AP PHOTOS: In northeastern Argentina, yerba mate is more than the national drink, it’s a way of life

ANDRESITO, Argentina (AP) — For millions across the heartland of South America, bitter-tasting yerba mate tea is a beloved staple of social gatherings and morning routines. But here, in the steamy grasslands of Argentina’s northeast Misiones Province, mate is also a way of life — literally.

For generations, low-paid laborers known as “tareferos” have toiled in the forests of Misiones, the mate capital of the world. They get paid by the weight, so each morning, the race is on. From dawn to sundown, they cut a seemingly endless harvest of the hardy leaves and stuff them into white bags until they burst at the seams. After being dried, packaged and trucked off, the herbs spread to virtually every Argentine household, office and school — as well as to neighboring Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and farther afield.

For tareferos, mate is mostly a commodity, sold for $22 a ton. But workers also sip the infusion during breaks in the fields, its caffeine helping them stay energized. The grueling work in northeastern Argentina dates back to the arrival of the Spanish, when Indigenous tribes worked Jesuit plantations in what is now Paraguay.

“Yerba mate gives us harmony and strength,” said Isabelino Mendez, an Indigenous village chief in Misiones. “It’s part of our culture.”

Argentina’s government has long supported the mate industry with price controls and subsidies, keeping farmers’ incomes higher than they would be if subjected to free-market competition.

But this year, libertarian President Javier Milei’s draconian financial measures to fix the economy have thrust mate producers and tareferos alike into uncertainty. To downsize the state, Milei seeks to scrap price controls and other regulations affecting a range of markets, including yerba mate.

Small producers fear that big companies will set prices they can’t afford to match and push them out of the market.

Julio Petterson, a mate producer from the northern Andresito village, fears a repeat of the 1990s, when similar liberal policies wreaked havoc on small producers. “We barely survived,” he said. “Thousands of other producers went bankrupt.”

Workers say they’re bracing for mass layoffs.

“If the government deregulates prices, this will harm the producers who own the land and, ultimately, we’ll lose our jobs,” said 40-year-old Antonio Pereyra Ramos, who oversees 18 workers. “The economic crisis is hitting us hard.”


Follow AP’s coverage of Latin America and the Caribbean at https://apnews.com/hub/latin-america

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