Why We Need to Stop Using Palo Santo
April 24, 2019 • 10 min read
Note: this post has been updated as of June 9, 2021
Having become quite the sensation in recent years in the Western world, Palo Santo (alongside white sage), has erupted when it comes to self-care. With the wellness industry making acts of self-care synonymous with the consumption of products and appendages, people have flocked to the crystal shops to get their bundle stashes faster than ever, attempting to smudge their way to inner peace. On the surface this practice looks like any other wellness trend – incense, diffusers etc., however it is deeply rooted in cultural appropriation and thus is hurtful to the Indigenous communities who have practiced this for centuries, and from where this ritual comes from.
Before we dive into this deeper, what is Palo Santo and what is smudging?
Palo Santo, or Bursera Graveolens is a sacred tree prevalent in South America, with the biggest growth happening in Ecuador and Peru. The therapeutic benefits of Palo Santo are many, with it being highly medicinal and healing. The highest quality oils form in the aged heartwood, which is used in sacred ceremonies and for healing by specific local cultures. The alluring, heady scent of the resin is one of the major contributors to its rise in popularity in the West.
Smudging is an ancient and sacred Indigenous ritual meant to purify and cleanse the soul and the spaces surrounding it (different than smoke cleansing). This ceremony is performed using medicinal herbs and plants, such as white sage, tobacco, sweetgrass, cedar, and Palo Santo, and it is (often) done by gathering these sticks and herbs into a bundle which is then lit. Once lit, it produces a thick smoke that carries energetic and spiritual importance. Palo Santo in Spanish is “holy stick”. These herbs are revered in many Indigenous cultures for their potent medicinal properties, and many shamans in South American also use Palo Santo to aid the journey of a dying soul into the afterlife. The significance of this practice carries the deep dignity that is associated with the solemnity of religious rites, so a flippant “high vibe” IG post is disrespectful and discourteous.
Though the ritual of smudging as well as the fragrance of Palo Santo are incredibly captivating and tempting, respect for both the tree and Indigenous folk go beyond the need for the consumption and ownership of what is sacred. Issues with participating in Palo Santo usage stem from:
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For years, the over-harvesting of Palo Santo to keep up with Western demand has led to deep concerns of its ability to regenerate robustly. While the tree matures relatively quickly (50-70 years compared to the hundreds of years others in the arboreal world take), 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. This is where the resin forms, the scent associated with Palo Santo.
Though it is illegal in Peru and Ecuador to cut down Palo Santo trees, it is quite difficult to enforce this law. Due to the demand, opportunists are prematurely cutting down these sacred trees, in order to quickly process the wood into sticks for selling. Not only is this devastating for the forests, it renders the sticks purposeless, as the sacred resin hasn’t had time to form. Being so far removed here in the West, these bundles are still being snatched up faster than ever due to the trend, rather than the understanding of its importance. To successfully market these fast bundles, synthetic Palo Santo scents are being produced, where chemicals are combined to mimic the tree’s natural aroma. This has caused some serious problems for those burning the sticks without knowing, as many have immediately caught rapid fire. This is both a serious hazard, and an indication that this kind of usage is just not right.
2. Habitat Loss
Though once thought to be, Palo Santo is no longer on the endangered list. In 2005, Peru had listed Palo Santo as endangered due to overharvesting. This is no longer the case. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has recently removed it from its endangered list, stating that the tree is “of least concern”.
It’s important to note that while the tree itself is not endangered, its habitat – tropical dry forest – is threatened. The executive director of United Plant Savers, Susan Leopold, told The New York Times that “dry tropical forests have been decimated. Estimates are that only five to ten percent of dry tropical forests are still intact around the world.” These tropical dry forests are hospitable to human activity (read: exploitation), and are therefore often subject to clear cutting for cattle ranches, which means Palo Santo trees often get caught in the logging process. So, while the trees are not directly in danger, their sought-after habitats might cause them to become casualties in the process, a devastating result for both the trees and the Indigenous folk who rely on them.
3. Cultural Appropriation and Disregard for the Sacred:
While “cultural appropriation” is a term that can get 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, respectfully and in the right way), we do have to be cautious and considerate when it comes to specific realms. For non-Native people, the burning of Palo Santo and white sage (which is now endangered) is nothing short of cultural appropriation.
Trends like this negate the actual importance behind the practice, giving non-Native folk the idea that they can commodify cultures for their own personal benefit. This is harmful, not only because it means something sacred has been turned into a commercial commodity, but also because a divide has been created between what the tree actually represents, versus the itemization of it (many have no idea that it is even a sacred Indigenous ritual, assuming it’s just the wellness trend du jour).
Buying Palo Santo or sage is like putting a price on prayer – you can’t purchase holy water from a Catholic church or vermillion tikkas from a Hindu temple. The wellness industry has stripped the deeply religious aspects of these plants and packaged them up for profit.
Distancing ourselves from the true meaning and depth that specific communities have been practicing for hundreds of years robs these sacred cultures of their revered traditions and the plant medicine that is integral to their well-being. By depleting the land of these precious plants for trendy usage, we have to ask: who is wellness really for? In the Global North, are other cultures expected to step aside and give space for white well-being, while giving up their own? Quite simply, these rituals are not open for the taking. This video sums it up really well.
When it comes to something like white sage which North American Indigenous communities have been using for centuries, the appropriation of it is hurtful because these very communities were banned from practicing their religious beliefs for decades by white settlers and government bodies, who claimed their plant medicinal practices were evil and rooted in witchcraft. To suddenly mark it as trendy and attempt to engage in the rituals that were once illegal for the very communities that created them, means Native culture is open for cherry picking, where “cool” aspects can be taken, while the history and atrocities these communities had no choice but to endure can be ignored. Suddenly, what was once thought of as evil is now witchy and woke, when practiced by white people?
The need to take ownership of cultural practices is rooted in colonialism and capitalism, with a misguided belief that the possession of sacred tools is enough to bring about inner peace, rather than actually doing the work. Remember: we cannot consume our way to our higher selves.
We have to ask ourselves, what benefit are we really looking for here? Aren’t we just engaging in spiritual bypassing by assuming the “look” of a new-age “woke” human, or are we actually interested in ascending and bettering ourselves? Challenging the notion that we need things – smudge bundles, incense, crystals, feathers – in order to invite in spirituality is a great starting point in beginning to understand ourselves better. These tools only serve to amplify what is already present within us, yet consumerism wants us to believe that they are a necessity. Our highest potential is cultivated by our innermost depths and our truest beliefs. We can create all the altars we want, but if the belief isn’t there, we’ll be hard-pressed to feel that sacred shift.
Lastly, upon hearing from those within the community, and Indigenous folk in North America, Palo Santo, along with white sage shouldn’t sold as a commodity (especially by retail chains), but rather be given to you by a shaman to ensure it actually has the sacred benefit that it is being used for. You can’t buy blessings from a rabbi, so apply that same logic here. While many Indigenous folk do sell sage and other plant medicines, it’s important we know where we are buying from and who we are supporting. Colonialism and capitalism place importance on extraction and commodities, whereas Indigenous cultures uphold the gift economy, a true spiritual exchange between all living beings.
“White sage has become so gentrified and has lost it’s true meaning unless it’s blessed & used in a traditional way which I’m 100% sure most non-natives don’t have access to…” @lilnativeboy
How to Sustainably and Respectfully Use Palo Santo
There are some brands that are very stringent when it comes to the sourcing of their Palo Santo. 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 or sage. If you feel like you engage with Palo Santo in a truly authentic way, we encourage you to support those that are harvesting as sustainably as possible, and who are benefitting the local communities in their endeavours. It’s important to buy from smaller businesses versus brands like Anthropologie, Sephora, Urban Outfitters or Amazon that are selling it for the trend factor alone. Transparency is key here – companies that are working on the ground, with the farmers and who are participating in true reciprocity are the only ones we should be supporting, if we must be using it at all. We understand how this can be a lucrative source of income for many small communities in South America, so ensuring you’re actually supporting them, not the middlemen or distributors, is important.
In Canada, there are Indian Friendship Centres in many cities across the country. In an effort to share and educate others on Native culture and traditions, these centres are open and inviting spaces. If the usage of sage is important to you, you can call a centre close to you and just ask them for some sage. They are more than happy to be asked about their medicines, as it shows an interest in their practices, and an appreciation for the tradition. This is a respectful and reciprocal way in which we can uplift and amplify Indigenous voices.
We like the brand Anima Mundi Apothecary, as the founder, Adriana Ayales, is a rainforest herbalist who grew up in Costa Rica. Ayales works directly with the farmers, knows their names, and regularly visits the areas where her products come from.
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 is sourced sustainably, and that this work is the 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.
I spoke with Sonia, the founder of the Vancouver-based candle and wellness brand Woodlot, who mentioned that all of their Palo Santo oils and sticks are sourced ethically and sustainably from Ecuadorian Hands, so for Canadians, this is another good option.
As a general rule of thumb, here are some herbs and plants that are sacred to Indigenous communities and that should not be used for smudging:
Giving Back and Support
For true reciprocity and cultural appreciation, think about how you can give back to Native peoples, instead of just attempting to take. Support Indigenous-owned businesses, follow Indigenous accounts, and if you can, support these organizations that are doing incredible work to assist Indigenous communities:
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. 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.
- Smudging is cultural appropriation and disrespectful to Native and Indigenous communities. Refrain from indulging in these practices if you are not an Indigenous person, and do not buy into the trend aspect of it, especially without educating yourself on the deep cultural and religious context in the first place.
- White sage is quickly becoming endangered. Palo Santo itself is no longer on the endangered list, however its habitat – tropical dry forests – are being clear cut for cattle ranching, meaning the trees are affected
- If you do find yourself starved for ritual or spirituality, explore other means by which you can do this, such as the ideas listed above – meditation, tree hugging, forest bathing, breathing exercises, earthing, vibrational sound healing, using salts, candles or other herbs like lavender or pine, etc.
- If you MUST buy Palo Santo (even though we discourage it), buy it from sustainable and ethical brands like the few 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. For white sage, try contacting a Native centre near you, otherwise we suggest you find an alternative.
If you are a brand who is unsure about cultural sensitivity and how to walk these lines respectfully and in a way that is truly reciprocal, learn more about our Conscious Consulting services and how I can help guide you.
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