For the Kichwa people of the Ecuadorian Amazon, teatime isn't an afternoon tradition that pairs dainty finger sandwiches with porcelain cups. Instead, it begins at 3 a.m., when members of this indigenous community gather around a fire and brew guayusa, a highly caffeinated drink with twice the antioxidants of green tea.
But this "superleaf" does more than provide these villagers with the energy to face the day—it has recently become a sustainable source of income that will bring in $400,000 to more than 3,000 farming families this year.
We asked Tyler Gage, co-founder of the Runa Foundation, a nonprofit that works with indigenous communities to protect the Amazon rain forest, to provide some insight on guayusa and what it means to the Kichwa and the rest of the world.
What is guayusa? Where is it found?
Something like 98 percent of the guayusa in the world is in Ecuador. It is native to a thin stretch of the upper Amazon [that] hugs the Andes Mountains. It's a leaf brewed like tea, but it's not actually related to green or black tea. When brewed, it has about as much caffeine as coffee. It is also incredibly rich in polyphenols, which are the most common compounds that comprise what we informally call antioxidants. It also has a ton of chlorogenic acids, which is trending and hot right now for weight loss and benefits to the heart.
What is the history of the guayusa plant, and what does it mean to the Kichwa people in this part of Ecuador?
One of my favorite stories about guayusa is its origin. In ancient times, people prayed for a plant that would teach them how to dream. These twins canoed down a river on a quest to find this plant, woke up in the middle of the night, and this spirit village had manifested on the other side of the river. They went to this palace and went up a staircase to the heavens, where they saw all of their ancestors, generation after generation. These ancestors gifted them this plant and said, "This is a plant that can help your people and connect you to the dream world." When they woke up in the morning, they still had the physical plant. They took it back to their community and guayusa became a central part of their culture.
And they continue to hold the plant in high esteem. Now that the Kichwa have started exporting the leaves, what does it mean to their community and the surrounding area?
Before, the farmer's primary source of income was from logging. They also did migrant labor, and they do some farming with things like corn, coffee, or chocolate. They really struggled to support their families and have sustainable sources of income.
[Guayusa] is grown in what the Kichwa call a chacra, which is basically a forest garden. There are no fertilizers, there are no chemicals, nothing. It basically allows sustainable nutrient flow between the species the same way the rain forest contains itself without any human intervention. So it's very low input, and basically replicates the structure of the natural rain forest.
How has the demand for guayusa tea changed since Ecuador first started exporting it? If demand continues to increase, can the production remain sustainable?
The annual global production for 2008 was zero pounds. This year, we're going to buy one million pounds of fresh guayusa leaves from the community, and so we'll pay about $400,000 that the community didn't have before.
The way we grow is that we plant more trees. As demand grows, we just have to plant more trees so we can reforest more parts of the Amazon and convert more land that was previously degraded back into these sustainable forest gardens.
Growth is actually what drives impact. The more that we grow, the more income we can provide to the farmers, and concurrently the more trees that we can plant and we can sustainably support.
What does guayusa tea mean to the rest of the world?
Definitely as consumers, we appreciate the health benefits a lot. For people who might be drinking very artificial, unhealthy energy drinks, they can switch to something that [gives them] the same amount of energy but that has health benefits, too. So we can connect consumers to the Amazon through the product, and basically give them a much more healthy, sustainable source to get their energy.
We're right at the sweet spot of growth. I think in general there is a major trend of people wanting clean energy [drinks], and if you look at the last ten years you see the shift, with people switching from wanting to drink mainstream sports drinks like Gatorade to things like coconut water. So with guayusa we fit perfectly in that [trend] and for consumer demand for a cleaner, functional product.
This interview has been edited and condensed.