Panela, a sweet gamble to keep indigenous people living in Colombia's highlands

Nutritious, rich and high in calories, panela helps the Arhuacos fight malnutrition; the UN agency that fights drug trafficking supports this indigenous community

UNODC/Laura Rodríguez Navarro  -   Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a place with abundant water, hot mornings and cold nights, with peaks over five thousand metres high whose snows flow into the Colombian Caribbean and is protected by the indigenous community of the Arhuacos

"If they don't know panela in the United States, what do they eat?" An Arhuaco indigenous man in his forties breaks the silence with this question. It is 7 p.m. - in Colombia it is always dark at that time - and on the plates there are some leftover rice and eggs. Someone takes a sip of panela water, a natural sweetener, and the sound of toads and crickets intensifies in the maloca. We are somewhere in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain in the world. The question is not rhetorical but it goes unanswered. The tone of his surprise explains how panela is a way of life for the more than 5,000 Arhuacos who reside in this magical place in northern Colombia.

UNODC/Laura Rodríguez Navarro - Arhuacos harvesting sugar cane
The indigenous Arhuaco, protector of the Sierra Nevada

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is known in Colombia as "the heart of the earth". It is a place abundant in water, with hot mornings and cold nights, with peaks over five thousand metres high whose snows flow into the Colombian Caribbean. The roads here have no tarmac and are marked by the mule tracks that are blurred daily by the afternoon tropical rains.

Its fertile land, which until a decade ago was full of coca and marijuana, today produces cocoa, coffee and panela. The fullness of life is expressed in sepulchral silence. This is a natural sanctuary protected by the indigenous communities, who only 15 years ago recovered what, based on their ancestors, they say belongs to them.  "To be Arhuaco is to take care of nature, to have your heart in the Sierra, in the water, in the trees, in the lagoons and in the snow," explains Rogelio Mejía, legal representative of Asoarhuacos (Association of Arhuaco Indigenous Producers).

The Arhuacos of the Sierra Nevada live in twelve resguardos* located throughout the 17,000 square kilometres of this National Natural Park. The centre of them all is the resguardo of Kankawarwa, the closest to a paved municipality and the only one with a health centre and internet access. "This is where all the decisions for the resguardo are made," says Rogelio, a former governor of the resguardo.

Despite the distances that separate them (some resguardos take days to reach), the indigenous communities work together for the general welfare. Today, there are several problems of concern in Kankawarwa: the poor condition of the roads, the lack of access to health centres (in fact, not everyone has been able to get vaccinated against COVID-19) and above all the problem of child malnutrition. 

UNODC/Laura Rodríguez Navarro - Girls from the Arhuaco indigenous community, Colombia
 Panela: a way of life

"We drink aguapanela with lemon, hot aguapanela or mixed with coffee. It is very nutritious, very rich and contains a lot of calories, which helps us Arhuacos who walk from one place to another for several kilometres," explains Gunawwi Mejía, a member of the Arhuaca community in the Sierra Nevada.

Panela is made from sugar cane, a plant with a massive stalk that grows to a height of between two and four metres. A year after planting, the stalk is cut and milled in a mill to extract the sugar juice. "We've known about the mill for many years, but it's a mule mill; the beast turns around and drags the beam that grinds the cane," Rogelio explains. 

UNODC/Laura Rodríguez Navarro - Panela drying on the skull

Once the juice is extracted, it is boiled at high temperatures and stirred until the cachaza (impurities) is extracted and a honey-like texture is obtained. This is left to dry in gaveras (wooden moulds where the honey is thickened) until the famous 'bricks' of panela are obtained.

Despite its importance, this product does not reach everyone. The irregular production of the Arhuaca community and the economic situation of certain families does not allow some children to consume this or any other basic source of calories in their diet. This translates into a problem of malnutrition.

"Each family is consuming three pounds of panela a day and we are, more or less, 1,800 families. If you multiply that, it's a lot. What we want to do is to make the panela milling more technical, to make it better, to make a larger quantity to supply the whole community," says Rogelio.

 Seynerin's challenge

Although he is called Camilo, his name is Seynerín, which in Arhuaco means "the beginning of everything". At 23 years of age, he is a student of Public Administration at the Institución Universitaria Politécnico Grancolombiano. He studies from Kankawarwa and, like the rest of the members of the resguardo, always wears a white woollen blanket and his toczuma (hat) of the same colour. "I am indigenous, I belong here and I don't want to leave my origins," he says without pride. "I have always dedicated myself to accompanying the communities to carry out activities, such as cocoa or vegetable farming.

Seynerin, whose surname is Villafaña Torres, is aware that his parents' generation recovered the land where they now live. Now, his generation, and he in particular, faces the challenge of maintaining a quality of life that will slow down the exodus of Arhuacos to the city. "There are people who do leave. My objective is to continue living here because an Arhuaco, no matter how many people leave, will always remain an Arhuaco", he says. She never judges, not even those who deny their roots: "Most of them come back," she adds.

Seynerin's goals are to guarantee food for all the children and to create a self-sustainable economic system. Panela could be the solution.

Seven years ago, the Arhuaca community received an industrial mill from the Colombian government to extract sugar cane juice, known in Colombia as a 'trapiche'. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and Ecopetrol (the main oil and gas company in Colombia) teamed up to put this mill into operation. Seynerín was chosen by the community to be their liaison with these entities. "Before we had one hectare of sugarcane, but with the support of the UN and Ecopetrol, we now have five hectares in Kankawarwa," explains Seynerín.

Carlos Alberto Jordán is a field facilitator for the UN agency. Although he is not part of the community, he walks around the resguardo like any other Arhuaco, and he himself says he feels part of the community. He has been working with indigenous communities for years and shows great respect for the ancestral culture which, among other things, does not allow the exploitation of 100% of their land; 70% must be left for the regeneration of the ecosystem. Carlos trains the Arhuacos in the cultivation of sugar cane, and also accompanies them in the transition to the new sugar mill, which will no longer be powered by mules, for the sake of the animals, but by a motor. "The idea is that every week they will be able to produce panela with staggered cuts. Sometimes they are left for two or three weeks without panela and they have to go out and buy it, the idea is that they have it here", he explains. 

UNODC/Laura Rodríguez Navarro - The indigenous community of the Arhuacos is dedicated to the production of panela in this region of Colombia.
 Grateful community

The community, for its part, is more than grateful: "We've learned that you have to know how to adjust the fire and that you have to taste the sugar first. Before, we used to say that panela could not be made in hot soil because it does not harden, but that was due to lack of knowledge", says Rogelio.

Carlos frequently visits the five resguardos where the mills have been adapted. He is always accompanied by Seynerín. Unlike Kankawarwa, Windiwa, Yeiwin, Bunkwamake and Singuney are in the heart of the Sierra, more than six hours away from the main resguardo. Much of the trekking is done on foot or by mule, and travel is subject to unpredictable weather and track.

The Sierra sun is merciless and the altitude is choking on the climbs. Seynerín, wearing sandals, walks for hours. He crosses, without staining his white clothes, puddles, mudflats and rivers. He always travels light with two backpacks: one on each side. In one he carries his poporo [1] and in the other, smaller, coca leaves that he chews along the way and which, every time he meets another Arhuaco man, he exchanges as a greeting.

Seynerín only complains on the road if no one speaks: he is not one for many words, but he likes to listen to others, especially Carlos.

The ride goes smoothly, not a drop falls. Both Carlos and Seynerín arrive exhausted at the Singuney resguardo, but the work has only just begun: "There are about three hectares of sugar cane here, from which you can get about nine tons of panela", explains Carlos. The crop is double what it was a year ago, thanks to the work of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime with Ecopetrol, and in a few months, the harvest will be ready to feed the 68 families living in the resguardo.

Vicente Izquierdo, commissioner of the resguardo, welcomes them in the maloca [2]. He is also concerned about the children's food: "There are families who lack resources and water, and in that sense we have to help them", he says.

The objective in Singuney as well as in Windiwa, Yeiwin and Bunkwamake, being the most remote resguardos, is for the Arhuacos to produce enough panela to feed their entire community. After the mill has been adapted, three people are trained in each resguardo. "This way, in case there is a failure, they can change the part without having to stop production for days until a technician arrives from Santa Marta," adds Carlos. 

UNODC/Laura Rodríguez Navarro -  Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a place with abundant water, hot mornings and cold nights, with peaks over five thousand metres high whose snows flow into the Colombian Caribbean and is protected by the indigenous community of the Arhuacos.
 Self-sufficiency and even export

In Kankawarwa, where they have an industrial mill, the panela project is more ambitious. "We have thought that 50% should be used for consumption in the region and the other 50% for export", says Rogelio. The idea is applauded by the whole community, as all the income would go to the resguardo and could guarantee at least ten paid jobs. "It is innovative and we would be the first community to promote the panela industry in this sector, and marketing it is a great challenge," says Gunnawi.

For the time being, the panela produced in Kankawarwa will be sent to the indigenous school feeding programme, a state initiative that will benefit more than 1,700 Arhuaco children attending 22 schools in the Sierra Nevada. "We have students who travel up to two hours to get to school, so this will help them recharge their batteries," says Gunawwi Mejía, who coordinates the programme in the area. With this project, the children will have a double guarantee of consuming this product: both with the self-sufficiency produced by their shelter and with the Programme.

Seynerín is counting the weeks until the first big sugar cane harvest in the Sierra Nevada arrives. The Arhuacos of Singuney, Windiwa, Yeiwin and Bunkwamake will get up early to harvest and grind sugar cane with the motor-driven mill. This is not only an achievement for his community, it is also a sign of hope for him and all the young people who want to continue living in the resguardos of the Sierra.

For their part, in Kankawarwa, supported by the UN agency and Ecopetrol, they are already applying for a certificate from the National Institute for the Surveillance of Medicines and Food in Colombia so that their product can be sold inside and outside the country. In a few years' time, the United States may also be eating panela from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

*According to Wikipedia, the resguardo is a socio-political legal institution of Spanish colonial origin in America, consisting of a recognised territory of a community of Amerindian descent, with inalienable, collective or communal property title, governed by a special autonomous statute, with its own cultural guidelines and traditions.
[1] Poporo*= Dry calabazo containing seashell powder, into which chewed coca is introduced by means of a wood. The aim is to rub and accumulate the moistened leaves on the outside of the calabazo so that it increases in volume throughout the wearer's adult life. Exclusively for male use.
[2] Communal house.