By: Leonardo Fabio Martínez Pérez
In our country, panela is a food of high cultural, gastronomic, economic and social relevance. Although its production and consumption occurs in many places in the world, Colombia is the second world producer, after India, and the first consumer. According to the National Federation of Panela Producers (Fedepanela), each Colombian consumes about 19 kilos a year and panela accounts for 2.18% of household food expenditure. This gastronomic delight present in many of our typical foods, in addition to being deeply rooted in the Colombian tradition, turns out to be the economic sustenance of many peasant, Afro and indigenous communities throughout the country.
Thus, in the national territory the large sugar producers and their large monocultures coexist with an important tradition of panela production that continues to be the main engine of the commercialization of this product, and that not only allows the obtaining of subsistence income for families , but manages to articulate the dynamics of life of the communities around the plantation of sugarcane and the production from artisanal mills and collective organization. Often, several neighbors collectively own an artisanal mill, with mills powered by small motors or by animal power. In addition, panela turns out to be a product that generates added value to farms, because it implies the transformation of sugarcane from small peasant plots to a consumer product that improves the economy of families, since sugarcane, when commercialized, has values very low on the market.
The bulk of panela production comes from small peasants, large-scale farms, that is, with extensions of land greater than 50 hectares, account for only 5% of total production. In contrast, the world market has increased significantly in recent years. The work of panela producers has caused the growth of exports; Only between January and July 2019, there was an increase of 40%, going from 3,503 tons to 4,911, represented by 1.7 million dollars, according to figures from Fedepanela.
However, in recent days there has been a strong controversy in the country associated with several national and international applications that would seek to patent the traditional procedure for the preparation of this important product of our gastronomy. The panela unions indicate that their activity would be threatened if these patents were approved, since the request of the businessman Jorge Enrique González to patent a production method very similar to that of panela remains firm before the Superintendency of Industry and Commerce.
The patent filed by González seeks to license a method to process sugar cane and preserve policosanol, that is, a mixture of serous substances present in the plant, during the production of a drink based on cane juice. This industrial process resembles almost completely, according to Fedepanela, practices that for generations have protected panellists in Colombia.
Dignidad Panelera and Dignidad Campesina, also opponents of the patent, indicate that it puts at risk the income of more than 350,000 families that generate 1,700,000 direct jobs, which is equivalent to 12% of the economically active rural population. The granting of the patent would promote the monopolization of panela in the country.
Defending the cultural production of panela and preventing it from being patented rescues a cultural tradition that is more than one hundred years old and encourages the community organization of multiple families that results in a dignified life for the communities. To that extent, we call on the SIC and Colombian society to prevent private interests from taking away this knowledge that belongs to all Colombians.
* Rector, Universidad Pedagógica Nacional