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The history of Yerba Mate

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

Travel with us into the past of our dearest Yerba Mate, who has been on earth for thousands of years. We will try to tell you more about his story.

Mate's biotope

The framework of this trip is located in one of the jewels of nature, the second largest biodiversity of the South American continent: the tropical jungle Paranaense, which is an extension of the Amazon rainforest. It is located at the crossroads of three countries: Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The Iguazu waterfalls, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world, are located there.

Today, the Paranaense jungle is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. The area of tropical forest has been reduced by 54,000 square kilometers, reducing it more than 20 times compared to the previous century. Due to large-scale logging and hunting, only 10% of its territory is protected. (1)

This jungle is home to the mate tree, also known botanically as Ilex Paraguariensis. This tree can grow to over 16 meters high in its natural state. It grows mainly in the understorey and in the middle stratum of the mountains (from 400 meters above sea level). The maté tree requires tropical temperatures and high ambient humidity, as well as heavy rainfall of around 2,000 mm per year, especially during flowering. The optimum temperature is 20°C on average, although it can withstand light frost. The red soils, with a high iron content, and the subtropical climate without a dry season are ideal for its development. (2)


The discovery of green energy

The káingangs (meaning man of the woods) belong to the Paleolithic language group. They are the first consumers of yerba mate, and have been for millennia. They are hunters and gatherers who live in communities. These tribes gather the leaves of the yerba mate in the wild and thread them in a thread that they tie around their waists and then chew them throughout the day. Yerba mate is their main source of food.

The indigenous Guaraní peoples arrived in this region around the 11th century via the Amazon River. They did not know the yerba mate until then. There is every reason to believe that the káingangs played a role in the discovery of the mate tree for the Guarani. The káingangs did not process the leaves, but ate them fresh. (3) However, the guaraníes invented today's method of consumption, namely the infusion of the leaves in a gourd and the use of a hollowed out cane as a filter called "bombilla". They knew how to locate and harvest the most fertile trees.


Mate during the Spanish colonization

In the 16th century, the Spanish colonizers were the first to come into contact with the Guaraní tribes. It was they who popularized the name "Guarani", which finds its etymology in the indigenous word "guariní" meaning precisely "war" or "at war"(4). Europeans were not familiar with this type of drink, being more used to drinking alcohol. When they saw the natives drinking mate, they considered it a vice. (5)*

At the beginning of the conquest, the Spanish crown entrusted the responsibility for the Paraguayan region to the Jesuits. (5) Shortly after founding the city of Asuncion in 1541, the Spaniards realized that the maté trade could provide income for the crown. The yerba mate was used as currency. An exploitation of the local tribes began. Indeed the culture of yerba mate was not without violence. Many families were torn apart as their members were sent far away to yerba mate cultivation.

The Jesuits then made their entry and began to defend the interests of the Guaranis. They created an institution adapted to the local specificities and took the Guarani under their guardianship (juridical, religious and economic). The Jesuit missions turned their attention to the production of yerba maté and later to its cultivation in orchards as a means of subsistence. They observed that the toucans fed on the yerba mate berries and that the process of digestion cleaned the berry. Inspired by this process of digestion they developed a more efficient technique for growing mate.

The secret of the Jesuits was the following: "To grow yerba from the seed, the freshly picked berries were first washed in several baths of clean water. This process released a viscous foam. Then the seeds could be dried and planted". (6) They jealously guarded their secret until they were expelled from South America in 1767.

The production of yerba mate declined at the end of the 18th century due to disastrous management by the colonial authorities.


The influence of Brazil

During the Triple Alliance War (1865-1870), mate played a decisive role in the fight against hunger and fatigue. Brazilian General Francisco de Rocha Callado wrote: "I witnessed for a period of 22 days that our army was almost exclusively fed on mate." (7) The war brought about a change in production such that at the end of the 19th century Brazil became the main producer of yerba mate.

At that time, in Europe, yerba mate was still very little known. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the consumption of mate was frowned upon by the first colonizers. Secondly, both weather and soil conditions made it impossible to grow yerba mate in our regions.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Brazil concentrated on coffee production to the detriment of mate. Argentina then became the world's leading producer and consumer. The Argentinean government implemented a strategy to develop maté growing industries, which led to an influx of people to the North-East (Misiones, Corrientes). The new European migrations brought more efficient agricultural techniques..


Le 21st century

The National Institution of Argentine Yerba Maté was created in 2002, in the midst of a deep economic crisis. And on July 19, 2002, the first formal meeting of the Board of Directors took place with the aim of instituting a single yerba mate award. (8)

Today, the yerba mate trade is growing at an all-time high. It is exported to about 50 countries. Syria is the leading importer of Argentine maté in the world, with a market share of more than 50%. It is here that the historic journey is provisionally coming to an end. The next stage of this journey will take you to the faraway lands of Syria...





3. «Historia del Mate (Ilex paraguariensis): Kaingang, los primeros consumidores» 4. Ver nuevo diccionario español-guaraní/guaraní-español, autor Antonio Ortiz Mayans, ed. eudeba 1980

5. Dobrizhoffer, Martin. 1822. An account of the Abipones, An equestrian people of Paraguay, in three volumes.

6. Comparative Studies in Society and History 2010; 52(1): 6-36.; Albes, 1916 :4

Stimulating Consumption: Yerba Mate myths, markets and meanings from conquest to present. Christine Folch 7. Quoted in Albes 1916. Martins, Ramorio and Alberto De Abreu Filho. O livro do mate. Sao Paulo e Rio: Weizflog Irmaos.


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