The self-care and wellness industries have a dark shadow. They fuel a corrupt gem and mineral trade, in which citrine or Himalayan salt crystals are hounded from foreign lands where miners are subjected to deadly working conditions—all so we can stick a carnelian yoni egg where-the-sun-don’t-shine and ward off bad vibes.
It’s hard not to feel jaded when marketing tactics in the guise of spirituality and self-care become a cultural norm. Late-capitalism is shameless in the way it advertises, exploits, and profits—so, it’s smart to be skeptical about where you spend money. But not every business within the spheres of self-care, wellness, and spirituality are locked in a cycle of exploitation.
Palo santo (Bursera graveolens), also known as “holy wood,” a sacred wood used for energetic clearing and healing in most indigenous and mestizo Latin American spiritual ceremonies, is arguably one of the more ethical products in wellness culture. For many palo santo farmers, responsible stewardship of the land is an intrinsic part of harvesting. So, for the most part, that means buying palo santo isn’t fueling further degradation of the Earth or an abusive workforce.
The spicy, aromatic wood is burned to cleanse spaces and facilitate healing. In America, it’s skyrocketed in popularity over the past decade. This is likely due to the increasing popularity of ceremonies, from ayahuasca to sound baths, and the rise of spiritual tourism. The dramatic spike in demand has even spawned rumors about endangerment over the past year, causing stark confusion—panic, even—among consumers and practitioners.
Many have been left to wonder: Is palo santo safe to use, or is buying holy wood depleting the planet and fueling exploitative work practices—all so we can cleanse our crystal grids and rid our spaces of negative energy?
Is palo santo safe to use, or is buying holy wood depleting the planet and fueling exploitative work practices—all so we can cleanse our crystal grids and rid our spaces of negative energy?
Rumors have swirled on-and-off since 2005 about the endangerment of palo santo. But the debate reignited in the spring of 2019. A few blog posts went viral claiming that the palo santo tree is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of endangered species. Concerned smudgers took to social media to alert the #witchesofinstagram and #healersoftwitter to essentially boycott the wood, purporting that there are only 250 trees left in the Gran Chaco region, and anyone who buys or sells palo santo is contributing to the extinction of the tree.
But when you dive into the details of the IUCN report that inspired the posts, you’ll discover that the tree referenced in the report is called Bulnesia sarmientoi—not Bursera graveolens, which is the palo santo we burn. It also comes from a massive region spanning from northern Mexico to Peru, and even the Galapagos Islands. B. sarmientoi, which is also called palo santo, produces dense, hardwood that exhibits characteristics of mahogany. It’s found in the Gran Chaco region, which extends from south-eastern Bolivia through western Paraguay and connects parts of Brazil to northern Argentina.
According to a report from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), indigenous cultures used B. sarmientoi for a number of reasons, from cooking utensils to burning the rose-scented wood in marriage ceremonies to extracting its oil. In modern times, the wood is primarily used to build furniture, picture frames, and other home goods, making it a valuable export. Even popular beer companies use this wood. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Inc. produces a beer called “Palo Santo Marron” that’s aged in barrels made of B. sarmientoi.
Unfortunately, B. sarmientoi is endangered. That means Dogfish Head is making beer in barrels made from endangered wood. The two 10,000 gallon barrels used were allegedly made pre-prohibition. It wasn’t until the 2017 B. sarmientoi was labeled a threatened species.
The sand-hue palo santo wood that we burn to clear negative energy is an entirely different tree species called B. graveolens. The region in which B. graveolens is found stretches from northern Mexico to Peru in South America. According to an IUCN conservation report published on March 1, 2019, B. graveolens is classified as a species “of least concern.” In other words, it’s not endangered on a global scale.
“The confusion lies in the fact there are two different species of trees called palo santo,” says Erik Suarez, founder of palo santo company Sacred Wood Essences that sources wood from a small family farm in Ecuador. “But there’s another reason, too. About 15 years ago, [B. graveolens] was put on a watch list in Peru because it was impacted by the destruction of dry tropical forest, which is where palo santo grows. But the tree is okay now—it came back, thanks to proper awareness and action. But the report from 2005 is outdated, though people sometimes still refer to it.”
It’s a tale of mistaken identities—an archetypal story as old as either species of palo santo. But what’s concerning is the viral spread of misinformation. Suarez explains that there could be serious consequences for farmers if people stopped buying palo santo.
“In a sad twist, the misguided call to boycott B. graveolens actually hurts the livelihoods of farmers in Ecuador, which can also lead to forest-clearing for cattle grazing and other land-degrading industries,” Suarez says, highlighting the intrinsic stewardship of small, often indigenous, farmers. The farmers he works with have harvested palo santo for 20 years. In that time, they’ve also planted over 80,000 B. graveolens trees in the coastal Manabi region Ecuador.
Experts at the IUCN also believe boycotting palo santo would have a negative impact on the environment. They say higher demands combined with ethical cultivation and harvesting practices could be good for B. graveolens and its—very sensitive—habitat. Land used for growing palo santo has more economic value than decimated land used for cattle ranching.
Adriana Ayales, owner of Anima Mundi Apothecary in New York, is a rainforest herbalist from Costa Rica. Her relationship with palo santo is deep; the smell alone evokes a sense of safety and love. “It’s as if I’m in the presence of a treasured old friend,” she says.
Ayales, who sources wood from an indigenous family in the Chiclayo region of Peru, warns that not every business in the space operates ethically. Allegedly, there are companies that prematurely cut down trees and sell the wood. The problem with this harvesting method is the wood won’t generate its renowned majestic scent. Although there isn’t much of a market for this, Suarez contends, it can happen because most consumers don’t have the luxury of burning palo santo before buying it. Further, most people don’t know what they’re looking for when it comes to high quality palo santo, especially in the west.
Palo santo trees, according to Ayales, must fall naturally and spend at least four years (and up to a decade) on the ground before the internal sap solidifies and aromatic oils develop. “If a tree has an induced death or did not naturally die, it does not release its smell,” she says, referencing that this is common knowledge among palo santo farmers. “Once you become used to smelling real palo santo, you can always tell if the wood you have is actually sustainably sourced.”
The less fragrant palo santo wood smells, the more likely it is that it was cut too early from an unripe palo santo tree. Suarez tells us that cutting down a tree before it’s ready is illegal in every locale the tree grows because it’s wasteful, and thus, an ethical issue. One way to avoid supporting unethical harvesting is to buy from a source that works with a small farm. In other words, buying wood from corporate chains worried more about a bottomline than the land, may potentially support a less than ethical supplier.
Local farmers or indigenous families who’ve made palo santo farming their life typically uphold sustainable harvesting practices. For instance, it’s an inherent part of these business models to take what’s needed and never deplete an area. Many of these small businesses also plant palo santo trees. These types of harvesting practices contribute to the environment, particularly reforestation of the Tropical Dry Forest, an extremely sensitive region the B. graveolens tree range passes through. While the palo santo tree isn’t endangered, cattle ranching, corporations sourcing rubber, and development has decimated massive portions of the Tropical Dry Forest.
“The only reason Anima Mundi has cared to provide [palo santo] within our medicinal assortment is to ensure that we’re directly supporting an indigenous family and their ancient craft,” she says. “This is how many indigenous people survive, and it’s vital that we support the ones doing ethical work. It keeps them alive within their small economy.”
Like anything else, knowing your source is key in making conscious purchases. Thankfully, there are laws from the Yucatan to Peru that outlaw cutting down palo santo trees. The only way to legally harvest palo santo is to take from a tree that’s naturally fallen over — and have a permit from the government to do so.
“Native peoples have been harvesting this way for hundreds, if not thousands, of years,” says Ayales, referring to the method of not taking more than needed. She says the family she works with have worked with palo santo for generations. “To witness an ancient and sacred act is beautiful and necessary. This not only enables transparency on the process, but it also prevents unsustainable palo santo from being cultivated and sold within the confines of the wellness market.”
But is using palo santo cultural appropriation? That depends on who you ask. According to Suarez, native holy wood farmers don’t have an issue with it, as holy wood is used in everyday life from repelling bugs to curating the energy of a room. “In my experience, [natives] have expressed happiness that we enjoy it,” he says. “They enjoy that it creates a cultural connection between us.”
Even so, others argue that there’s no way around appropriation, and burning the wood is nothing more than Western entitlement. So, should you keep using palo santo? In the name of supporting small or indigenous-owned farms—especially in a post-Covid-19 world—I argue yes. As long as you’re conscious about where your money is going and you’re burning it with sincere reverence, we need to continue burning palo santo.