba mate with hot or cold water) is part of daily life. The plant, whose scientific name is Ilex paraguariensis, is increasingly being exported to countries around the world, where it is sold mainly as an energy-boosting tea.
Caring for forests; nurturing health
"The forest is our supermarket. It has everything we need: remedies, food, wild animals, fruit...," says Ariel.
Ariel's partner, Treli Gabriela Fernández, explains that the forest is where they collect plants used in Guaraní natural medicine. It is also where they get firewood (the main source of energy for rural communities in Paraguay, for food production and other domestic and productive uses), as well as material for their handicrafts, sacred ornaments and utensils.
This is why Treli feels strongly about protecting and strengthening the remaining forest with the help of traditional practices that have been passed down the generations.
Treli and Ariel met more than a decade ago and decided to start a family. Their four children – Alexis (aged 12), Evelin (aged 10), Aldo (aged 8), and Lucía (aged 3) – are growing up in the community.
"We regret climate change because the mountains are disappearing," says Treli. "Now, the heat and wind can be extreme, but we don't feel it so much because there is still a little bit of forest left."
Now, for the first time, the community has begun growing yerba mate using seedlings. Historically, the plants were harvested in the wild, but new practices are starting to deliver results.
The PROEZA project
Members of the Ka'aty Miri San Francisco Indigenous community are beneficiaries of the "Poverty, Reforestation, Energy and Climate Change" (PROEZA) project, which is supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Green Climate Fund (GCF), and the Technical Secretariat for Economic and Social Development Planning (STP), in collaboration with eight other public institutions.
The initiative is focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and enhancing the climate resilience of rural and indigenous communities in several departments in the Eastern region of the country. Income generation, reforestation, and renewable energy generation are among the initiative's many social, environmental and economic benefits.
Women and family food
In the Ka'aty Miri San Francisco community, Indigenous women and men share agricultural tasks. They grow beans, sweet potatoes, manioc and maize, mainly for family consumption, and preserve genetic diversity by conserving seeds.
One of the women's main roles is to be in charge of the family diet. They say that the most challenging times are those when not enough food is produced, in certain cycles of the year or because of the impact of the weather.
"Mothers feel more of the burden if there is no food," says Treli.
Responding to this need, the PROEZA project promotes food production for household consumption, and has seen positive results in indigenous communities.
A step that goes beyond production value
Since the implementation of PROEZA, a total of 1 540 seedlings have been planted in 14 family plots in the Ka'aty Miri San Francisco community in combination with native trees such as yvyra pytã, kurupa'y, urunde'ymi and guajayvi.
"They are adapting and growing very well. You can tell that they are in a land that is familiar to them," says Ariel.
Much remains to be done, but the PROEZA project is starting to have a positive impact on communities. The Ka'aty Miri San Francisco Indigenous community's success with yerba mate shows how food and medicine production, combined with ancestral knowledge can go hand in hand with nature.
The PROEZA project