The Ache Guayaki Project, or How Cultivation under Native Woods can Help Indigenous Communities

Man harvesting Sustainable Yerba Mate Ache Guayaki Photo
Photos: Courtesy of Guayaki.

Keeping native communities and woods untouched may seem like a beautiful idea, but it is -in most cases- an unrealistic goal.

Many communities of indigenous people want to develop and grow, and work their lands. The real question is, then, Can that happen in a truly sustainable way? Is there a way for them to get revenue without harming the environment and encountering sustainable growth (not just a few years of richness to leave burned ground behind)?

The Ache Guayaki Kue-Tuvy project in Paraguay might be a good example that this is possible. Guided by the folks of Guayaki, a company which we've talked about a few times, a group of 45 families that wanted to start laboring their lands learnt a technique to cultivate crops under native woods and found a way to get profit while maintaining vegetation and opening new business opportunities.

How did they do it? Keep reading.The Guayaki project

We've referred to Guayaki before, though briefly on their products and not so much in terms of their business philosophy. According to Alex Pryor, co-founder (along with David Karr), the company promotes, "market driven restoration."

Their model is based on fair trade purchase of organic yerba mate, but instead of just getting the product they become intimately involved with the producers and encourage the cultivation under native woods. This promotes the preservation of forests and also opens opportunities for producers to get income from other sources, such as other cultivations or environmental services.

It also encourages reforestation, as they promote the restoration of woods that have been cleared.

Of course they're not a charity, as they believe the only way for the model to work is to give profit to them and to the producers. "Everyone says 'money doesn't grow on trees', but we believe it does," says Pryor. "By restoring their woods producers can get many benefits and better income, but many of them don't know this. So we work as a bridge, teaching them and giving them alternatives."

They pay at least 30% more (and in some cases up to 50%) from what producers usually get for the product, and ask them to destine a percentage of that extra income to communitarian causes.

Of course they also provide proper conditions for all workers involved in the harvests (this should be a given, but the truth is that yerba mate workers usually work in really bad conditions), and, according to Pryor, all of Guayaki is a sustainable company, from the clothing their employees wear at stores to the trucks that transport their products.

Sustainable Yerba Mate plants Ache Guayaki Photo

Organic Yerba grown under native woods.
What does cultivation under native woods exactly mean?

The typical way of growing yerba mate in some areas of South America is clearing fertile lands to get full direct sunshine over the plants, which makes them grow faster. It's a mono-cultivation practice, which wears the soil out and reduces its productivity year after year.

Guayaki's cultivation under native woods is exactly that: yerba mate seeds are planted in fertile soils inside native woods and are grown in 'half-shadow'. The result is a better product, safe forests, and better income plus other business opportunities for the producers.

Why doesn't everyone use this method to grow yerba mate or other crops? The most obvious answer is yields: in the yerba mate case, cultivation under native woods gives 40% less product than the traditional practice. But at the same time, it has a lot to do with ignorance and cultural barriers, as the eco-alternative can reduce costs up to 20% in higher selling prices.

"It's a cultural thing," says Alex Pryor, founder of Guayaki. "In Brazil most of the yerba is grown this way, but in Argentina and Paraguay over 90% of the cultive is done the traditional way."

The Ache Guayaki Project

So how do Guayaki, native woods cultivation and an indigenous community come together?

First of all, Guayaki takes its name from the Ache Guayaki community, a group of 45 families that live in a reservation in the south of Paraguay (they pay them a royalty to use that name).

The company has been working with this group since 2003, teaching them the techniques to grow yerba mate under native woods and guiding them to develop other businesses, such as organic cotton and sesame crops.

They planted 16 hectares of yerba in their reservation and after six years, last June 4th the families woke up to find the results of this hard work.

Apart from the positive impact of encouraging a community to keep native woods intact and giving them alternatives to get revenue in a sustainable way, the project is important in cultural terms. In South America, indigenous communities are often criticized, treated as lazy and without aspirations. But, according to Pryor, this shows how much a community can accomplish when given the right direction.

"There's no doubt that all people are capable of gaining dignity and freedom, and of improving their lives. The concept of inclusive development, and the idea of putting people on the center of development projects warranties their empowerment, productivity, sustainability, equity, security and cooperation. This is evident in the Kuetuvy community of Ache Guayaki," says Pryor.

Future plans for the community include the seeding of 30 thousand more plants of yerba mate and the development of a greenhouse with 50 thousand native species to keep restoring the woods in the reservation.

Ache Guayaki community and Guayaki Founders pose after Harvest Photo

Founders of Guayaki and members of the community after the harvest.

So what do you think? Can this type of development lead to a sustainable use of forests? Share your thoughts in the comments.

For more on Guayaki or the Ache Guayaki projects, check the links below.

Reforestation projects

The Ache Guayaki Project, or How Cultivation under Native Woods can Help Indigenous Communities
Keeping native communities and woods untouched may seem like a beautiful idea, but it is -in most cases- an unrealistic goal.

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