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Photos and words by Shantel Dickerson

Colombia is the second largest producer of ‘panela’ in the world. But what even is panela? Panela is unrefined, non-centrigual sugar. If you live anywhere outside parts of Latin America, Asia, or Africa, chances are you have never even heard of it. Take a look at the photos below to see the step-by-step process of one of San Rafael´s small-farm panela productions.

1. The whole process begins with harvesting the sugar cane. Sugar cane is almost exclusively cultivated on small scale, family farms. Farmers bundle up their harvests and take them to local sugar mills. At the mill, each farmer is given a quote that represents how many kilograms of panela their bundle of sugar cane will be worth.

2. Mill workers across Colombia endure a rather ineffiecient production process. Due to the lack of technological advancement, most mills have been using traditional machines for decades.

3. The gears in the previous photo are powered by a massive water mill. Antioquia has no shortage of water, which makes it an excellent resource for the farming community. In the case of this farm, the mill workers built a small aqua duct that diverts water away from the nearby river, to the mill.

4. The mill workers are pictured here feeding the sugar cane through traditional machines that crush the plant and produce sugar can juice.

5. After the sugar cane has been crushed, it is called ‘bagasse’. But the mill workers aren’t done with it just yet!

6. Manuel Giraldo, one of the adventure leaders at Eco Language, is pictured here speaking about bagasse. Due to its combustible properties, bagasse is set aside to dry and later used for fuel in the heating and evaporation processes of the sugar cane juice.

7. Sugar cane juice is rich in antioxidants. Around the world, it is known to have several positive effects on our immunity to disease and infection. Supposedly, even diabetics can drink sugar cane juice, as it does not affect glucose levels the same way refined sugar does.

8. The sugar cane juice then enters the factory and is poured into a metal vat. It is transferred from one metal vat to another; each time increasing in temperature. In the final vat, pictured above, the sugar cane juice has condensed into a thick, carmelized sauce.

9. It is then poured into an unheated bin. In this photo, Manuel explains the importance behind stirring the sugary, hot liquid, so that it solidifies evenly.

10. Once the liquid solidifies, it takes a dough like, granulated form. The mill workers pack this carmelized dough into little bowls.

11. Using the bowls, the mill workers place the dough into various wooden molds.

12. After the panela has had some time to set, they remove the molds. The panela is then individually packaged and either given back to the farmers, or sold in local stores. In the home, it is used like any other sweetner: in coffee, baked goods, typical Colombian juices, and ‘agua de panela’ (sweetened water used to make lemonade and hot chocolate, among many other things).