May 10, 2016 // posted by Sherrie Voss Matthews
Meet Christopher Jarrett.
An interest in an indigenous tea from Ecuador has earned Jarrett a second Fulbright and a National Science Foundation fellowship to support his research into the creation of an industry for this native tree leaf.
Jarrett first learned of guayusa tea when he was an Elon University undergraduate student researching abroad in Ecuador’s Napo Province in 2010. The tea, made from the leaves of a holly tree (Ilex guayusa), have been used for centuries by the indigenous Amazonian Kichwa people.
From that early project, Jarrett, a UTSA doctoral student in anthropology, began to explore how the commercialization of native species affects local economies, landscapes, and cultures. His National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship has supported him through stipends and tuition and fees exemptions throughout his graduate studies.
“Promoters of guayusa commercialization argue that it helps to enhance producer livelihoods while supporting development strategies that are socially just and well suited to Amazonian ecosystems,” Jarrett explained. “They suggest that fair-trade and organic certification will ensure that production remains socially and environmentally sustainable in the long run.”
Jarrett’s research will explore the role of guayusa commercialization in its economic, environmental, and political context in Ecuador’s Amazonian region, while also considering how commercialization is linked to global markets by examining guayusa consumption in Ecuador and the U.S.
“I’m going to study the emergence of the commodity chain,” Jarrett said. “I’m looking at the role of the commodity in people’s livelihoods, how it is produced, how it affects the environment where it is produced. I’m looking at how people are involved in the process, from the local producers, to the processors and distributors, to the consumers.”
“What’s unique about Chris’ work, and Chris as a scholar, is that he’s been working with Amazonian people since before he came to UTSA,” said Michael Cepek, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology in the College of Liberal and Fine Arts. “He has a deep, critical, open-minded perspective that many others do not. He looks at the world with a different set of eyes.”
Jarrett’s recent Fulbright-Hays grant will fund his year of research in both Ecuador and New York City. He will work with connections he made while studying abroad in Ecuador as an undergraduate and as an intern at RUNA.
RUNA is composed of both for-profit and nonprofit entities and has received investment from the Ecuadorian government. It is the first and largest company to market guayusa beyond Ecuador, starting in 2009.
“This research will provide insight into the complex relationship between business, NGO, and governmental activities in contemporary development strategies,” Jarrett said. “It will also explore commodity certification processes and consumer activism by examining a product that has only recently become globally traded.”
Jarrett’s research will not only help the company to understand the people who work for them and whether or not the market will help the people they are trying to help, as RUNA planned, but it will also help the producers understand the commodity chain structure, and maybe make it a more just relationship, Cepek said.
Cepek added the research may show other nonprofits and NGOs how this particular system works -- or doesn’t. The commercialization of guayusa could become a blueprint for how to market a crop and not destroy its fragile environment or the culture from which it comes.
RUNA has a factory in Archidona, Ecuador, that dries and mills guayusa leaves and a guayusa botanical research center. The tea is distributed to markets across the U.S. and to Canada and Europe, and as of 2014, RUNA’s guayusa is also available for purchase within Ecuador. RUNA purchases guayusa from more than 3,000 guayusa producers.
“I am looking at how its production fits into indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and landscapes, as well as how guayusa commercialization shapes and is shaped by different actors’ understandings of the environment, notions of value and justice, and political projects,” he said.
Jarrett received a Fulbright-IIE in 2011; then he worked with two Kichwa research assistants to interview 17 indigenous individuals about how they consumed guayusa, its significance in Napo Runa culture, and the various traditions associated with guayusa consumption.
His upcoming period of research will allow Jarrett more time to interview a wider group of people involved in production, from the local residents and mestizo settlers to the North American and European business and marketing representatives.
Jarrett will also examine how, culturally, the groups are affected from a gender and generational perspective.
“Younger Kichwa have higher rates of secondary education, more experience with Western media and technology, and increased proximity to urban centers compared to their elders, all of which might affect their perceptions and experiences of guayusa commercialization,” Jarrett explained. “There’s these interesting dynamics surrounding ethnicity, gender and class, all wrapped into the commodity of tea.”
Since its inception more than 60 years ago, approximately 300,000 Fulbrighters have participated in the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.
Sponsored by the United States Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Fulbright Program provides funding for students, scholars, teachers, and professionals to undertake graduate study, advanced research, university teaching, and teaching in elementary and secondary schools.
Learn more about how to apply for a Fulbright at http://www.iie.org/fulbright.