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A traditional herb stimulates new markets.

ARGENTINE PRESIDENT Carlos Menem drinks it. So does nine-year-old Julian Mendez of San Ignacio in the province of Misiones, not to mention businessman Guillermo Rojas of Asuncion, nearly the entire population of Uruguay, and millions more throughout Latin America and the Arab world.

The unusual beverage everyone is imbibing is yerba mate, a bitter but healthful decoction born out of the semi-tropical lowlands of South America. First consumed by the Guarani Indians of Paraguay, commercialized by seventeenth century Jesuit missionaries and utilized two centuries later by gauchos in the region's vast pampas, yerba mate is today a $350 million industry employing more than 400,000 people in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

"The first plantations date from the Jesuits," says Angel Rogosinski, controller of Yerba Mate Rosamonte in the town of Apostoles, which bills itself the yerba mate capital of the world. "The Jesuits abandoned the land and the industry was not reactivated until 80 years later," continues Rogosinski. Yerba mate shrubs are scattered among the impossing Jesuit ruins at San Ignacio Mini, not far from Apostoles. A sign in the small museum there attests to the importance of mate cultivation between 1609, the year the Jesuits first arrived, and 1767, when they were finally expelled by King Charles III of Spain: "They have groves of trees called 'yerba of Paraguay' which are like large orange trees, planted like olive orchards along the edges of the towns. The cultivation of yerba mate requires skill and hard work, since the plants are difficult to sow and take care of. It is estimated that in the seven towns there are some 200,000 trees, valued at about five pesos each. Anyone who knows how hard they are to cultivate and how useful they are would realize they are worth a million pesos."

Ever since the Jesuits' departure, efforts have been made to plant yerba mate elsewhere, though scientists have concluded the finicky shrub will grow only in locations with iron-rich, acidic soil and a semi-tropical climate with at least 1,500 millimeters of rain a year. In the entire world, such conditions are found only in the Brazilian states of Santa Catalina and Rio Grande do Sul, in Paraguay's Itapua region, and in Argentina's Misiones and Corrientes provinces. "These are the only three countries in the world that produce yerba mate," said Jose Rogelio Llambi, president of Yerba Mate Asuncion S.A. and an expert on the subject.

The actual yerba is formed by three components: palo (stem), hoja (leaf) and polvo (powder), which is made in the milling process. According to Llambi, a native of Argentina who lives in Paraguay, there are more than 200 brands of mate and, as with coffee or tobacco, preferences vary from one consuming nation to the next. "Chileans, for example, like only the leaf, which is more expensive than the kind consumed in Syria, containing both palo and polvo. Paraguayans mix the leaf or the powder with ice water and call it terere," explains Llambi. Tastes differ within countries as well. In Argentina, residents of the province of Misiones drink their mate bitter, while enthusiasts in Cordoba supplement their mate with yuyus, or medicinal herbs, and natives of Buenos Aires add orange peel or sugar.

Even the container for drinking mate varies from one country to another. It is called a calabasa in Argentina and a juampa in Paraguay. In Uruguay, where the drinking of yerba mate is universal, people carry their thermos with them to ensure a steady supply of hot water. However, in all Latin American countries the drink itself is carefully sipped through a silver or aluminum bombilla to avoid ingesting the particles. "It is considered bad manners to offer the first round of yerba mate to a visitor. It is customary for the owner to drink first," says Luis de Bernardi, manager of the Yerba Mate Regulatory Commission in Buenos Aires.

Until recently, Paraguay had been a bigger producer of yerba mate than Argentina, supplying most of the mate consumed by that country. Paraguay even lent its name to the plant's scientific designation, Ilex paraguariensis. However, economic changes in these two countries over the past decades have resulted in a different scenario. "Today," says Llambi, "anyone in Paraguay who has 1,000 acres of mate is a big producer." On the other hand, de Bernardi, whose office promotes overseas sales, says his country cultivates some 500,000 acres of yerba mate and produces between 220 million and 230 million kilograms annually. Around eight percent of that total is exported, mainly to Arab countries whose residents have taken a strong liking to this herbal drink. In fact, Argentina's biggest customer of yerba mate last year was Syria, which bought 5.54 million kilograms of mate valued at around $10 million. Uruguay, which boasts the highest per-capita consumption of yerba mate in the world, made the second largest purchase of 3.25 million kilograms.

Besides those two countries, other traditional buyers of Argentine mate are Chile (1.64 million kg in 1990), Lebanon (440,000 kg), the United States (224,500 kg), Israel (66,594 kg), Saudi Arabia (38,880 kg), and the United Arab Emirates (20,612 kg). "Arabs like mate. They consume 6,000 tons of it a year," says Abel Actis, manager of Establecimiento Las Marias, Argentina's largest producer. "When the immigrants who lived here returned to Syria, the only thing typical of Argentina they took back with them was yerba mate." Adds Francois J. Clemente, president of Mecana Trading S.A. in Buenos Aires, "Our company exports 700,000 to 1 million kilograms of yerba mate a year to Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Unlike other companies, we don't have a local market. We export exclusively to the Middle East." He explained, "many Arabs lived in Argentine provinces very similar to Syria--La Rioja, Catamarca, Jujuy. They learned to drink mate and kept the custom."

According to experts, the Argentine variety of Ilex paraguariensis is so prized in Syria that some inferior mate from Paraguay and Brazil is falsely labeled in Arabic to make it seem as though it comes from Argentina. Brands that have been counterfeited by Syrian packing houses include Piporen, Canaria, Jabal, Lamis, Union and Camilia. "The Arabs are particular, and always give us good business. We don't know how much more we could export to the Middle East if the product were not being falsified," remarks de Bernardi. "However, what interests us is not only the Middle East, but also the European Community. Our future intention is to export to Germany, Italy and Spain. There are Italians who have begun to drink yerba mate in bombillas, which before had been considered anti-hygeinic. We think our exports could be much bigger, because the world market is virgin. Many people don't know what yerba mate is."

In the United States, some $400,000 worth of yerba mate a year is consumed, mainly by Argentines living in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. One firm, Cawy Bottling Company of Miami, has even begun canning Materva, a carbonated drink made from yerba mate extract. In addition, more and more, yerba mate is starting to turn up at health food stores conscious of the shrub's many attributes. Indeed, mate's advantages--it calms the nerves while providing a healthy dose of vitamins, with much less caffeine than either tea or coffee--seem to compensate for the difficulties and added expense of getting it. "The gaucho lived on wheat and water, and by drinking mate," said de Bernardi. "Scientists began to study the plant and found it contained vitamins, proteins and minerals. It has a high concentration of vitamins C, B1 and B2, carbohydrates, phosphorous, iron and calcium."

Ironically, yerba mate never caught on in Spain--homeland of the Jesuit missionaries who cultivated it--though in France and Belgium, it is consumed like tea and marketed as the "elixir of the Jesuits" for its energizing properties. The shrub itself seems to be pretty energetic, too. "You plant it once and it lives forever," says Rogosinski. "It is not affected by rain or plague. We have 100-year-old plants still in production."

At the Rosamonte factory, which employs some 200 workers, Rogosinski showed how mate leaves fresh from the fields are passed rapidly over a fire for 20 to 30 seconds to remove humidity. From there, they go to the secado, a more indirect fire lasting 14 to 16 hours. The next process is known as the canchadora, where leaves are cut and packed in 50-kilogram jute sacks. There they sit for between six months and two years in a process called estacionamiento. "It is a form of aging so the leaves will be more smooth," he explained. The processed and aged mate is then sorted into prelabeled packets of 250 grams, 500 grams, 1 kilo and 2 kilos and trucked to Buenos Aires for distribution throughout the country and overseas. Currently, a 1-kilo packet in Buenos Aires costs 20,000 australes, or about US$2.00. In other factories, everything is industrialized. The system we have here employs more people," Rogosinski said, estimating Rosamonte's average production at between 500,000 and 1 million kilograms a month.

Despite efforts to market Argentine yerba mate oversees, there is still little demand for the plant outside the Middle East and southern Latin America. That is why de Bernardi's office has to protect the country's 14,000 or so yerbateros, or mate producers. "We regulate the plantations, we give quotas. There are only so many growers, and the government wants to protect them. If there are too many, the price would drop, and there aren't enough markets for expanded production."

At least one Arab businessman intends to change that. "We are going to plant the largest yerba mate field in the world," says Abdo Jamil Georges, a Syrian entrepreneur living in Punta Pora, Brazil. Over the next three years, Georges will invest some $25 million in a 24,700 acre plantation near the Paraguayan town of Pedro Juan Caballero, for the purpose of exporting soluble mate in small packets to be dissolved in water like iced tea. "It's an exotic beverage and we want to promote it throughout Mexico, Africa and the Third World," said Georges, adding that soluble mate would sell especially well in hot countries. "I think that with a little bit of promotion, it could be a success."

And that certainly would have brought happiness to the Jesuits, fathers of Latin America's most enduring beverage.

Larry Luxner is a freelance journalist based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:yerba mate 'tea' generates a multi-million industry
Author:Luxner, Larry
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:May 1, 1991
Previous Article:Building on the ruins.
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