Nestled deep in the Amazonian region of Ecuador, where cool rainforest canopies intermingle with the jutted rocks of the Andes, live a group of indigenous farmers whose ancient ritual of gathering around gourds of warm guayusa tea can now be shared and enjoyed by all. The Kichwa farmers in Napo, Ecuador are some of the first farming communities around the world who can now access the benefits of Fair Trade through Fair Trade USA’s new Independent Smallholder (ISH) Standard – aimed at achieving the nonprofit organization’s mission of empowerment, social responsibility, economic development, and environmental stewardship for this group of small farmers.
What is Guayusa?
Guayusa (gwhy–you–sa) is a native Amazonian tree leaf that indigenous people in the Ecuadorian Amazon have brewed like tea for thousands of years. Drinking guayusa is essential to what makes them “Runa”— fully alive. Guayusa offers a clear, focused energy by balancing as much caffeine as one cup of coffee with twice the antioxidants of green tea. Unlike traditional teas, it contains no tannins, so it tastes surprisingly smooth and naturally sweet.
The Kichwa People
Despite a long and difficult history of colonization, the Kichwa always have been, and continue to be, a strong, vibrant, agricultural community. For thousands of years farming families have worked together to hand pick guayusa on the land of their ancestors, carefully collecting leaves and stringing them together into a wreath to dry. Until now, these farmers have never had the opportunity to sell their tea outside of local markets, and have often struggled to access things like healthcare and education for their children. Now, with Fair Trade certification and their strong relationship with Runa  (an importer of Fair Trade Certified guayusa), the Kichwa are able to share their rich cultural heritage with the world.
The Creation of Runa
The idea to create Runa , the importer of the Kichwa’s guayusa, came from a team of students traveling in the Ecuadorian Amazon in 2008. Founders Tyler Gage and Daniel MacCombie were inspired by the Kichwa’s traditions and saw the potential impact they could make in these farmer’s daily lives by helping them bring their prized guayusa tea to market. As a result, they created Runa and began working with a group of small, independent guayusa farmers to obtain Fair Trade certification.
The Road to Fair Trade
When Tyler and Daniel  founded Runa , acquiring Fair Trade certification was a core element of their business plan, and key to their mission of improving the lives of the Kichwa farmers. They founded the export company “Runapartuna Exportadora” that worked with the farmers to help them qualify for Fair Trade certification against the FLO Small Producer Organization (SPO) Standard. Unfortunately, since the farmers had never commercialized their guayusa before and had no history of working together as an association, the cooperative model that the FLO standard promotes didn’t work for Runa. As a result, the producers were unable to be certified in their early stage of growth.
While cooperatives are the backbone of the Fair Trade model, only a small percentage of small farmers world-wide (<10%) are part of one due to various geographic, political, cultural or business-related barriers. This is why Fair Trade USA has developed its new Independent Smallholders (ISH) Standard , to provide access to the benefits of Fair Trade for the many farmers that own small parcels of land (typically between 1 and 5 acres), but are not organized into official cooperatives or associations.
Building on the strengths of the coop model, this new standard allows more organizational flexibility while upholding the rigor for which Fair Trade certification is known. Under the ISH standards, groups of independent smallholders work with a “Market Access Partner,” who in the early stages of development will own the Fair Trade certificate, help manage premium funds with the Fair Trade Committee, and bring their product to market. Once the farmers have developed the necessary skills to independently run a successful business operation, they can form their own cooperative if they choose. Runa is actively supporting the Kichwa farmers with the development and creation of their own cooperative.
As the first group to be certified under the ISH standard, the Ecuadorian Kichwa farmers are a true testament to its necessity. Years of limited educational opportunities, lack of experience with international sales, and minimal business acumen would otherwise have eliminated these guayusa farmers from participation in Fair Trade. Now, through the ISH standard, groups of independent smallholders can become certified, allowing Fair Trade to meet them at their current level of development and accompany them on their path towards increased empowerment.
Through Fair Trade certification and the direct partnership with Runa and their nonprofit partner, Fundacion Runa , the Kichwa plan to reinvest their Fair Trade premiums into various programs around environmental management and conservation, education, financial literacy and women’s empowerment.
Visit http://www.runa.org/  to learn more about Runa, the Kichwa, and the incredible Fair Trade journey this new Amazonian tea has taken to get from the rainforests of Ecuador all the way to your cup.