The New Law of the Jungle: It takes fair trade to save a village

By Lauren Piscopo

Each morning, I pour myself a cup of organic, fairly traded tea. I think the farmers who picked my tea were paid a fair and living wage and worked in safe conditions where child labor is forbidden. But how do I know if my choice is really making a difference in the lives of workers half a world away? 

To learn more about the social, economic, and environmental benefits fair trade fosters in developing nations, I traveled to the indigenous Aché Guayakí community in Paraguay to see these practices in action. The 45 Aché families living on the Kue Tuvy Preserve comprise the last tribe of hunters and gatherers in the Atlantic rain forest. With hand-carved bows and arrows, the men hunt armadillos, pacas, and monkeys, while the women forage for palm fiber, fruit, and wild honey. The Aché share all the food gathered—as well as the responsibilities of rearing the more than 100 children—among the entire tribe. They can survive on this food but can’t afford much-needed medical care and educational resources without any income. But an opportunity to learn how to cultivate a rain forest crop—native organic yerba maté tea—and sell it for a fair market price just might save the tribe and its endangered jungle home.

As I enter the village, dozens of barefoot kids wearing dusty, donated T-shirts with Western logos and locales unfamiliar to them run to greet me. A few swarming children hug my legs while others take my hand and lead me down the red earth road into the village, past men repairing the thatched palm roof of a bamboo hut. I expected to see fair trade’s impact on housing, schools, sanitation, and medical care, and I did see some, but could the smiles I saw on the children’s faces reflect a newfound hope for a future of fewer struggles than their parents and grandparents experienced? 

An endangered culture
The subtropical Atlantic rain forest was once lush and vast, covering 305 million acres in northeastern Paraguay, northeastern Argentina, and southeastern Brazil around the beginning of the 20th century. Since then, clear-cutting for valuable hardwood, cattle grazing, and sugarcane, coffee, and, more recently, soybean plantations has decimated this region to a meager 25 million acres. Along with endangering 8,000 plant species, 55 types of birds, and 21 mammal species, the destruction of this forest endangered the way of life for the nomadic Aché Guayakí Indians who had hunted and gathered there for 10,000 years. 

The Aché tribe had already been driven out of the rain forest in the early ’70s, when the Paraguayan government did nothing to stop peasants and ranchers from hunting down and enslaving the Aché, who they stereotyped as violent and uncivilized. The government forcibly removed many Aché from their homeland and placed them on reservations. Pneumonia and measle epidemics broke out but the government provided no medical care, so almost all the elderly and very young died. Government workers on the reservation also sold healthy men into slave labor and women into prostitution. The only survivors of this near genocide, mostly young adults, wound up in the care of missionaries who helped the Aché cause but at the same time attempted to strip the Aché of such traditions as wearing body adornments, practicing polygyny, and tribal singing.

By the rain forest–saving ’90s, the surviving Aché had returned to their homeland. The Paraguayan government allowed the Aché to establish their village on the Kue Tuvy Preserve in 2002, but never officially handed over the land title. By this time the hunting-gathering business in the dwindling rain forest could no longer sustain the tribe, so the Aché tried selling a small amount of crops that had no real market value, some men found low-paying labor jobs, and they even sold off some of their beloved rain forest’s hardwood. “Most families simply had no cash income at all,” says anthropologist Kim Hill, PhD, professor at Arizona State University and co-director of the nonprofit Native Peoples and Tropical Conservation Fund. “They were swimming like mad just to stay afloat and could barely manage to pay the costs of living each day, let alone have anything left over for education or healthcare.” Hill, who has lived with and studied the Aché for 30 years, hoped to help the tribe find a way to generate income while not destroying their forest home. 

The magic of maté
In 1996, Buenos Aires, Argentina, native Alejandro Pryor was a food science major at California Polytechnic State University who became inspired by an international food politics class that discussed world hunger. Not only was Pryor trying to find ways to feed the hungry, he was also concerned with the plight of the rain forest in his homeland. When Pryor shared his country’s national drink, yerba (herb) maté (the gourd it’s traditionally served in) with international business major David Karr, the stimulating tea sparked an idea between the two friends: Maté might offer busy Americans a healthy, jitter-free alternative to coffee.

Although it was virtually unknown in the US a decade ago, for centuries South Americans drank yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis), a member of the holly family native to the Atlantic rain forest, and used it medicinally to increase energy (it’s caffeinated but doesn’t make you feel wired), aid digestion, and boost immunity. An energizing cup contains 24 vitamins and minerals, 15 amino acids, theobromine, flavonoids, and more antioxidants and polyphenols than green or black tea.Pryor and Karr co-founded Guayakí Sustainable Rainforest Products, named in honor of the Atlantic rain forest natives, and began importing organic, fair-trade maté to the US. “Our goal was to create US consumer demand for healthy rain forest products that can be grown sustainably and profitably in the rain forest, thereby providing native people with alternatives to destructive land-use practices such as deforestation,” Karr says. Ironically, Karr and Pryor weren’t able to sell their products in South America. “Argentines, Paraguayans, and Brazilians are not willing to pay a premium for a product they’ve grown accustomed to buying cheaply just to support the environment and their own indigenous people,” Pryor says. An 8-ounce bag of maté sells for about 50 cents in South America, while the same size bag of Guayakí organic, fair-trade maté sells for close to $10 in the US.

When Guayakí began importing maté in 1996, the company also started paying a number of small family farms in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay twice the market rate for their organic yerba maté. Guayakí also stands out from other yerba maté companies in the region by offering healthcare to all workers, refusing to use child labor in an industry where even toddlers work during harvest time, and providing bathrooms, soap, and the actual opportunity to take a break and use these facilities. 

Trade not aid
When anthropologist Kim Hill discovered a box of Guayakí yerba maté in 2001, he demanded the company pay royalties for the use of the Aché Guayakí name. Pryor was amazed that any Aché Guayakí were still alive and more than happy to pay the agreed-upon annual $5,000 royalty fee. When Pryor met the tribe and learned of their struggle to survive in the forest, he thought that teaching them to grow organic yerba maté could offer the 45 families a way to support themselves. 

The next year, Guayakí launched the project by providing the Aché with the funds and tools to plant almost 40 acres of maté and sending community leaders to one of the company’s shade-grown plantations to learn how to cultivate maté from an agronomist. Now after five years of cultivation and care, the first harvest will be in May 2008. By the harvest of 2010, the community should receive $20,000 annually from Guayakí, which will be enough money to meet basic medical and educational needs for the entire village, according to Hill. 

“The yerba maté plantation is capital for them,” says Pryor. “Not only can they sell maté to Guayakí, they can sell it to other companies as well.” Pryor also connected the Aché with companies looking to pay a fair price for other crops grown at Kue Tuvy, like organic sesame seeds and cotton. And local farms looking to convert to organic, shade-grown maté have shown interest in learning more about this sustainable agriculture practice from the Aché, says Pryor. “This newfound knowledge will now sustain the tribe,” he adds. 

The village’s recent influx of income from the annual royalty fee has benefited the entire community. Most of the thatched palm roofs have been replaced with stronger corrugated metal, the tribe invested in a school improvement project, and there’s enough money to bring the very sick to the closest hospital more than 30 miles away. Anthropologist Hill is teaching the Aché how to manage their money and use democracy to decide on the best way to spend funds. 

As I observed fair trade at work, I also learned how charitable aid is only a short-term solution. Hill and Pryor have seen indigenous people get burned by foundations that may install electricity in a community but then leave at the end of the project or even before it is finished. The people are left with no means to pay the electric bill. 

While Pryor is offering the community “the chance to break away from the dependence such foundations encourage,” he always arrives in Kue Tuvy with as much food as he can pack into his truck. On the trip I took with Pryor, I helped him distribute the groceries and at first felt good about feeding these hungry folks. But the more than 20 bags of supplies were not enough to go around to all the grabbing hands of begging children—Pryor says it’s never enough. I was so upset at leaving some people empty-handed, I started going through my luggage and giving away anything I could find—gum, mints, lip balm, a hairbrush. Pryor took me aside and suggested I equally trade some of my possessions. At the home of an older basketweaver, I traded my headlamp, camping pillow, towel, and some clothing for a noko, a backpack-like bamboo basket, and a raity, a jug woven from bamboo and waterproofed with wild beeswax. After that more equitable exchange, I clearly understood that empowering the villagers to support themselves is the only solution. 

Back home in the States, I fill my gourd with yerba maté each morning. Before my trip, fair trade was an abstract concept. Now as I sip the energizing tea, I think about how I’m helping to buy books for the Kue Tuvy school, medicine to treat tuberculosis, or shoes to keep little feet dry during the rainy season. And I know I’m helping the Aché improve their lives.

Companies That Play Fair 
With sustainable environmental and social practices, these natural foods companies are also making an impact by seeing beyond the bottom line. 

Divine (chocolate)—Divine’s Kuapa Kokoo cooperative in Ghana is the first group of cocoa bean farmers to actually own a portion of the company—one-third of its US line of dark and milk chocolate bars. With profits directly benefiting the community, co-op families can now afford to send their children to school instead of the fields to work.www.divinechocolate.com

Sambazon (açai)—Açai might not have made it to the US without Sambazon—even if it had, the antioxidant-rich fruit may have disappeared rapidly from deforestation. But the founders of Sambazon have made a commitment to keep the 60-foot açai trees standing (as well as the rest of the rain forest), all while providing the local Amazon community with sustainable employment. www.sambazon.com

Choice Organic (tea)—By sourcing green tea from a remote Nepalese co-op at the foot of the Himalayas, Choice has helped the workers at the Kanchanjangha tea estate send their children to school and purchase farm animals. The company also donates 10 cents per tea box to Save the Himalayan Kingdom, which helps preserve Nepal’s Buddhist heritage. www.choiceorganicteas.com 

Oké (bananas)—Oké, which gives its farmers 30 percent ownership of the company, is changing the social landscape in Costa Rica and Ecuador, a country previously known for having the worst working conditions for banana farmers. The fair- trade premiums that the grower cooperatives receive go toward healthcare and education.www.okeusa.com

Adina (juice)—This juice company started when founder Magatte Wade-Marchand visited her native Senegal only to be offered a Coke instead of traditional Bissap juice. This inspired her to create a beverage line using cultural recipes from around the world. Adina works closely with women in Senegal and recently helped a women’s co-op obtain organic certification for the hibiscus flowers used in Adina beverages. www.adinaworld.com

Organic India (ayurvedic herbs and tea)—Using traditional ayurvedic practices, the farmers of Organic India will grow an herbal crop for the company one season and use the next season to grow food for themselves. This provides both a living wage for farmers as well as food for their families. www.organicindiaUSA.com

Dagoba (chocolate)—Dagoba uses fair trade–certified cacao but also pays producers wages higher than the fair-trade standard. The single-origin bars use cacao from specific regions in places like Peru and Madagascar (meaning they can be traced back to the original farmers), and each carries the distinct flavor of the land.www.dagobachocolate.com

Numi (tea)—Numi gives the farmers who tend its Chinese tea gardens free land and housing, while also paying a salary significantly higher than the national average. www.numitea.com

Equal Exchange (coffee)—Equal Exchange pays a fair price for beans sourced from over 25 small farmer organizations in 18 countries. www.equalexchange.com

World of Good (crafts)—World of Good buys housewares, jewelry, and clothing from artisans working in safe conditions in more than 30 countries. The company has also developed a web-based tool to help other organizations calculate and pay equitable wages for handicrafts. www.worldofgood.com

More Ways to Support Fair Trade
October is fair trade month, so follow these five tips to become a true jack of fair trade. 
1. See fair trade for yourself. Pure Vida coffee (www.purevidacofee.com) offers trips to coffee cooperatives in Peru, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Browse more fair trade travel options in Thailand, Kenya, and India atwww.responsibletravel.com
2. Throw a fair trade party. Increase awareness among friends and your community with Transfair’s ready-made kit of postcards, stickers, and DVD (www.transfairusa.org). 3. Involve your favorite shopping stops. Oxfam America’swww.checkoutfairtrade.com offers an “Adopt a Supermarket” program with fair trade report cards to tally your local store stacks up. 
4. Sponsor a craft fair. Wares from cooperatives around the world can be displayed and made available for purchase. For ideas, visit www.fairtradefederation.com.
5. Give socially conscious gifts. Fairly traded jewelry, crafts, and clothing can be found through Global Exchange at http://store.gxonlinestore.org or www.worldofgood.com.