Kopal: a community that makes sugar together are happy people

In the olden times, my village produced its local sugar in the forms of tinimpag, and liningkot. It was laborious and takes days and nights to process these local sugar. But it was one of the major sources of sugar in the village back then since we were far from the market and inaccessible to roads. Sugar was and is a precious commodity.  

Lately, I was called by neighbors to join a kopal, our indigenous way of processing and making sugar out of local sugarcanes. With a sudden flashback of the taste of liningkot (syrup) and tinimpag, (sugar bits similar with anti) in my mind, I got up and went to the other side of the mountain to participate in the kopal.  

In the past, when there was bounty supply of camote (sweet potatoes) in all shapes and shades, as children we used liningkot to dip the camote before eating. We also used liningkot to sweetened sticky rice. This also applies to aba, (taro) and kahoy (cassava). As for the tinimpag, the elders used to sweetened their coffee whether rice or Arabica. For us children, we eat tinimpag bits like a candy and as baon in the school.  

Today, my village revisited their sugar making tradition. To my surprise also, the kopal is mechanized. The local farmers’ organization secured a sugarcane squeezer run by electricity. It is a relief. Before this machine, strong men and sometimes carabaos were summoned to rotate the wooden sugarcane squeezer.  

Since the sugarcane squeezing is mechanized, work is also lessened. But the usual process of cooking and processing remain the same.  

In two hours, the machine can squeeze 330 pieces of sugarcane measuring at least 1 meter long. Out of this number, at least 112 liters of raw sugarcane juice were squeezed from the sugarcanes. For a 25 liters raw juice, one needs to squeeze more or less 73 pieces of sugarcane.  

After squeezing the sugarcanes, the raw juice is placed in a palyuk (big vat) with a capacity 125 liters. Then the fire is maintained and keep the boiling increasing for four (4) hours. In between, unnecessary objects and liquids are removed and separated. As the time progresses, the sugarcane juice changes its color until it becomes golden. Then the caramelized sugarcane is ready to be removed from the palyuk.  

Using at least four containers (locally, we call it basin), the caramelized sugar is stirred for some minutes. Then poured into an open and wooden table to cool down. While it is cooling down, constant stirring is done to prevent the caramelized sugar from sticking. In between stirring, someone needs to knead to refine and crush the processed sugar. And after sometime, powdered sugar transformed before your eyes. From the 112 liters of raw juice, the processed sugar is 17 kilos. Depending on your voraciousness to sugar, 17 kilos of sugar can last for some time. Kopal a sweetening ingredient to community life Kopal is more than a process to make sugar. It is also a process that develops and strengthens community life.

Kopal encourages the community to organize themselves from the planting to the production activities. A single individual cannot do all the processing.  

The processing entails series and levels of production process. As I have seen, from the harvesting to transporting of sugarcanes to the main kopal area, it is like a dang-a (a free and reciprocated community labor) where all hands is on deck. Before feeding the sugarcanes to the machines, at least five individuals need to clean the stems then make a v-shape on one end of the cane stalks. Then the squeezing process needs at least three persons to finish the task. And at least three individuals to man the cooking part. Other community members prepare and clean the table for the cooling of the processed sugar. Children also help by sweeping the ground, fetching water and cooking lunch for all.  

Food is also shared as usual when people are gathered. If hudhud is still practiced then it is one of the best time to do. In exchange, stories are shared and laughter can be heard at the mountain summit.  

Challenges in the sugar making tradition

In my interviews, the greatest enemy of sugarcane plants in the village are the rats. Farmers complain that they have fewer harvest due to the infestation of rats. For eight months before harvesting, farmers observed their sugarcane plants being destroyed by the rats. In some areas, half of the crops were destroyed by rats.  

Another is the need to add more squeezing machines. Transferring the machine from one place to another is an enormous task. It needs two to four people to carry the machine. In a mountainous village like mine, moving this machine is backbreaking. Support to this need is highly welcome.  

The local farmer’s organization also like to expand their marketing reach. Their number one problem is labeling and packaging. According to them, they also plan to venture into ginger and peanut production. Farmers say that these plants thrive well with the type of soil in the community.  

In the end, it is unbelievable that my village is rekindling its sugar making tradition. It is a good sign of self-reliance and maximizing what is abundant in the surrounding. Experiencing kopal again after some decades brought happiness. Thank you also to John, our cool na cool barangay nurse who conducted home visitation and actively participated to the community kopal. John jokingly said that his presence was to check the sanitation and cleanliness of the sugar making process. But my people, who also love to joke, responded that a little mixture of dust, or soil or sweat make it taste better. It is time to make coffee and tea using the sugar they gave me for extending some hand.#