By Archana Apte
Need to stay up late for finals? Instead of coffee, some students turn to yerba mate, a South American drink known for its caffeine content and unique taste. Quench your thirst and help make an impact by drinking Guayaki, a popular yerba mate brand and social enterprise focused on environmental and social stewardship in South America.
Guayaki began in California in 1996 by a pair of avid yerba mate drinkers. The drink is a longstanding cultural tradition in South America, and the founders wanted to introduce it to the United States while giving back to the communities the drink hails from. Today, the company sells yerba mate in bottles, cans, and the traditional gourd-and-loose-leaf format. Guayaki’s goal is to restore 200,000 acres of South American rainforest and create over 1,000 living wage jobs by 2020.
Henry Wheeler, a university outreach employee for Guayaki, was kind enough to be interviewed for this article. Wheeler markets Guayaki to colleges across the northeastern United States and manages the company’s brand ambassador program. He explained that Guayaki’s market-driven restoration model enables the company to create positive environmental and social impact.
“Our business model is based on market-driven restoration,” explained Wheeler. “We source yerba mate from indigenous tribes in the South Atlantic rainforest, but we only source from them if they are farming the land sustainably.”
Sustainably grown mate is harvested at acceptable rates from wild forest or grown under the canopy. “Mate growing within a natural forest canopy doesn’t require any pesticides since it grows in the canopy shade,” explained Wheeler. “We source from a total of 10 different communities, and we have a biodynamic farm in Paraguay, where we work very closely with the farmers to grow yerba mate at the biodynamic level, which is a step above organic farming. The farm is planned out, but they are still protecting the rainforest land.”
In addition to preserving sustainable farming methods, Guayaki helps prevent monocropping. Monocropping is the practice of planting large swaths of one crop; the endless, golden wheat fields of the central United States being one example. This strategy allows for high yields and high profit, but it causes a myriad of ecological problems and often pushes local people off of their land.
“Monocropping is one of the largest causes of deforestation of the South Atlantic rainforest,” said Wheeler. “Many local [South American] people have been put in tight spots when a large corporation says, ‘We’re only going to source from you if we can buy the land, otherwise we’ll block you from being able to sell to anyone.’” To prevent this, Guayaki pays its farmers enough money, about “2-3 times” the going rate of selling land to a large, monocropping corporation, to preserve the farmers’ sustainable ways of life. As of 2017, Guayaki has created 885 local jobs within the ten local tribes it sources mate from.
In addition to providing a living wage, Guayaki gives back in other ways. Wheeler said, “Our co-founder Alex is in Argentina overseeing all South America operations. He focuses heavily on not just earning steady income from yerba mate, but on giving back–building schools and infrastructure.” The Marrecas Guarani farm in Parana, Brazil, is one such beneficiary.
Also noteworthy is the replicability of Guayaki’s business model. “This is possible for other companies to do with other products besides yerba mate,” noted Wheeler. “Many coffee companies do similar work.” One company modeled after Guayaki, Runa, grows guayusa in the Amazon rainforest and does similar reforestation work.
Wheeler admires the company’s honest commitment to social and environmental impact. Thanks to this commitment, Guayaki became a B Corporation shortly after the certification was established. Since rainforest degradation remains a pressing environmental issue, efforts by companies like Guayaki are more important than ever. Luckily for Northeastern students, Wheeler brought Guayaki yerba mate to Wollaston’s. So you can pick up a can, power through finals, and support a good cause.