History of using and cultivating yerba mate

It is thought that the Guarani Indians were the first to use yerba mate and that they introduced it to other ethnic groups such as the Quechua or Chiriguano Indians. The Spaniards learned to drink yerba mate probably from Guarani Indians. The first to cultivate yerba mate trees were the Jesuit missionaries who had yerba mate farms in around 1670. They were expelled from the Spanish territories in 1767 and this was a step back in the history of plantations of yerba mate. Yerba mate was again taken from the trees growing naturally in the forests. It remained so until more or less the early 20th century although in 1897 in the Paraguay district of Nueva Germania and the Argentinean district of Santa Ana yerba mate was grown again in plantations.

When the Jesuit plantations disappeared the commercial production of yerba mate diminished but did not disappear altogether. Throughout the colonial period yerba mate continued to be a popular drink even in the Viceroyalty of Peru where a different type of yerba shrub was grown, Ilex guayusa, which had the properties of a stimulant. Yerba mate trade continued in the land of modern Peru and Ecuador. When the Spanish colonies gained independence and free trade developed, yerba mate lost its importance and was replaced by tea.

After a period of wars between the Spanish and the Portuguese crowns, followed by wars for independence, yerba plantations started to disappear from the areas of Christianised Indian settlement and by 1820 were probably gone altogether. The policy of isolation and international trade introduced by the first governor of the independent Paraguay led to Brazil deciding to use their naturally growing yerba mate tress commercially in 1820. The most accessible trees grew near the town of Curitiba in the state of Paraná. When these trees there were all used up, the producers moved west. The Brazilian product, known on the market as the ‘Paraguayan mate’, was thought to be of lower quality than the yerba mate actually coming from Paraguay but still managed to replace it.

Towards the end of the 19th century the exhaustion of naturally growing yerba mate trees led to a revival in the setting up of plantations. This was especially successful in Argentina. Yerba mate production increased in Argentina as did the area under plantation in southern Brazil in the regions of Paraná, Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul and Mato Grosso do Sul. Unfortunately the disappearing forests posed many threats to the genetic variety of Ilex paraguariensis.

The complicated economic history of yerba mate, with mixed periods of abundance and shortage of the product, with periods of cheating the market by using other plants and with the method of preparing the drink which is often thought to be unhygienic all affected the popularity of mate outside South America.

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  1. 1. Lovera J. R. (2005) Food culture in South America. Greenwood Publishing Group, Westport ISBN 0313327521, 9780313327520
  2. 2. Hernández Bermejo J. E., León J. (1994) Neglected crops: 1492 from a different perspective. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome. ISBN 9251032173, 9789251032176