ARCHIDONA/QUITO, Ecuador – With infinite patience amid a suffocating heat, Mario Shiguango removes thousands of green leaves from a plant sacred to Ecuador’s Amazon communities, a plant that has carved out a space for itself in the international market due to its energizing and antioxidant properties.
He removes the leaves over a long trough in one of the greenhouses of the Wiñak cooperative in the small town of Archidona, a business that got started four years ago with the task of converting the guayusa plant into a means of livelihood for indigenous populations.
The intense green leaves shaped like an oval with pointed tips sprout cascade-like from the bushes grown in the traditional “chacras” in the Amazon. In the wild, the plant can reach a height of 15 meters (50 feet).
“We dry out the leaves for 24 hours and then they are transferred to the machines for another drying process,” says the worker at the cooperative, which provides employment for a dozen or so leaf-collecting families.
Ecuador is home to 95 percent of the world’s production of this plant, often called the “Amazon mate” (think “yerba mate”) because it’s a close cousin to the South American mate plant and it is cultivated mainly in the provinces of Napo, Orellana and Pastaza.
Among the properties attributed to guayusa is a well-balanced and strong natural caffeine that provides energy and mental clarity, a large number of essential amino acids and antioxidants, and thus ingesting it helps to stave off some of the effects of aging.
“In antioxidants, it has a value of 58, while green tea doesn’t have more than 30. It’s almost a fountain of youth,” the scientist with the plant collection at Ecuador’s Pontificia Universidad Catolica, Omar Vacas, told EFE.
The Ilex guayusa, the main variety of the plant in Ecuador’s Amazon region, is well-known for its ability to keep a person awake and “lucid” for “several hours.”
“There are variants that range from 3 percent to 5 percent caffeine,” the botanist said, comparing guayusa to yerba mate, which contains 0.5-1.25 percent caffeine, or green tea, which contains 0.5 percent.
The secret is in the preparation, since heating it over a slow fire for several hours – a secret discovered in ancient times – can be enough to “keep someone awake for three days,” but generally speaking a little teabag of the ground-up leaves has about as much caffeine as American coffee.
The Amazon indigenous peoples consumed guayusa to be able to stay alert when they went out hunting, which often required long treks through the jungle and staying awake for several days.
In a study performed last year, the IKIAM Amazon regional university found that the leaf helps combat arthritis, rheumatism, the flu and is an expectorant, an emmenagogue (to stimulate menstrual flow) and a stimulant.
It’s also a diuretic, lowers blood sugar and is used to treat post-partum problems and against snakebites, although its efficacy as an antidiarrheic and a bactericide is still being researched.
In indigenous communities that were originally isolated from the outside world, guayusa is still used ritualistically, and it’s common for adults and children to steep the leaves and drink the resulting tea as a morning pick-me-up.
“The ceremony is very much linked to gender. The woman is the one who plants, cares for and prepares the guayusa and the grandmother interpret the family’s dreams (during the morning guayusa drinking ritual) and dispenses advise,” Montserrat Rios, an IKIAM lecturer on ethnopharmacology, told EFE.
He said that guayusa also increases fertility and regulates menstruation, adding that he has never seen “an Indian with menopausal hot flashes.”
As per oral history, Rios dates the use of the plant back about 500 years, although he emphasized that he said it had also been found in the tomb of a shaman in Bolivia from the 6th century A.D.
But the daily rhythms of the cities in the Ecuadorian Amazon have imposed themselves on tradition and many people have abandoned their ancestral practices and nowadays use guayusa more or less like coffee to start the day or to provide to tourists.
In 2016, US actor Leonardo DiCaprio invested in a pioneering company working with local communities to prepare organic guayusa tea, thus ushering in an industry that has ballooned in the past five years.
Originally, guayusa was unknown outside the Amazon region, but today one can find it in supermarkets in Quito and it is exported to the US, Indian and Canadian markets.
At cooperatives like Wiñak, farmers are paid $0.80 per kilogram of leaves, which is pressed into 12.5-kg sacks and sold for $25-$26 each for export.
Each month, the company sells about 20 tons of guayusa leaf, although its aim is to reach 60 tons. Those plans, however, have been put on hold amid the coronavirus pandemic, association coordinator Marco Grefa said.
The boom in guayusa “depends a lot on whether businessmen see potential in it,” biologist Dario Cruz, a researcher with the Universidad Tecnica Particular de Loja (UTPL), who is developing a guayusa beverage to which he introduced yeasts to aid digestion and carbonated it, thus creating something like “Red Bull without the harmful effects because we don’t add caffeine.”
Ecuador holds the virtual monopoly on the guayusa niche, according to the country’s Production and Foreign Trade Ministry, which reported that 294 tons, valued at $2.1 million, were exported in 2019.