The social life of guayusa from amazonian ecuador: an examination of livelihoods, landscapes, and politics




Jarrett, Christopher

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This dissertation examines the possibilities and complexities of tropical plant commercialization as a way to integrate economic development and environmental conservation. Specifically, it traces the "social life" of the guayusa leaf (Ilex guayusa), a culturally important plant for the Amazonian Kichwa people that is used in energy drinks and other beverage products sold around the world. It investigates the complex social, economic, environmental, and political processes involved in the guayusa industry, which began in 2008 with the creation of the enterprise RUNA. Fieldwork was conducted from 2013 to 2017. Methods involved participant observation, semi-structured and life-history interviews, weekly economic diaries, and a livelihood survey.

The dissertation analyzes guayusa's role in Kichwa culture and livelihoods (Chapters 1-2), efforts to manage and regulate guayusa domestication (Chapter 3), Fair Trade certification processes (Chapter 4), intellectual property debates (Chapter 5), and the role of social enterprise in the industry (Chapter 6). Rooted in Kichwa perspectives, it argues for a more nuanced understanding of indigenous peoples' relationships with market-oriented activities and questions the idea that commodification necessarily implies a devaluing of indigenous peoples' resources. It highlights the heterogeneity of global capitalism and argues for greater attention to the diversity of capitalist configurations across time and space. Finally, while demonstrating that commercialization of tropical species can enhance and diversify indigenous peoples' livelihoods, it describes the limitations of such approaches and calls for more modest expectations regarding the ability of for-profit business to address social and environmental challenges.


The author has granted permission for their work to be available to the general public.


Amazonian Kichwa, capitalism, Ecuador, guayusa, indigenous politics, Runa