In the lush green rainforest of the Ecuadorean Amazon, members of the Kichwa indigenous group gather well before dawn to drink guayusa tea.

The naturally caffeinated, earthy beverage is part of an early morning ritual fundamental to the Kichwa culture. The villagers, who call themselves Runa—which translates to “fully alive”—believe drinking guayusa both awakens the body and provides time for reflection of dreams experienced the night before.

“Now guayusa is helping us economically,” farmer Silverio Mamallacta says in a video posted on the website of Runa LLC, a company named after the villagers and the only one selling the tea.

It also may be helping the climate. The company sources from about 3,000 farmers who tend more than a million trees planted in “forest gardens.” Selling the tea leaves to Runa has created a new source of income for the villagers, who are now getting paid to keep their forests intact, helping them resist the pressure of selling their land to be cleared.

Reducing deforestation and maintaining the carbon already stored in the world’s tropical forests is something climate advocates stress is crucial if the world is to keep climate change at bay. The Runa experiment already has attracted attention from celebrity environmentalists like Leonardo DiCaprio.

Runa was founded seven years ago by Tyler Gage and Dan MacCombie, two Brown University liberal arts graduates. Gage spent two years living in the Ecuadorean rainforest, where he learned of the tea. He returned to school, and together the two partners crafted a business plan, entered multiple contests, and then received a grant to build a research-and-development facility to dry and transport the tea leaves.

With the growing interest in natural forms of energy, the partners saw potential to market guayusa but said they wanted to do so in a way that created a sustainable income source for indigenous farmers and allowed them to stay in their ancestral forestlands.

“When we started talking to farmers and said we wanted to pay cash dollars and put guayusa in bottled tea and sell it in New York City, they just laughed hysterically,” Gage said. “What was cool and what we saw as the potential with guayusa is we’ve been able to create the supply chain from scratch.”

Today, Runa can be found in Whole Foods, in Safeway and on The company’s foundation arm focuses on helping farmers, which leaves Gage and MacCombie free to proselytize about both guayusa’s natural benefits and benefits to the farmers and the forests they grow it in.

How sustainable are sustainable businesses?

From their call-out in the Paris Agreement and dozens of climate commitments, forests are increasingly being highlighted as climate change solutions. Deforestation and other land-use changes account for 11 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions.

Mechanisms to reduce deforestation are varied, but a growing body of research has found that indigenous communities with secure land rights do a better job of managing and maintaining forests than government policy and enforcement actions. For example, a 2014 report from the World Resources Institute found that in the Brazilian Amazon, rates of deforestation were 11 times lower in community forests with strong legal recognition and government protection than in other regions.

But indigenous people also need financial security. Today, indigenous communities, the nongovernmental organizations that support many of these sustainable endeavors and entrepreneurs are all tapping into a growing desire by consumers for sustainably sourced products like chocolate, coffee and now guayusa.

Despite the rise of these types of businesses, it’s still unclear to what extent they can flourish in a marketplace predicated on big business commodities.

“Not in every case is a community enterprise going to be an answer, but there can be opportunity,” said Richard Donovan, vice president of forestry with the nonprofit Rainforest Alliance.

For more than a decade, the Rainforest Alliance has been working with farmers and forest communities to create sustainable supply chains and forest products. Consumers may be familiar with the group’s green frog logo certifying the sustainability of products including fair-trade coffee and chocolate and locally processed Brazil nuts.

Donovan said that in the last 15 years or so, governments have seen evidence pile up that shows indigenous communities with secure land rights are barriers against deforestation. Companies are hearing from their consumers that they want sustainable products.

“I would almost classify it as a movement,” he said. “Now, banks, investors, venture capitalists are seeing where they might be able to play a part in fostering this kind of stuff.”

DiCaprio and other celebrities investing

Over the years, Runa has developed a following among the rich and famous. Actor Channing Tatum is a fan and visited the farmers in Ecuador. His trip and thoughts are featured in the company’s video posted online. Last month, DiCaprio invested in the company.

DiCaprio, a longtime defender of tropical forests and environmental causes, didn’t just want to give money to the company directly. Rather, he wanted to have a lasting impact on Runa’s farmers, said Chris Meyer, senior manager of Amazon forest policy for the Environmental Defense Fund.

A portion of DiCaprio’s investment was funneled to the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA), an advocate for Amazonian indigenous people’s rights and forest conservation. EDF is a trustee for COICA’s endowment and facilitated the transaction.

“What is novel and new is the idea of bringing on an investor that would then donate to an endowment that supports further advocacy efforts and indigenous peoples taking ownership of the company,” Meyer said.

In that way, DiCaprio’s investment goes much deeper than just supporting the tea company itself, he added. By creating direct ownership and creating a stake in the community beyond just receiving payment for crops produced, the community, with COICA’s help, could help other communities fight for land rights and facilitate additional business ventures like Runa.

And having secure tenure is the first step to tapping into the conservation benefit community forest enterprises can have, said Juan-Carlos Altamirano, an economist at the World Resources Institute.

“Without the rights, it’s difficult to have a successful strategy for these communities,” he said. “When someone thinks of climate change and policies to tackle climate change, they think of building a cleaner power plant or buying more solar panels, but the mitigation potential of ensuring people have their land rights is huge.”

Even with a novel funding regime behind it, the success of Runa—or any of the business ventures that support community forests—is not assured, said Donovan with the Rainforest Alliance. He said a 50 percent success rate would be phenomenal.

“Let’s be careful about expectations here,” he said. “We can’t presume businesses we are supporting today will be here in decades to come. They will probably morph, and we have to prepare communities to not go into this with starry eyes.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500