Chronicler of the Guaraní and discoverer of the Stevia plant
by Charlotte Eichhorn
Bartomeu Meliá, was born in 1932 in the Balearic Islands, Spain. He was a Jesuit priest, specialising in ethnology and linguistics and was considered one of the leading experts on the Guarani. (✝︎ 2019)
Living in Paraguay since 1954, he has spent long periods of time in various Guaraní villages. Author of several books on the Guaraní language, culture, history and spirituality of the people, for him, the Guaraní are the "theologians of the forest".
In 1882, Moisés Bertoni, agronomist, meteorologist and anthropologist, emigrated with a group of farmers from the poor Ticino valley to Misiones, Argentina. His original idea - to develop a farmers' collective - failed miserably despite indigenous help because of the climate, the barren soil and the displeased comrades-in-arms.
But the man from the Ticino did not give up that quickly. With his large family and his indigenous helpers he moved on to Paraguay, where he worked as an agronomist. In addition, in 1894 he founded and led a State Agricultural College in Asuncion at the request of the president. Thanks to his political contacts he acquired a huge piece of land close to the waterfalls of Iguazu and founded the research settlement 'Guillermo Tell '.
Bertoni rapidly took the gentle natives, the Guarani, to his heart. He saw in them and their culture a prime example of libertarian socialism, a hotly debated political model in the Europe of the 19. Century. "The term of ownership doesn’t exist for the Guaraní", Bertoni was impressed: "They don’t see themselves as owners of land, nature or personal property, they only have the right to use it."
In that context, Bertoni discovered the sweet plant called Stevia. "A small snippet of a few millimetres from a large leaf leaves a sweet taste in the mouth for about an hour; a few leaves can sweeten strong coffee or tea," he writes.
"The term of ownership doesn’t exist for the Guaraní"
Like a total patriarch, without regard for the needs of his family, which must adapt itself fully to his ideas and scientific work, he planted trees from all over the world on his land, he traveled a lot, started a laboratory and his own printing press to publish his scientific works. After more than three decades, he died lonely and impoverished; his family is scattered to the winds and has forsaken him.
Nowadays the Guaraní hate him on the one hand, because he told the whole world about the Stevia plant and thus made the plant so freely available, on the other hand, they worship him as the chronicler of their people.