The history of panela in Colombia dates back to when sugar cane was first cultivated in the country. The crop was introduced here in the 16th century, and has since become profoundly rooted in Colombian culture and traditions. Panela is a natural sweetener extracted from sugar cane, and has always been mostly produced artisan- ally. The cane juice is first extracted using small engine-driven mills, before being subjected to different manual processes of cleaning and clarification using natural thickeners made from local plants. Once it has evaporated to the right point, the juice is poured into molds for cooling. The blocks of panela are then ready to sell and consume.
A resource for family farmers
According to FAO figures, Colombia is the top country for panela consumption in the world, and the second- largest producer. All of the production is for the domestic market, and meets the national demand. Panela production is one of the country’s most important economic activities: with 249,384 hectares planted with sugar cane it creates 25 million work days a year and involves 12% of the rural population.
Panela is an essential product in the rural economy, and the leading sweetener in the Colombian diet, of primary importance to local and regional trade. It represents a vital source of income for farming families. Currently, however, the market is threatened by the coming into force of Resolution 779 from 2006, regulating the hygiene requirements for the production and sale of panela. This is causing great difficulties for Colombian family farmers. In order to comply with the regulations, a farming family must invest around 4,000 dollars in technological alterations and training, a figure that is generally well above their spending capacity. The government has not taken into account this fact, and has not developed concrete support programs for the small-scale producers who represent the rural reality; instead, it is encouraging joining structures that are not very representative. This favors large panela producers and divides the production sector. The new production practices also involve the use of certified seeds and technological packages to increase productivity. This represents a risk to the survival of traditional sugar cane varieties and to organic production, very common in this specific sector.
The sugar market
Governmental negligence, the shortage of investment policies in the agricultural sector and the lack of road infrastructure are some of the difficulties facing Colombian small-scale farmers, compounded by conditions of underdevelopment and unfair competition from the huge wave of imported products encouraged by free-trade agreements. All this supports the need to improve the quality of the product in the face of falling urban consumption of panela and the lowering of its price on the market. The drop in demand is however due largely to changing food habits in the urban classes, who prefer to consume artificial sweeteners, carbonated drinks and other types of products. Plus, there is a psychological factor, with the well-off city dwellers seeing panela as being too humble a product.
Behind the hygiene issue lies a much bigger factor, in which the big producers and industrial sugar refineries play a major role. They want a monopoly over the market for sugar, panela and biofuels. As is happening with various crops, there is talk of the need for prerequisites for health, but the state has not put in place a policy of adequate rural investment. It is a complex situation for a country that is entering into peace talks to try to resolve a conflict, in a context of major interests moving to control natural resources, massive inequalities in access to land and a lack of rural reforms that would improve the living conditions of a historically forgotten class, that of our small- scale farmers.
This article was originally published in the Slow Food Almanac.