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Ilustração: Luciane Stocco

Traditional and Agroecological Systems: Shade-grown Erva-Mate

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Yerba mate is associated with Araucaria Forest

Erva-mate, scientifically known as Ilex paraguariensis, is a tree that occurs naturally in a small piece of planet Earth. Covering the region of the Rio de la Plata Basin, where important Brazilian rivers flow, such as the Paraná, Iguaçu, Uruguay and Paraguay, the cultivation and consumption of erva-mate stems from the traditions of the oldest inhabitants of southern Brazil. Alongside its inseparable biome, the Araucaria Forest, erva-mate provides a nutritious and delicious food product that is part of Brazilian culture.


Over time, family farmers have been developing different ways of producing erva-mate, always seeking greater economic and environmental viability for harvesting the leaves of this tree. The Faxinais in the Center-South of Paranaense and the Caíva systems in the Northern Plateau of Santa Catarina are excellent examples of how the production of erva-mate has developed alongside with the conservation of our precious Araucaria Forests, through the invention of the of shade-grown erva-mate production.

Due to its unique and distinct flavor and quality, the consumption of shade-grown erva-mate sought after and can reach valued, reaching sales values up to 30% higher than when compared to erva-mate produced in a full-sun, monoculture system. It is for these and many other reasons that farmers and technicians have been joining forces and organizing themselves to conserve and value the erva-mate native to the Center-South region of Paraná and North of Santa Catarina.


Below, the map shows the location of the regions that produce the precious shade-grown erva-mate.

Location map of regions with traditional yerba mate production systems in Paraná and Santa Catarina. Source: CEDErva

A brief history of traditional erva-mate production systems

Erva-mate has been, and continues to be, an important driver of social, cultural, and economic development in southern Brazil and its neighboring countries. As an example, when settling in their new lands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the new farmers in Brazil, immigrants from Germany, Italy, Poland, and the Ukraine, were contacting with the cultural practices and production of erva-mate, adapting new styles and ways to cultivate this tree. In the Center-South and Southern regions of Paraná, such interactions led to the development of Faxinal land use and community common, while in the northern region of the state of Santa Catarina, farmers developed the Caíva system. Although both traditional systems differ in terms of vegetation, they represent the cultures and identities of the populations that transformed this landscape, adapting it to their living conditions and understandings of the environment. In such a way, the history of erva-mate continues, with new chapters being written every day, and becoming emblematic of the culture of the Southern of Brazil and Southern South America.

Before the first colonies of European immigrants settled in what is known today as the Northern Plateau of Santa Catarina and Southern Paraná, the region had already received several migratory flows related to the economic expansion of erva-mate in the mid-19th  century. The objective of the first settlements in the region was in fact the extraction of erva-mate from the abundant native forests, where the leaves were harvested, transported to Porto União and Porto Amazonas and shipped on boats to Curitiba, the state capital. From there, the leaves were transported by rail down the coastal mountains to the sea, eventually being exported to neighboring countries.


Anésio Marques, in his doctoral thesis published in 2014, explains that the lands from which erva-mate was once extracted, at the beginning of this important economic cycle, were large public lands or areas not inhabited by communities recognized by the government. These lands were gradually distributed to colonels in the region and later divided into colonies, but they always coexisted with numerous caboclo communities. The economic basis of these early settlers was erva-mate, and to a lesser extent the raising of cattle and pigs for commerce and subsistence. These activities were often conducted in commons, or collectively managed lands, which eventually gave rise to the Faxinal system, as well as Caívas.


The differences between these two communally managed land and forest cultivation systems that developed both in Paraná and Santa Catarina states have grown over the last 150 years, which in part is due to the geographic division of the region by the Iguaçu River. Below we present some of the differences and main characteristics of these agroforestry systems and their relationship with erva-mate:

perfil da floresta.jpg

Forest profile with erva-mate and the different forms of agroforestry production. Source: Cunha (2014)

Traditional Faxinal System

This communal management system was developed in Santa Catarina and Paraná, but over time the Faxinais were adapted to the natural forest conditions and later to the crop cultivation suitable to each region. This is one of the reasons why in the state of Paraná collective animal husbandry as a form of land management and organization is still known today as Faxinais, and in Santa Catarina as Caíva.


According to Chang (1988), the Faxinal system is characterized by the occurrence of three phenomena: extensive animal husbandry in properly fenced common areas (common grazing grounds); forest extraction within the common grazing area, mainly erva-mate as well as pinhão and other native fruits, and firewood; food polyculture on crop lands, mainly beans, maize, manioc, and rice, located in fenced areas to prevent animal access.


The first Faxinais emerged during a period of new immigration and settlement and significant economic importance of erva-mate. This speaks to some of the reasons why the extraction of the leaf is so important for the history of these communities; it was through the economic return provided by erva-mate that the first Faxinal communities were consolidated. Such a system was based on the maintenance of the forest, with the benefit of animal production, and the ability to support a large number of workers for its harvest and processing (Marques, 2014).


Within a Faxinal there are two types of land use: land for crop cultivation, which are owned by individual families and used for planting; and terra de cria, which are privately owned lands that are managed collectively and used by communities as a common grazing ground. Inside the Faxinal there are no fenced divisions demarcating individually owned properties. Fences are used to define cropping areas and as a division between the Faxinal and neighboring properties.  


Erva-mate is an important source of income for Faxinal communities, who harvest and sometimes process the leaves of the tree from forest environments with an understory that is used as natural pastures.

erva mate passaros dispersore frutos ini

Traditional Caíva system

According to Marques (2014), the common grazing areas in Faxinais in Paraná are usually found in valleys with smooth undulating relief and presence of water ways, in deep, red soils. While areas for planting occur in areas with steeper slopes, and shallower and more fertile soils. This is precisely the situation of the sedimentary region of the North Plateau of Santa Catarina, which is characterized by smooth undulating relief along the river valleys, with deep, red, and not very fertile latosols, where the grazing occurs. These are surrounded by rugged areas with greater relief, and less red and less acidic soil, used for crop farming.  


The differences between Faxinais and Caívas consist primarily in terms of management and in the nomenclature given to the ways in which the land is used. First, Caívas occur on privately owned farms, while Faxinais are defined communities that maintain common and collective management of privately owned land for grazing areas. In terms of nomenclature, in Paraná, on the right bank of the Iguaçu, common grazing areas are called 'faxinais'. In Santa Catarina, they are known as 'criadouro' and consist of native forest vegetation with an open understory used as natural pasture, called 'caíva' (Marques, 2014), as shown in the image below.


The establishment of Faxinais and Caívas represent an important element in the history of the natural landscape in this region, as the systems with common animal grazing in the forest understory are directly related to the conservation of native forest remnants in Southern Brazil. The consumption of erva-mate produced in traditional systems is a recognition of the cultural and historical traditions of Paraná and Santa Catarina. 


Forest understory with natural pasture used for cattle grazing in the Northern Plateau of Santa Catarina. Erva-mate trees can be seen in the background. Source: Ana Lucia Hanisch

Traditional agroforestry systems and environmental restoration

Existing practices in traditional production systems can also be used in environmental restoration programs. As they are inherently multi-species (for example, with erva-mate, bracatinga, araucaria or Paraná pine, and native fruit trees), the use of traditional systems enables the integration of ecological concepts with possibility to increase rural family income in the short, medium and long-term, while also strengthening food security on family farms and in traditional communities.  


Traditional systems also integrate diversified concepts, including forestry, with respective wood and non-wood forest products, combined with the planting of species traditionally cultivated by farmers, and the concepts of restoration and environmental conservation.


Research and practical experiments have shown that agroforestry systems based on native species, and especially those based on erva-mate, enable the integration of production with forest conservation. This also makes it a model for the restoration of degraded areas and Legal Reserves (RL).


The Araucaria Forest has a significant diversity of species that are used traditionally and regionally for food and medicinal purposes. Thus, there is vast potential to integrate these species in agroforestry systems, which in addition to the conservation of these native genetic resources, can guarantee a more diverse and profitable production, in particular for traditional communities and family farming properties.

rocona erva mate conducao area 2(53).JPG

Productive restoration system integrating erva-mate and bracatinga. Source: AEBLacerda

To reference this page, please cite: CEDERVA Traditional cultivation systems: shade-grown erva-mate. Curitiba, 2024. Available at: 
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