Why We Need to Stop Using Palo Santo

April 24, 2019  •   4 min read


Having become quite the sensation in recent years in the western world, Palo Santo has erupted when it comes to wellness and self-care. With Instagram making #selfcaresunday and smudging popular, people have flocked to the crystal shops to get their bundle stashes faster than ever.

First off, what is Palo Santo? Palo Santo, or Bursera Graveolens (found in Ecuador and Peru) and Bulnesia Sarmientoi (found in parts of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia) is a sacred tree traditionally used by Indigenous communities as a sacred practice. Shamans burn Palo Santo sticks in bundles to cleanse their space and ward off spirits. Palo Santo in Spanish is holy stick.

The therapeutic benefits of Palo Santo are many, with it being highly medicinal and healing. The only way to get the full benefit of this tree is by letting it die naturally, and allowing it a four to ten year resting period on the forest floor. The highest quality oils form in the aged heartwood, which is used in sacred ceremonies and to heal by specific local cultures.

If it’s such a treasure, why am I telling you to stop buying it? Two main reasons:

1. Endangerment

The Palo Santo tree is currently endangered and is on a watch-list. According to the United Plant Savers Medicinal Plant Conservation, there are less than 250 mature adult trees in the wild, and the numbers are rapidly declining. While the tree is not nearing extinction, it has been added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) list as over-harvesting can lead to extinction. While some information circling the internet is ambiguous as record-keeping isn’t always done in certain regions, we like to err on the side of caution when it comes to buying up a sacred tree simply because it is trendy. 

 

In Peru and Ecuador, it is illegal to cut down these trees, but it is quite difficult to enforce this law. According to the sacred beliefs and in order to gain the actual benefit of the tree, a Palo Santo tree should never be cut down, and it should not be sold as a commodity. As mentioned above, the only way to get the highly therapeutic oils from the tree is by letting it rest on the forest floor to age for four to ten years. Those who cut down the tree prematurely are selling Palo Santo bundles that provide little benefit, yet being so far removed here in the west, they are still being snatched up faster than ever because of the trend aspect, rather than the understanding of its importance.

 

Upon hearing from people within the communities and Indigenous folk in North America, Palo Santo, along with White Sage, should not be sold as a commodity, but rather be given to you by a shaman to ensure it actually has the sacred benefit that it is being used for. Because of the global trend that is insatiable, profiteers are cutting down the trees for immediate economic gain, with westerners happily buying it up, not knowing or caring about the difference.

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2. Disregard for the Sacred

The highest therapeutic oils that have been taken from a naturally fallen tree are absolutely sacred to specific cultures, and because someone decided to make smudging trendy, the trees are in danger. By buying it from commercial sellers to participate in a trend (or because you love the smell, use it as an insect repellent or find that it calms you), you are not getting the benefits from it which made it popular in the first place. Quite counterintuitive!

 

This is also problematic because of cultural appropriation. While this term definitely gets thrown around for almost anything these days (we are huge fans of celebrating different cultures and encourage you to embrace and learn about as many things as possible), we do have to be cautious and respectful when it comes to specific realms. The burning of Palo Santo and White Sage is one of them. Not only are we picking and choosing part of Indigenous cultures that we like, while turning a blind eye to the things we don’t like, trends like this negate the actual importance behind the practice, giving westerners the idea that they can commodify cultures for their own personal benefit. This is harmful not only because it means we have turned something sacred into a commercial commodity which has, as a result, become endangered, but also because we create a divide between what the piece actually represents, versus the itemization of it. Distancing ourselves from the true meaning and depth that other cultures have been practicing for hundreds of years further perpetuates that divide and robs sacred cultures of their revered traditions.

 

When it comes to something like White Sage which North American Indigenous communities have been using for years, our appropriation of it is hurtful because these very communities were banned from practicing their religious beliefs for decades by white settlers and government bodies. To suddenly mark it as trendy and want to use it means we are cherry picking the aspects of Native culture that we want for ourselves, while ignoring the history and atrocities they’ve had to experience.

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There are some brands that are very stringent when it comes to the sourcing of their Palo Santo. Sacred Wood Essence has personally shown me their photos where they are working alongside the Palo Santo harvesters in Ecuador, and you can see that the working conditions are ethical, the Palo Santo has been sourced sustainably, and that this work is sole livelihood of this group of people. Ecuadorian Hands is another organization that not only sustainably sources Palo Santo, but they are also actively reforesting the province of Manabi in Ecuador. They’ve already planted 4000 trees in 2019. If you must buy Palo Santo, ensure you are purchasing it from a source like these two.

Working with Indigenous communities, establishing a relationship and supporting their livelihood matters, however the majority of brands are either disconnected to the process or have no idea where or how they get their Palo Santo. If you aren’t someone who particularly cares about cultural appropriation, we ask you to still be extra careful if you do decide to buy it, and ask questions! It’s important to buy from smaller businesses versus brands like Anthropologie or Sephora that are selling it for the trend factor alone, which is upsetting to Indigenous communities. 

 

Herbs and plants that are sacred to Indigenous communities that shouldn’t be used for smudging are:

Palo Santo

White Sage

Sweetgrass

Cedar

Tobacco

 

Some alternatives that CAN be used for space cleansing, bug repellent or for creating a calming atmosphere are listed below. If you find yourself wanting to burn herbs, ask yourself first if there are alternatives that you can use that don’t encroach on Indigenous rituals or that harm the earth. Creating a practice using herbs that are aligned with your unique heritage and ancestry is a great way to participate and continue your rituals. The best thing to do is source herbs that are grown locally, or grow your own!

 

Growing your own ensures that you are consuming within a boundary that you’ve set and that no communities or wildlife gets hurt in the process. The benefits of growing your own herbs are many, and have huge therapeutic elements. It reconnects you to the earth and nature, the scents released (forest breathing) affect your mind in a positive way, giving you benefit beyond just the smudging or burning part of it. Nurturing and growing a plant is a form of self-care, giving you balance, grounding you and providing purpose, similar to what burning a bundle would do. Growing herbs is also SUPER easy and can be done with limited space, in an apartment, and with limited resources.

 

Some alternatives to Palo Santo and White Sage are:

Juniper

Lavender

Vervain

Mugwort

Pine

European Sage

Rosemary

Mint

Dill

 

There’s a lot of misinformation, confusion and ignorance floating around about the use of Palo Santo. We always encourage conscious consumption, so here are our key takeaways:

 

  • Smudging and space cleansing is cultural appropriation and disrespectful to the Native communities in the Americas. Refrain from indulging in these practices if you are not an Indigenous person, and do not buy into the trend of it, especially without educating yourself on why it’s done in the first place.

 

  • If you do find yourself starved for ritual or spirituality, explore other means by which you can do this, such as meditation, breathing exercises, candles, vibrational sound healing, etc.

 

  • If you MUST buy Palo Santo (even though we discourage it), buy it from sustainable and ethical brands like the two we highlighted above. Ensure that your ritual is at least benefiting the farmers and harvesters who make it possible for you to have it, and that the actual benefit (therapeutic oils) are present in the wood.

 

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