How much love is in your yerba?

You know what they say about homemade food and that you can tell how much love has gone into it by the taste? Well, the same goes for yerba mate. Mass-produced yerba mate is nothing compared to yerba mate produced in the traditional way, which involves time, love and care.

There are several issues here. Firstly, the mass-producers of yerba mate who dominate the market have introduced new technology to speed up the traditional process with a drying process of 70-80 days in place of 1 to 1.5 years. Obviously a faster turnaround time is better for business, but there is an obvious impact on taste and quality; “It’s not the same, but the market adapts,” says Raul from Guayaki. Used to the mass-produced yerba, Rosamonte, I notice there is a lot less powder and a richer sweeter flavour in the fair trade brands that I sample, Guayaki, Titrayju and Kraus.

So when there are so many actors out there who value the integrity of the product, why  is it not quality that invariably makes it to the shelves?

Miguel from the Cooperative Río Paraná who produce the yerba mate Titrayju sheds some light on the complexities within the industry: “The government gives out 6 month credits to assist families and small local producers in the production of the yerba mate. The reality is, that most of these families have nothing to begin with and therefore need the finance to get started.” Transforming the green leaves to the dry yerba that you find in the supermarkets is an elaborate and time-consuming process. To produce a good yerba mate crop, beyond the harvest and initial rapid roasting process the dried leaves must be left between a year and a year and a half in storage vessels, so obviously after 6 months a small local producer has very little to show for the 6-month credit taken out; an unfinished product.

Unfortunately, the families are required under the finance terms to start repaying after 6 months and when the employed officials come for repayment, the families are often forced to sell the government the yerba crop below the wholesale or fair value of a properly dried product, who then resell this to the dominant industry players. This low-quality yerba, arbitrarily subject to a much shorter drying period, is purportedly mixed with some of the higher-quality yerba produced by the market-leaders and then distributed. Well, so I am told. Effectively the government act as an intermediary between these local producers and the leading brands. “Given all this, one would think that the government would have their own body to produce and commercialize the yerba mate,” said Miguel, but it appears that this body does not yet exist.

The short-term government credits would not be such a problem if there were other accessible forms of micro-finance available to small local producers, but I am informed that there aren’t. When I ask Miguel what he thinks would change the nature of the industry, it is this, a system of rotating credits. Apparently, while there is no shortage of elaborately worded proposals, paperwork and promises are quite a different reality to implementation.

The cooperative behind Titrayju work with around 40 small producers providing them with technical and mechanical assistance. They aim to pay each producer the fair trade price set by the National Instutute of the Yerba Mate (INYM), which is set at 2.10 pesos per kilo of green leaf (which translates to around 1/3 kilo of dry yerba mate). The price reflects the real cost of production and industralization of the product and is set to ensure the sustainability of the yerba mate sector, with particular regard to the rural workers and small producers.

There is definitely a question of survival for many of these local producers and the tangible consequences of a hard rural life can be seen in various areas: the low levels of literacy in the region (Miguel estimates that over 50% of adults over 40 are illiterate and below this age bracket, around 25%), the existence of children working in the plantations, the acceptance of precarious working conditions and class differentiation in regards to the tariferos who harvest the yerba. Locals tell me the tariferos fall right at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Owing to the informal, laboursome and lonely nature of the work coupled with the long seasonal hours, issues of alcoholism and social seperation often arise. “Who looks after this sector of society who lack economic security and a formal place in society once their bodies are no longer capable of working?” asks Hugo Moreno from the Office of Tourism in Andresito, Misiones, asserting that there ought to be an NGO “los tariferos para siempre” (tariferos forever) to protect this margionalized group.

As previously mentioned, the production of yerba mate is an elaborate process and given the obstacles to the survival of a small fair trade orientated company like Titrayju, Miguel and his team are working ferverously to improve the conciousness and competitiveness of the brand by introducing new innovative products, such as soft brown sugar, mandioca flour and organic pork.

Thankfully, there are other praiseworthy bodies, such as La Fundación Agroecologica, with similar objectives. This particular organization was set up by the founder of Guayaki, Alex Pryor, and is actively involved in initiatives to improve the quality of life of the rural population in Misiones. This includes education, research, economic development and technical assistance and finance for small producers. They are currently fighting to improve the security and working conditions of tariferos.

In reality, efforts to improve the living and working conditions of local producers and families in the region need to extend beyond the production of yerba mate to the consumers, as it extremely difficult for small local producers to compete with the prices of the dominating players (such as Las Marias who are representated by the Taragui and Unión brands). Selling a fair trade priced product is difficult when conciousness of fair trade issues is relatively low in the dominant consumer market in Argentina and a large percentage of this local consumer market would find it difficult to pay more for their annual supply. However, hopefully conciousness grows, as a few pesos each could go a long way towards the viability of the small fair trade brands that represent a struggling rural population. Considering everything that mate represents, togetherness, community and friendship, it is definitely something worth fighting for.

By Sarah Wattie. Sarah works for The Argentine Experience.

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