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From the secret Indian herb to the national drink of millions of people. Who popularized yerba mate tea?

2021-06-22
From the secret Indian herb to the national drink of millions of people. Who popularized yerba mate tea?

If you are interested in the history of yerba mate, you certainly know that the discoverers of its properties were the indigenous people of Paraguay from the Guarani tribe. However, it is more difficult to find information about how it has grown from a locally valued "miracle plant" into a symbol and an integral part of everyday life for millions of South Americans. Jesuit missionaries contributed greatly to this!

Jesuit reductions. A utopia, which really existed!

The natural area of occurrence of ilex paraguariensis are the territories of the Brazilian states of Rio Grande, Santa Catalina and Parana, the Argentinean province of Misiones and the eastern part of today's Paraguay. After the arrival of the Europeans, the history of these lands took a slightly different course from that of other colonies. They were not ruled like Mexico and Peru at that time, and not the conquistadors but the Jesuit missionaries became a particularly influential group. It was on their initiative that the so-called reductions, self-sufficient Indian communities organized according to the ideas of equality, cooperation and broadly understood social justice. The peaceful attitude of the monks quickly earned them the trust of the Indians. These in turn initiated them to their greatest secret; a mythical plant, the leaves of which allowed them to relieve hunger, improve concentration and give them the necessary energy. We are talking about yerba mate of course.

Jesuits quickly began to see ilex paraguariensis as not only a valuable part of the diet, but also a potential source of income. Soon the first organized plantations began to emerge. According to historical sources, the collected leaves and pieces of twigs were directly dried over the hearths. Then they were moved to makeshift warehouses, crushed with mortars, then packed in leather bags and floated down the river on wooden barges. Where did they go? Initially, the distribution was narrow, regional in nature. With time, however, when the colonists got a taste for the noble infusion for good, yerba's fame began to reach places as far away as Chile or Peruvian Lima. However, the local market remained the most important, focused in particular around the capital city of Buenos Aires and the province of Tucumán in the west.


yerba mate jesuits reductions
Ruins of jesuit reduction in Paraguay

Yerba mate. A source of caffeine and… big money!

With the improvement of cultivation techniques, yerba mate has become one of the most popular agricultural products. Although the lion's share of profits was still eaten up by the high taxes levied by the Crown, mate has become a profitable venture. It is estimated that in order to pay them off and generate a profit, each cultivating settlement had to export an average of 300-400 arroba (former mass unit; 1 arroba is around 10-12 kg) of yerba mate. However, many villages produced much more of it. This was due, inter alia, to the growing reduction population. At the peak of their development, in the 1830s, they were inhabited by about 140,000 Guarani Indians!

Unfortunately, the dissolution of the Jesuit Order in 1768 led to a gradual depopulation and, finally, the final fall of reduction. Fortunately, the habit of drinking yerba mate did not go away with the missionaries. Private enterprises took over the initiative. The massive influx of European immigrants at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries turned out to be a particular impulse for development. It is thanks to them that well-known and appreciated brands such as Amanda (created by a newcomer from Poland, Jan Szychowski) or Rosamonte were created. However, this is a slightly different story and certainly a topic for a different article ...

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