Sebastopol’s Guayakí proves that money really does grow on trees

“People, Profit, Planet” is the unofficial slogan of Guayakí Sustainable Rainforest Products, an international beverage company based in Sebastopol.

Guayakí’s flagship product is yerba mate, a caffeinated beverage derived from the leaves and stems of a holly tree native to the Atlantic rain forests of Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. The national drink of those countries, yerba mate is brewed to be shared as a gesture of hospitality in all settings. Traditionally mixed in a gourd and sipped with a filtered straw, yerba mate may also be a savior of the rainforests from which it is harvested.

Named for a tribe in Paraguay that harvests and grows for them, Guayakí uses what it calls a “market-driven restoration” model for its workers and habitat. With a goal of providing 1,000 living-wage jobs by 2020 in the impoverished countries in which its mate is grown, Guayakí is also committed to restoring the rain forests that provide its fortunes. Money, they like to say, does grow on trees. It’s taking care of the trees—and the people who tend them—that’s the real trick.

Yerba mate is a shade plant that thrives under a canopy. Guayakí pays its workers to maintain the shade areas and replant under their protection. Yerba mate grows quickly and adds nutrients to the forest floor, thus helping to replenish the shade that it needs. Like everything with this drink, it’s all about the cycle.

Paying a fair wage, paying attention to 21st century concerns about the environment, and instituting social welfare programs for its employees is a costly risk, one that more companies are now taking, and one that appears to be paying off. While South American rain forests have typically been seen as cash drawers from which corporations could endlessly draw, Guayakí sees them as containing sustaining riches—if only it can be sustained.

Only 13 percent of Paraguay’s rain forest still remains after being brutalized for the past century; only 7 percent of the South American rainforest total is intact. The formerly hunter/gatherer communities that live there, like the Aché of Paraguay, are slowly being drawn into the 21st century. In a recent short documentary about the area, the World Wildlife Fund shows Aché community members armadillo-hunting for dinner, one wearing a Guayakí T-shirt.

Because indeed, working for Guayakí is perhaps the best of a bad situation.

Nowadays, Guayakí founders Alex Pryor and David Karr would be hailed as startup gods. The two met nearly 20 years ago near San Luis Obispo. Pryor is from Argentina, where yerba mate is the national drink; Karr is a California native. They both cared about surfing, having fun, and sure, giving back. They founded Guayakí in 1996 around such ideals, but as they have matured, so has the company.

Their CEO has an economics degree from Harvard and the company has launched a foundation to offer no-interest loans, ensure food security for the people who harvest their product, and help convene community councils in their worker’s villages.

The company has recently expanded into the iced tea market with canned and bottled beverages available in markets throughout the U.S., but the real thing can be tried during a short weekday window at their Mate Bar in Sebastopol, open Monday-Friday, 10am-3pm.

Guayakí recently gained local acclaim for donating 11,000 pounds of used mate powder to area farms for compost. Their former compost outlet no longer available, they saved the stuff until they could find a local recipient.

The good news is that doing the right thing can net a healthy profit, something that more companies are coming to realize as they raise the living wage for their workers, help to sustain the land from which they are harvesting, and still have time to go surfing.


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