The air is thick with humidity and scented with fire, sugar and earth. Peering through the curtain of steam to check the status of his alchemic production, a bead of sweat runs down the angles of Javier Pico’s face, picking up speed before disappearing beneath the collar of his sun-bleached shirt.

Javier is a panelero who, with the help of his family and a few contracted workers, manages all aspects of the production of panela from his rural homestead outside of San José del Fraguá in Caquetá, a department in the southwestern corner of Colombia, where the Andes tumble off into the Amazon basin.

Panela is a product familiar to every Colombian’s palate. An unrefined whole-cane sugar, it is derived from the boiling and evaporation of sugarcane juice, resulting in a golden-hued brick imbued with a profound flavor similar to molasses or sorghum syrup of North America.

From behind the plumes of steam billowing away from the boiling pots of sugarcane juice, I make out the silhouette of Elcira Llanos Carvajal. Elcira, or “Maye” as she likes to be called, is built like a brick wall. Her impeccable posture and piercing gaze call to mind the fabled Amazon warrior women the region’s first European visitors claimed to have seen here.

As the director of ASOPANELA, a departmental association of paneleros, she is very much a warrior, having dedicated the past 15 years of her life towards improving the department’s economy and the living conditions of the region’s campesinos by making panela production an economically viable trade.

Maye has invited me to accompany her to visit some of the beneficiaries of ASOPANELA’s program. After venturing through several military checkpoints and trundling through pot-holes the size of bathtubs, we eventually abandoned the car in favor of walking the rest of the way to visit Javier Pico and his family.

As we meander across the expansive countryside, I drift into a daydream scented with cattle and morning dew being burned off by the sun. I am brought back to reality by Maye’s comment: “Don’t worry – there aren’t any landmines around here.”

Caquetá is known throughout the country for its superior panela. Unfortunately, that’s not all it is known for. Located within a “red zone”, the department is recognized as the epicenter of both the armed conflict and the war on drugs. It contains areas where armed groups and drug traffickers became established – and have continued to operate – since before the Colombian state itself.

The department’s major role in the drug trade only further complicates matters. According to a recent study conducted by the United Nations, about 25% of the total current coca plantations in Colombia are found in the Caquetá-Putumayo region. This is 
a dramatic improve
ment from just over
 a decade ago, when 
this region accounted for a whopping
 42% of the country’s coca crops, an 
area of more than
 145,000 hectares.

The dynamic of 
the drug trade has
 caused more than
 just waves of violence. It has reshaped nearly every aspect of life in Caquetá, from social demographics to agricultural practices. Caquetá was once one of the country’s biggest producers of edible crops such as rice, plantain and yuca, a trend that quickly disappeared after the introduction of the more profitable coca plant. In the absence of solid governmental presence and aide, coca cultivation quickly spun out of control. Quite rapidly, the entire region’s economy and social structure were turned upside down. With money earned from the sale of illicit crops to spend on food grown by others, many of the region’s campesinos abandoned the cultivation of edible products, including sugarcane.
The changes in the array of cultivated crops caused a ripple effect, leading to the closure of several important mills, malnutrition, the creation of a culture of violence related to drug trafficking and a dramatic redistribution of wealth.

Today, despite the complicated history of the region, one can see that things are moving forward. The facts that Javier Pico is able to make a living for himself, and that I am able to visit him with relative comfort are testaments to the progress that Caquetá has fought to acquire and that ASOPANELA is fighting to continue.

ASOPANELA’s plans of making panela production a strong component of the regional economy are based around the renovation and retrofitting of panela-production facilities throughout the department. The goal is to promote the economic and social development of the region and its inhabitants by raising the productive capacity of Caquetá’s paneleros while complying with health regulations for the production of food products.

With the help of a substantial stimulus grant from the government, ASOPANELA is improving 109 panela-making setups throughout Caquetá. The investment directly benefits more than 240 families, including Javier’s, and indirectly benefits more than 1,000.

In order to ensure the long-term success of Caquetá’s paneleros, ASOPANELA has enlisted the help of the University of Amazonia. At the helm of the research conducted on sugarcane is Jean Gamboa Alexander, professor of agricultural science.

Jean is a slender man, as much a fast talker as he is a good listener. Later that afternoon, Jean, Maye, Javier and I walk through a labyrinth of planted sugarcane to arrive at a wide-open 6-hectare expanse of freshly tilled soil. The view of the land is beautiful, with green of every shade and earth that perfectly matches the tone of Javier’s skin.

As we walk through the tilled soil in our rubber boots – a necessary item for anyone living in this region which averages more than four meters of rainfall per year – Jean explains his involvement in ASOPANELA’s work and the problems he and his researchers seek to tackle.

“Many paneleros in the region have been cultivating the same varieties of sugarcane for the past 30 to 40 years. After so many years of cultivating the same varieties, the crops have become weakened and frail, nearly defenseless against in- sects and diseases. This is something that dramatically limits the potential yield at each harvest.”

Jean’s work centers around the genetic improvement of sugarcane varieties used by paneleros in Caquetá- mainly, swapping out tired varieties for more robust ones developed on land owned by UNIAMAZONIA. Varieties are selected on an individual basis, taking into account the specific variables present at the diverse panelero sites throughout the region.

I bring up the question of deforestation. Jean purses his lips, and explains to me that the land we are walking on was not cleared for the purpose of planting sugarcane – prior to the involvement of ASOPANELA and UNIAMAZONIA, this had been an exhausted pasture previously used for cattle ranching.

Now, it is going through a process of remediation. Jean signals to the tractor rumbling nearby – the soil is tilled three times, adding 100 grams of lime for each square meter in order to restore the pH of the soil. In addition, prior to planting, 100 grams of chicken manure is added per sugarcane plant. Soon, this area will be replanted with new varieties of sugarcane selected specifically for the unique conditions present in the soil and atmosphere of Javier’s land.

“The direct participation of the panelero is key to the process,” says Jean. “For us, the panelero should be a leader. That way, he or she can come to control all of these aspects of production and remediation on his or her own.”