Esp | Eng

Tareferos: la historia detrás de la yerba mate

Fotografías de Adrián Pérez
Texto de María Laura Brito

For most people around the world, ‘mate’ is something intriguing, even unknown, especially when they first visit Argentina and meet someone carrying boiling water in a thermos, pouring it in some dry grass and, not only drinking from it using some kind of metallic straw, but also sharing it, continuously. The flavor is not easy to describe, considering all the different mate herbs there exist and the blends people add, from sugar and cinnamon, to coffee, tea and lemon skin, to name but a few. If you ask someone about it, they will tell you mate tastes like mate, however, none would claim that it also would leave a sour taste in the mouth. The taste of pain, sweat, child labor and injustice.

Plants of yerba mate (ilex paraguariensis) in one of the yerbatales (yerba fields) in Comandante Andresito, Misiones province.

In the provinces of Misiones and Corrientes, in the northeast region of Argentina, and one of the poorest, a 60% of world production of yerba mate is harvested every year. Together, with soy and livestock production, they are by far the most profitable agricultural activities in the country, along with a huge domestic consumption and export levels.

A "tarefero" works in the crop of yerba mate in one of the yerba fields of Misiones. The name tarefero comes from the Portuguese word "tarefa" or "tarea", (task in english) or the amount of work done in a day.
A foreman is in charge of weighing the tied or "raido" of yerba. These tieds weigh between 165 and 220 pounds. It is only the foreman who controls daily total of pounds harvested for each "tarefero" in a strenuous day of work.

Far away from being benefited by these large-scale activities, there are hundreds of ‘tareferos’; cheap labor force, working men, women and children, who represent the first link in this Argentinian production chain.

With the force of four tareferos the yerba bundles are loaded in trucks. Each truck is loaded by the same harvesters with approximately 100 bags of the yerba, which are then transported to the drying sheds.

The term ‘tareferos’ comes from the Portuguese ‘tarefa’ – ‘task’ in English. Their job consists of spending 10 hours a day under the sun, picking with their bare hands hundreds of kilos of yerba mate leaves, that then they separate into smaller packages of 75k to 100k each. These packages are then carried on their backs, to be weighed by a foreman, who will determine the pay according to the amount of yerba mate kilos obtained in a day’s work.

A young truck driver and his son wait while "tareferos" load the crop of yerba mate, in Comandante Andresito, Misiones province.
A foreman arrives at the harvest area of yerba. He is the only person in charge of weighing the tied or "raido" of yerba harvested by each "tarefero".
The son of a truck driver waits while the yerba are loaded. Child labor is very common in the yerba mate harvest.
In the early afternoon, the "tareferos" continue to working loading the trucks that will carry the yerba bundles to the drying sheds.

A little more than twenty years ago, tareferos were part of the rural population of these provinces, but in the nineties the situation changed and there was a crisis after the deregulation of the activity. This led to the overproduction and subsequent deterioration of prices, deepening the process of concentration of the industrial and commercial sector of yerba mate. Despite attempts by the Misiones Cabinet to intervene in the yerba mate industry and economy, being in the midst of Argentine economic crisis for ten years after the deregulation, the medium-term results were inconsistent. During this crisis, entire families of tareferos had to move to illegal villages in the interior of the province, becoming a poor and marginalized sector.

A truck full of yerba mate it is ready to be unloaded inside the Andresito cooperative. Like the loading of the trucks, the unloading of yerba is done manually.

Not until 2009, the population of tareferos in Misiones province was surveyed, and the results did nothing but highlight the precarious situation in which they live.

Wood is the main fuel for weed dryers. Some carpentries in the area work with the wood of the yerba fields.
Many yerba fields have tree species for use as firewood and also in local carpentry.

The working day for tareferos starts early in the morning, by 4-5 am, when a truck picks them from the camps built near the banks of the yerbatales. They arrive to the plantation, moist with dew and frost, which eases the process of recollection of leaves. Apart from their bare hands, the only tools they use are pruning shears. By the end of 2012, for 500k of yerba mate in a day of work – something only possible for the strongest men – tareferos would receive a monthly salary between u$s 150 and 200.

Ropes and plastics supplied by the owners of the yerba fields, serve as a home of the swallow workers (workers who travel and live in the harvest area of different industries). Yerba mate is harvested between autumn and winter, and whole families of laborers live under extreme conditions of work, without contract, and without health insurance.
A "tarefero" who sleeps with his familie in the fields of yerba, prepares the "mate" for breakfast before starting a working day, in Comandante Andresito, Misiones province.

From the price of each kilo or yerba mate, 25% is distributed among the State, the producer, the contractor and the tareferos, leaving the remaining 75% for the large companies that are in charge of the distribution of the product.

Small forest producers of Comandante Andresito, in Misiones.
A local sawmill in Comandante Andresito, works with forestry estates for the use of carpentry, but also sells remains of the wood used to dryers of yerba mate.

According to the rural union UATRE, the irregularities in the yerba mate harvest in Argentina (2005), involve about 25,000 people, of whom 49% are outside the legal labor market. This is the reason why the job of thousand tareferos is affected by problems such as slave labor, lack of access to basic services, precarious housing and child labor.

To load the last bundles of yerba to the trucks, harvesters help themselves with rods to push up the "raidos" of yerba to the top.
At nightfall the trucks begin to reach the yerba dryers. The yerba is spread in bulk in large roofed sheds and then by mechanical shovels is loaded on a mechanical tape that carries the yerba into the drying ovens.
At nightfall the trucks begin to reach to yerba dryers. The yerba is spread in bulk in large roofed sheds and then by mechanical shovels is loaded on a mechanical tape that carries the yerba into the drying ovens.
Before final drying, large bags of yerba are filled and deposited in a warehouse where the yerba ends the drying process.
A worker from the Andresito cooperative loads empty packages that the machine then accommodates and fills with the yerba ready to consume.
During the night workers continue unloading the daily crop of yerba in large sheds without walls. The height of the leaves of yerba exceeds the three meters of height.

In February 2017, tareferos from Andresito and Oberá protested for several days blocking avenues and provincial routes in Misiones, claiming their right to receive a decent wage.

The municipality of Comandante Andresito, in Misiones, is the largest producer of yerba mate in the province and the first in the National level. Yerba mate production is strongly linked to labor exploitation, black labor, and child labor.