pining for panambi

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The lights lingered for a last display of luminance as we were leaving Panambi

Our hosts Miguel Gonzalez and Maria Duarte with the rest of their companeros from la Cooperativa Agricola Rio Parana Limitada or Titrayju (spanish acronym for “land, work and justice”) as they prefer to be called, drove us in a two vehicle convoy to their yerba mate factory near the tiny remote village of Panambi east of Obera and a hop away from Brazil. It is a place you won’t find easily on a map but I saw the place signage so I know that’s the name of the place we visited.

When we arrived an almost centenarian European looking gentleman with ruddy face walked across the road to welcome us. He was accompanied by a younger person wearing a worker’s beret who could be his grandson or even great-grandson. He shook everybody’s hand and guffawed infectiously as I looked on and snapped away at the jaw-dropping view in front of us. The sun shone through the clouds giving clean soft lights to the trees and fields beyond. It was a picture perfect moment of taoist significance. Of longevity and laughter in a fecund landscape.

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All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng November 2013

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Argentines call this region ” la Mesopotamia” ( Greek for ” land between rivers”) because two of South America’s great rivers, the Parana and Uruguay, flow here flanking its boundaries before draining into the Rio de la Plata. Three provinces make up this region. The northern-most and smallest is Misiones. Here Argentina, the world’s 8th largest country, is reduced to a thumb-shaped land the size of Belgium squeezed between Paraguay and Brazil.

To local people, Misiones is la tierra colorada–  a subtropical arcadia of red nutrient rich soil supporting an eclectic flora of rainforest trees, exotic pines, tea and the province’s principal cash crop, yerba mate.

Yerba Mate, Argentina’s national beverage is grown often alongside  tea on a plantation scale in the province. Drank as an infusion of leaves with stems ( con palo) in a gourd shaped cup ( mate) with a metal straw ( bombilla) it initially tastes mildly of dried grass and aged woodchips.

The story of yerba mate is also the story of Misiones as it was the missionary settlements (hence the name) founded by European Jesuit priests that led to the growing of yerba mate for commerce by the native Guarani people.

In the 17th century the Jesuits came to convert the area’s indigenous tribes to Catholicism. The Guarani were nomads but the Jesuits placed and protected them in settlements and taught them western agricultural methods and ways to domesticate the wild yerba mate plant. The Jesuits’ social and evangelical experiment ran against the policies of the Portuguese and Spanish governments who relied on captured Guarani slaves to work the colonial plantations. This clash led eventually to the expulsion of the Jesuit Order from the Latin American colonies and destruction and abandonment of the missions.

From 1880s onwards Misiones saw huge European immigration notably Poles, Ukrainians, Germans and other non-latin Europeans into its territory in search of farmlands and work. Today over a million people live in Misiones. Outside of Posadas, the capital, the province is a place of tiny remote settlements and small towns such as Obera, Eldorado and Apostoles, the yerba mate capital of the universe.

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