Every morning, Edmundo Salazar wakes up before the sun rises for a cup of guayusa. He takes a bundle of dried leaves and boils it in a pot of water on an open fire. When the smoke has risen and the flavor has steeped, he ladles the green liquid into a bowl made from a dried jungle gourd.
"This is an important plant to us for when we wake up," he says, handing me the drink.
It is just before six in the morning and the sun is starting to come out, its rays streaming into the shack. We are in the Amazon rainforest, and the sounds of birds and insects are coming to a crescendo as life all around begins to awaken. There, underneath the straw roof with the forest behind my back, I take a sip. The beverage is slightly bitter—just enough for my liking. It is most reminiscent of black tea, but without the astringent note. It's also lighter and a tad more floral. Within seconds I feel a slow rush of energy.
Guayusa is naturally packed with caffeine and polyphenols; it has less caffeine than coffee and twice as much antioxidants as green tea. Archaeological evidence suggests the plant has been used and traded in the greater Andes-Amazon region since at least 500 A.D.
For the indigenous Kichwa people here in Ecuador, guayusa has multiple functions. It's a stomach tonic and a diuretic, and it's believed to help increase fertility and calm body aches.
It's also a plant that is traditionally used to interpret dreams. Families will gather around before dawn to share their dreams, right before they go hunting or head off to work in their horticultural plots. Riffing off of the sacred powers of the drink, they help each other decode their night visions, which they believe to be directly related to the future.
Salazar asks me if I had any dreams the night before. I recount one in which I am constantly walking in broken shoes, and no matter what type of shoes I put on—hiking shoes, flats, or heels—they all end up frayed to tatters.
"It means that you have been traveling a lot," he says. "You go to many countries and many places. You especially like to cover long distances in very short periods of times and you will continue doing this."
I did, after all, go to 11 provinces in China in nine months last year. And now I'm in Ecuador. It's a spot-on interpretation and I get goosebumps when I realize that Salazar knows nothing about my background.
"The Kichwas take their dreams very seriously," says Andy Gavilanes, founder of Amazon Learning, a social enterprise that facilitates education experiences for people in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest.
"The dream that they would have the night before is specifically used for guiding them the next day," he says. "This would be a way for them to divide labor and figure out who would go out hunting and who would stay close to the house."
Different Amazonian tribes use the plant to varying degrees. The Kichwas are one of the only people who drink it on a daily basis.
"Some other cultures, like the Shuar, will drink it to the point that they vomit," Gavilanes adds.
Salazar himself is full-blooded Kichwa, an indigenous group that spans South America. The Kichwas have had a major presence in the Amazon rainforest for thousands of years, and here in the Napo Province in Ecuador, the jungle is their home.
At one point, Salazar only had a handful of guayusa plants on his property; it was just enough for his family. But these days, foreign demand for the Amazonian super-leaf means that he now has an incentive to cultivate more. When Runa, an American guayusa company, came in and offered locals money in exchange for their leaves, Salazar immediately took up the task. Today, he has nearly 100 trees.
"There's this rich tradition of planting guayusa by the indigenous people," says Eliot Logan-Hines, co-founder of Runa. "The seeds are sterile and you have to use cuttings. Most families had just one tree behind their house. For us to reproduce those trees, we had to learn from scratch."
But after much research, the company realized that the plant grows best in shade and in agroforestry systems, the same regenerative, multi-storied systems that the Kichwas use to grow their food. And so they began a partnership with indigenous households in the Amazon, buying directly from families and starting a nonprofit foundation to balance out the corporate operations.
Today, Runa works directly with 3,000 families in the Napo region. There is no centralized, mono-crop guayusa operation, and land is not being cut down to grow the Amazonian super-leaf. All the tea is bought directly from the backyards of Kichwa families in Ecuador.
Runa sends a truck to pick up the leaves from the family farms and transfers it to a processing facility where the leaves are dried and refined, similar to the process for black tea. It's then shipped to the United States, where it's sold in places like Whole Foods and Safeway. The company is fair-trade and organic-certified.
"The history of outsiders coming into the Amazon and finding plants that have value has been very ugly. There's a repeated history of exploitation," says Logan-Hines, who heads the nonprofit arm of Runa. "We were naturally wary that business on its own would not necessarily provide environmental and social benefits to the people in the forest. And so a lot of our work is focused on community development. In addition to the income the farmers receive, we manage a social premium fund for them that comes with the sale of guayusa."
Salazar's guayusa trees earn him an average of $500 to $1,000 a year from Runa. This is a significant chunk of income for him, considering that he, along with most indigenous families, still live off of the land. He says he doesn't spend much effort maintaining his plants. Five days a year, he estimates, is all he dedicates to his trees.
On top of selling value-added goods from his land, Salazar also hosts guayusa demonstrations in his home. A shaman-in-training, he sees the plant as a way to bridge a cultural gap and get people interested in Kichwa culture. On the side, he runs an activist group called Wayru Churis, whose purpose is to spread the cultural and musical traditions of the Kichwa people.
"It is very important for me to be a cultural activist," he says. "These traditions have functions for us. Guayusa isn't just a way for me to earn income—it also helps me demonstrate my culture."
Before we head off to his farm for a tour, he takes a small sip of the tea and spits a bit on himself. Kichwas believe that the tea acts as a protective barrier against predators and pests.
"It hypnotizes the pests like snakes and insects," he says. "The more you drink it, the more immune you become to them. Guayusa gives us the spirit of the forest."