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Leaves of change: Paraguay’s small-scale farmers see a new future in yerba mate tea | Global development

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Four men emerge from the intense heat and steam of the barbacuá into the cold winter’s night in the rural district of Edelira, southern Paraguay. They rest, leaning on pitchforks they have used to turn over the prized load of fragrant yerba mate leaves inside this traditional drying oven. The centuries-old design drives hot air from a fire on to the large wooden frame where the leaves sit.

“I control the leaf’s humidity through intuition,” says Lisandro Benítez, the group’s lead, or uru. “Too humid and it won’t have the right flavour, too hot and dry and it could catch fire.”

The tough green leaves are harvested from trees on the plantations of the 134 small-scale farming families that form the Oñoirũ Association of Agroecological Agriculture. The organic yerba mate is used to brew infusions of the country’s national drink, which has enormous cultural and economic importance in the country.

Zulma Chávez and Ireneo Vega drink mate in their kitchen.

In their home nearby, Zulma Chávez and Ireneo Vega, members of Oñoirũ – which means camaraderie – sit by a roaring wood stove, drinking mate together. Chávez pours hot water from a kettle on to yerba leaves in a gourd, then uses a metal straw with a filter, known as a bombilla, to sip the bitter, caffeinated tea. She repeats the process, this time passing the gourd to Vega.

“The indigenous peoples invented this way of drinking,” says Vega, switching continually between Guaraní and Spanish, Paraguay’s two official languages. “Yerba mate is a major part of our culture. It is a meeting point that gives us a space to talk among ourselves.”

The gourd is typically passed between everyone – friends, family, even strangers. However, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, authorities have advised drinkers to refrain from communal drinking outside of family groups.

During the Paraguayan winter, a lot of hot mate is consumed. Normally it is drunk with medicinal plants that help fight respiratory diseases, indigestion, blood pressure imbalances and all kinds of other conditions.
Yerba mate is one of the ancestral plants that are most consumed throughout the country. Regardless of the weather, there is always a suitable drink made of this product.

While mate is also hugely popular in nearby Argentina, Uruguay and southern Brazil, Paraguay is set apart by the prevalence of tereré – an ice-cold version of the drink, popular during the sweltering summer – and the tradition of adding native, medicinal plants – pohã ñana – to tereré and mate, a practice that is passed down through the generations.

In 2020, Unesco recognised tereré in the culture of pohã ñana as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

“I learned about medicinal plants through my mother. She taught me them, name by name, and I still remember,” says Chávez, 57, as she lists examples: avocado leaf for the kidneys, siemprevive for the heart. She now plans to teach them to her three-year-old granddaughter.

Oñoirũ’s yerba mate is produced in a traditional fashion, respecting ancestral practices through which the phases of the moon guide the process. The harvest takes place under waning quarter moon.

Yerba mate’s historical importance in Paraguay cannot be overstated. Historian Herib Caballero Campos says that the leaf was the mainstay of the country’s economy for more than 300 years, even becoming currency in the absence of metal coins.

The grand stone ruins of 17th-century Jesuit reductions, where missionaries organised the mass production of yerba mate by indigenous communities, are still imposing features in southern Paraguay. However, since Europeans arrived in the region, the industry has been marked by violent exploitation.

Around the turn of the 20th century, widespread debt slavery saw workers known as mensúes sent into the then-endless subtropical forests to gather wild yerba mate, as Spanish anarchist Rafael Barrett movingly documented in a 1908 series of articles.

“Those poor unfortunates were practically sentenced to death. The work and living conditions were terrible,” says Caballero Campos.

In the town of Edelira you can find yerba mate trees in the fields and in natural forests – it is a native species of the Paraná River basin.

Although the mensú system has disappeared, organisations such as Oñoirũ still denounce and fight against wrongs affecting people today in rural areas, where 37% of the population live.

Pedro Vega, Ireneo’s son and Oñoirũ’s general manager, says the Paraguayan state pursues a development model that heavily prioritises industrial agriculture – principally genetically modified soy cultivation and cattle ranching – while offering “practically no support of any type” to small producers.

This model has contributed to Paraguay having one of the highest inequalities of land ownership in the world, has stymied development in rural communities, and stimulated mass migration into urban poverty belts.

Ireneo Vega is one of the founders of Oñoiru. In addition to producing yerba mate, he also cares for and harvests the association’s agroecological sugarcane crops.
Pedro Vega and Celia Motta, members of Oñoiru, walk with their young daughter Pilar through their agroecological crop of yerba mate in the fields of Edelira, in the department of Itapúa.
Zulma Chávez, a member of the Oñondive women’s committee, used a large part of her vegetable garden to cultivate cedrón Paraguay and sell her harvest to Oñoirũ.
Mabel Sánchez is president of Oñondive, the Oñoirũ women’s committee that is undertaking a project to cultivate poha ñana – medicinal plants in the Guarani language. The goal is to export these plants and use them to make their own products.

Paraguay’s indigenous peoples, the original consumers of yerba mate, have not benefited from the popularity of their one-time spiritual leaf. Some 60% of indigenous people live in extreme poverty according to a 2015 UN report – far above the national average.

“Oñoirũ is part of a movement looking to create a fairer model of society using our natural resources, so that our young people can stay in their communities and have decent living and work conditions,” Vega says.

He says, after receiving initial support from NGOs, they are achieving their goals: the association pays producers more than the large buyers that dominate the yerba market, has created 20 full and part-time jobs, provides training, and is democratically run by its members.

Celia Motta is a member of Oñondive, Oñoirũ’s women’s committee. She produces two essential raw materials; yerba mate and medicinal plants.

Vega believes members’ commitment and sense of belonging to Oñoirũ also allows them to work through challenges such as a recent fire that led to a loss of yerba mate and processing equipment.

In the well-equipped packing room, Cinthia Núñez, a recent graduate, works alongside her mother Clotilde Moreira.

“The majority of people in the community form part of Oñoirũ – that’s good because it lets the community grow,” says Núñez.

Ramón Benítez, 77, used to plant soybeans in this area. He decided to stop soy production 25 years ago when he realised that it was toxic. Since then, the forest has been regenerating with native species; the yerba mate tree is one of them.

  • Ramón Benítez, 77, used to plant soybeans in this area. He says the forest has regenerated since he stopped ploughing the land

Another key priority for the families is to ensure that their plantations are agroecological. As Ramón Benítez, a founding member of the association, walks through the vegetation on his smallholding, he explains that the forest has regenerated since he stopped ploughing the land to grow soybeans 25 years ago.

“There is a yerba tree that the birds germinated for us – we’re in its natural habitat,” he says, pointing. “I stopped growing soy because it was poisoning me.”

Edelira, like huge swathes of Paraguay, is affected by the widespread use of agrochemicals, often in violation of regulations, prompting denouncements from the UN. The recent documentary Paraguay’s Poisoned Fields highlighted the damage to health as a result.

In 2003, 11-year-old Silvino Talavera died after being sprayed with pesticides in Edelira. The case led to Paraguay’s first conviction for death caused by indiscriminate use of agrochemicals.

Sapecado is a process that removes excess moisture from the yerba mate leaves through exposure to heat in a traditional giant drying chamber called a barbacuá. Julio Cabrera goes inside to turn over the leaves so that the heat dries them evenly.

Standing by a stream running through his land, Benítez expresses grief that the fish have disappeared since soy was planted in a neighbouring field.

“It affects our health; it affects the animals. We reported it to the authorities, but they never came,” he says. “We aim to produce without damaging the environment, in harmony with everything.”

Addressing gender issues has also been a key part of Oñoirũ’s plan to improve life in the communities.

In the studio of the association’s community radio station, Mabel Sánchez, president of the Oñondive (Together) Women’s Committee, reflects on the progress made against deeply conservative values and gender violence that affect rural women’s lives.

Most of the workers who are involved in the processing Oñoirũ’s agroecological yerba mate are also producers of the leaf. In the image you can see Abel Bogado, Lisandro Benítez and Miguel Aquino working through the first stage of processing, the sapecado.
The giant barbacuá drying oven is where the sapecado of Oñoirũ’s yerba mate is carried out – the final step. It is operated day and night without breaks during the winter harvest season.
Sapecado is a process that removes excess moisture from the yerba mate leaves through exposure to heat in a traditional giant drying chamber called a barbacuá. Workers go inside to turn over the leaves so that the heat dries them evenly.
Most of the workers who are involved in processing Oñoirũ’s agroecological yerba mate are also themselves producers of the leaf. This truck takes the yerba mate to the warehouse where it will be aged for two years before being packaged to go on sale.

“Since we’ve got organised, [women and men] have been able to work together. It wasn’t like that before. Before, only the men got organised, only they had meetings. We women stayed at home,” she says.

As well as running workshops on gender issues, and fully participating in decision-making and yerba mate production, the women of Oñondive have their own projects, such as an initiative to cultivate medicinal plants both for export and to commercialise their own products.

“When we sell the herbs, we’ll be able to manage our own money as protagonists in our homes,” says Sánchez.

Oñoirũ’s model is producing great dividends for its members. Pedro Vega says that, as sales have increased and more members have joined, yerba production has grown from 864kg in 2015, the first year of sales, to about 220 tonnes in this year’s ongoing harvest.

Most of the workers who are involved in processing Oñoirũ’s agroecological yerba mate are also themselves producers of the leaf. This truck takes the yerba mate to the warehouse where it will be aged for two years before being packaged to go on sale. Rolado Gamarra and Edgar Benítez are some of those responsible for the warehouse.
To obtain molasses, mosto – sugarcane juice – must be cooked for approximately seven hours. Ángel Rojas is undertaking the operation on this occasion. He estimates 80 litres of molasses will be produced from these 700 litres of mosto. It will be used for the consumption of Oñoirũ members.
Cinthia Núñez and Clotilde Moreira are mother and daughter; both are yerba mate producers and members of Oñoirũ. They are in charge of packaging the finished product

The product’s popularity in urban centres such as the capital Asunción is rocketing, and Oñoirũ is exporting to Argentina, the US and Russia as international interest in the leaf increases.

Back by the barbacuá, the workers load more logs on to the drying oven’s fire, prepare fish to be grilled over red embers, and place a metal kettle by the campfire to boil. The hot, stimulating sips of mate will be their constant comfort as they watch over the precious load of leaves through the cold night.

After being aged for two years, the yerba mate Oñoiru is ready to be packaged. This is part of the harvest from 2019.

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‘It helped me get away from crime’: Cape Town’s College of Magic – a photo essay | Global development

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To fans of JK Rowling’s books, the story may sound somewhat familiar: a young boy living in difficult circumstances is enrolled in a mysterious school far from home, where his life is changed for ever by the transformative power of magic.

Anele Dyasi’s story is no fairytale, though, and the school in question is not Hogwarts, but the College of Magic in Cape Town, a unique institution that has been training some of the continent’s most skilled illusionists since the 1980s.

Confetti falls on performers from College of Magic at the end of a show at the Artscape theatre centre, Cape Town.
Jugglers from the College of Magic.
Emilie van den Hooyen, a performer and student at the College of Magic, has her face painted before a performance at the Artscape theatre centre.
Ayabonga Tshofui, a College of Magic student, has his face painted before a performance at the Artscape theatre centre.

Dyasi, who grew up in the sprawling township of Khayelitsha, where violent crime is rife and opportunities are few and far between, was 10 when the college began to train him in the ways of magic and sleight of hand. Within four years he was representing South Africa at magic competitions as far afield as Las Vegas and Beijing and had become a role model for a new generation of budding magicians.

Anele Dyasi.

“I think of it more as a college of life,” says Dyasi, now 23, and a teacher at the college. “It helped me get away from the crime and gangsterism.”

Dyasi says the most important things he learned in his six years as a student at the college had less to do with magic and more to do with self-confidence and effective communication: skills that he feels have left him in a good position to face life’s challenges.

Deyna Viret, a College of Magic student, practises a juggling routine in her dressing room ahead of a show at the Artscape theatre centre.
Illusionist Khanya Rubushe, a College of Magic student, before a performance at the Artscape theatre centre.

On this particular Saturday, clad in a flamboyant polka-dot blazer over a plain white T-shirt, he is teaching closeup card magic to a class of fifth-year students who scrutinise every move of his fingers as they try to figure out the trick. Outside the window, younger students are juggling with batons and doing circuits around the car park on unicycles.

Students practise outside the college

Less research has been done on the educational benefits of learning magic than other performing arts such as music, dance or circus. But the studies that do exist have linked it to physical and psychological benefits such as improved focus, a greater ability to solve problems and think laterally, better interpersonal skills, increased self-worth and an enhanced aptitude for teamwork.

David Gore, founder and director of the College of Magic.

“When we started out we never thought of all the spin-off benefits,” says David Gore, founder and director of the college. “We didn’t realise just how powerful magic was as a tool.”

The college’s students frequently give public performances at local venues, and Gore says he has observed how, within a matter of months, first-year students who arrived at the college shy and recalcitrant routinely end up being confident enough to perform on stage in front of hundreds of strangers.

Anele Dyasi enters the college dove coop

  • Above: Anele Dyasi enters the college’s dove coop. Right: students help each other prepare for a performance
    Below: a box of diabolos, batons and other juggling props, and face paints

College of Magic students Emilie van den Hooyen and Maelle Oudejans help each other get ready for a performance at the Artscape theatre centre.
Equipment used in magical and circus tricks lies in a box at the College of Magic.
Face paints on a table backstage during a performance.

Gore was just 19 when he and a colleague marched into the offices of a local newspaper wearing top hats and tailcoats and announced that they were starting a school for magicians. The newspaper published a story and before long 34 children had signed up. In the 40 years since, several thousand more students have come and gone through the hallways of the ramshackle Victorian mansion that houses the college.

A student juggles outside the college.
Students leave a classroom with walls covered with posters of illusionists.
Magic students walk downstairs after class.
Puppets, photographs and posters on the walls of the college

Built in the late 1800s, the building has a distinctively Hogwarts-esque feel, replete with crooked staircases, secret doorways hidden behind bookshelves, and a special enclosure for the rabbits and doves occasionally used in performances.

“It’s a lot more fun than my other school,” says Duma Mgqoki, a fourth-year student and aspiring magician, who says he enjoys wowing the other children in his neighbourhood with the tricks he learns at the college.

Duma Mgqoki practices a card trick.

While many of the college’s alumni have careers in magic and its associated arts, performing at children’s parties or corporate functions, or becoming TV entertainers, others say the college helped prepare them for a range of non-magical careers.

“Growing up, I went through a lot of trauma and depression. But here I felt free,” says Anela Gazi, a recent graduate of the college from Mfuleni township, who is starting her own shoe-cleaning company.

“This place prepared me for everything. It made me grow. It made me strong. I didn’t even know I could become the person I am now,” she says.

Anela Gazi.

  • ‘This place prepared me for everything. It made me grow. It made me strong,’ says Anela Gazi, a recent graduate

At the college, students from some of the city’s most underprivileged townships are learning alongside others from the wealthiest suburbs.

Twenty-seven years after the end of apartheid, Cape Town remains one of the world’s most divided cities, and many schools, indeed whole neighbourhoods, offer little in the way of ethnic diversity.

Students attend class.

“We believed what we were offering should be available to everyone, and we did that from day one,” says Gore, who flouted the laws of the apartheid regime in the 1980s by insisting on teaching multiracial classes.

The college operates as a nonprofit organisation, and helps to find sponsors to cover the fees of those who could not otherwise afford the courses. It also arranges transport to enable those from more distant areas to attend.

Performers from the College of Magic at the Artscape theatre centre, Cape Town.

“This is the rainbow nation,” says Dyasi after his class, pointing up at the building behind him. “We don’t judge each other here. Everyone is here to achieve the same thing: to become better magicians. It brings out the best in everyone.”

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Polls open in Russia’s parliamentary election

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Russians will head to the polls on Friday. Widespread anger over the stagnation economy has been rising in recent years, and the ruling party, United Russia, polls at historic lows. But it is expected to find a way to maintain its hold over the State Duma. Due to the size of the country, the polling takes three days. Voters will be able to cast ballots through to Sunday.

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Texas anti-abortion law shows ‘terrifying’ fragility of women’s rights, say activists | Global development

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The new anti-abortion law in Texas is a “terrifying” reminder of the fragility of hard-won rights, pro-choice activists have said, as they warn of a “more aggressive, much better organised [and] better funded” global opposition movement.

Pro-choice campaigners have seen several victories in recent years, including in Ireland, Argentina and, most recently, Mexico, where the supreme court ruled last week that criminalising abortion was unconstitutional. Another is hoped for later this month when the tiny enclave of San Marino, landlocked within Italy, holds a highly charged referendum.

But Texas’s law, which bans abortions after about six weeks, once embryonic cardiac activity is detected, and does not make exceptions for incest or rape, has sent shock waves around the world, making pro-choice activists realise they can take nothing for granted.

Sarah Shaw, head of advocacy at MSI Reproductive Choices, said: “Even though we have seen little gains here and there, in some places, we can never, ever be complacent because we’re only ever really hanging on to these rights by the skin of our teeth.”

She said the Texas law was “really terrifying” because of the emboldening message it sent to other anti-choice governments and organisations, with the fact it had happened in the US giving it “a huge weight and legitimacy”.

“This is all happening in the context of a rising, much more aggressive, much better organised, better funded and much more legitimised opposition movement than we’ve ever seen before,” Shaw said.

Pro-choice campaigners say they have faced increasingly vocal opposition from organisations that started on the US religious right but have spread to other countries, such as 40 Days for Life, a group that distributes graphic and misleading leaflets to women outside UK abortion clinics.

Heartbeat International, a conservative US Christian federation, funds and coordinates a network of anti-abortion “pregnancy resource” centres, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa, to provide women with what it calls “true reproductive help”.

“It’s a transnational movement now,” said Shaw. “What we’re seeing is them [US organisations] exporting their playbooks and their money overseas.”

Abortion-rights activists in Buenos Aires celebrate as Argentina’s Congress voted to legalise elective abortion.
‘Green wave’ abortion-rights activists in Buenos Aires celebrate as Argentina’s Congress voted to legalise elective abortion last December. Photograph: Natacha Pisarenko/AP

Attacks on abortion rights usually happen in countries where other human rights are under threat, according to analysts. Last year, more than 30 countries, many of them led by authoritarian strongmen or rightwing populists, including Belarus, Uganda, Hungary, Egypt and Donald Trump’s US administration, signed a non-binding anti-abortion document known as the Geneva consensus declaration. The text was also seen as being anti-LGBTQ, as most of the signatories had not legalised same-sex marriage and several prosecute their LGBTQ+ citizens.

In one of his first acts as president, Joe Biden removed the US from the declaration in January, as well as ending the Mexico City policy, known as the “global gag rule”.

Among the signatories was Poland, which is one of only three countries to have significantly rolled back abortion rights since 2000, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The other two are Nicaragua and the US.

In October last year, Poland’s constitutional tribunal ruled that terminations due to foetal defects were unconstitutional. Three months later, a near-total ban on abortions was imposed. Abortion is now only legal in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s health.

Meanwhile, human rights observers have said that a Nicaraguan law punishing abortion without any exceptions, passed in 2006, has simply forced women to seek unsafe backstreet terminations.

Marge Berer, coordinator of the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion, said setbacks were all too common, with breakthrough moments often followed by backlashes.

A protest against restrictions on abortion in Krakow in March. Poland has imposed a near-total ban.
A protest against restrictions on abortion in Krakow in March. Poland has imposed a near-total ban. Photograph: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

“My experience of this is one step forward, two steps forward, or one step back, 10 steps back,” she said. “And much of it, if not all of it, depends on who is the head of the government of the day.”

Berer, who has been involved in the pro-choice movement for almost 40 years, said the overall picture was brighter than it had been then: fewer deaths from unsafe abortions, and many more countries where terminations are legal.

But, she added, she was not hugely optimistic about the future. “There’s so much misogyny in the world. And I don’t know how anybody is going to make that go away,” she said. “For me, that’s the real problem. It’s that when misogyny takes over on a policy level, it’s very nasty.”

However, there is more hope among activists in Latin America, where the marea verde, or green wave, has swept through first Argentina and, last week, Mexico, where the supreme court struck down a state law that imposed prison terms for having an abortion. While it did not automatically legalise abortion, the decision is thought to set a binding precedent for the country’s judges.

Eugenia López Uribe, regional director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, said the legal change was the result of “40 years of hard work” by campaigners, with mass demonstrations, backroom lobbying and “a mainstreaming” of women’s rights in public discourse.

She said the ability of the Catholic church to tell people what to do when it came to abortion and contraception had been greatly reduced. “What we know from different surveys … is that in reality Catholics … feel that this is a private decision that you have to do with your own conscience.”

As women in Texas bear the brunt of the law brought in by the governor, Greg Abbott, their Mexican allies across the border were planning to take the fight north, she added.

“The ‘green wave’ hasn’t reached the United States so this is a very good opportunity for [it] to cross the border of the Rio Grande and go to the United States. We can make it go even further. We’ve been used to thinking about it in Latin America. Now is the time for North America.”

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