Using remote-sensing technology, Stephen F. Austin State University graduate student Travis Killen, under the direction of SFA’s Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture’s Dr. Gary Kronrad, distinguished professor of resource economics, is attempting to sustain a cultural and gastronomic tradition in Argentina that spans more than five centuries, while simultaneously protecting the diminishing native forests upon which the global industry relies.
Mate, a hot tea made from the yerba mate plant, was first cultivated by the native Guaraní people of South America prior to Spanish colonization. Today, the drink remains a staple of Argentinian culture. Traditionally, the drink is consumed from a dried calabash gourd through a bombilla, a metal straw equipped with a rounded filter.
Due to reported health benefits of the prepared drink, the once endemic South American tradition has now crossed the globe. According to a 2007 article in the Journal of Food Science, the 2004 global production value of mate was estimated at $1 billion.
“Misiones is a primary exporter of yerba mate products worldwide,” said Killen. “It’s only one of two yerba producing states in Argentina.”
The world’s growing demand for mate is one of many factors fueling the increasing strain on the highly fragmented, shrinking interior Atlantic Forest in South America. To process the plant for consumption, the leaves of the yerba mate must be dried in facilities that traditionally use wood from the native forests.
Killen said a resident of Misiones stated that one drying facility can consume up to six tons of wood a day.
“That’s why this isn’t a sustainable supply,” he added. “They’re using it faster than the forest can produce it.”
To help reduce the rate of forest decline, laws now regulate the amount of wood that can be utilized from the native forests of Argentina. Specifically, Killen explained, the renewable dendroenergetic resources regulatory framework required all tea dryers to decrease the firewood consumption from native forests by 50 percent by January 2013.
According to Kronrad, representatives of the yerba mate and forest industries verbalized the need for research to assist them in adapting to this legislation.
Killen, who also works as a system programmer for SFA’s Information Technology Services, believes Geographic Information Systems, a tool used in natural resource management to address forest conservation and other environmental issues, has the potential to assist the mate industry in achieving the regulatory standards.
Much like East Texas, Misiones is known for its forest industry. Killen said the province is the largest cultivator of production forestry in Argentina. Using GIS, Killen identified potential forest plantation investments that might serve as an alternative to firewood from native forests.
By constructing a land-classification map of the region, Killen was able to delineate the region into five land cover categories: water, agriculture, planted forest, native forest and urban.
“Out of the five, we can’t plant in native forest, water or urban areas, so that leaves us two areas,” he said. “You can plant in existing plantations, and you can also convert agricultural land into a sustainable plantation.”
Killen analyzed the net present value per hectare of the locations identified as possible forest plantation sites, ensuring economic viability for investors. Lastly, he created an interactive online tool that incorporates existing GIS data, as well as investor input, into a custom model that generates financially and ecologically sustainable locations for forest plantations.
He said while he believes yerba mate drying facilities will be the most active investors to use this technology, forestry companies also might want to expand their businesses to provide yerba mate suppliers with firewood.
Killen said the online tool may stimulate investments and jobs in commercial forestry, and, more importantly, save jobs in the yerba mate industry by providing a cost effective and sustainable means of firewood.
Kronrad added that the development of these forests also can benefit his and Dr. Daniel Scognamillo’s, SFA professor of wildlife, ongoing project in Misiones to incentivize forest conservation for the jaguar.
The next step will be to present the research and interactive tool to Argentina’s undersecretary for forest development and the University of Misiones. With their collaboration, Killen and his advisers hope to further strengthen the economic model and Web-based platform, ultimately benefiting Argentina’s economy and native forests.
To view the Web-based platform, visit http://yerba.936webdesign.com/. For more information regarding this or other research in the SFA Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture, call (936) 468-3301.
Yerba mate leaves are transported to a drying facility in Misones, Argentina.
Photos courtesy of Travis Killen