Why Buying Palo Santo is an Ethical Choice
If you’ve noticed a sweet, woodsy aroma wafting through the air in your local yoga spot, massage studio, or friend’s kitchen, chances are it’s Palo Santo you’re smelling. Palo Santo (Bursera graveolens)—which translates to “holy wood” in Spanish—is a sacred wood with roots in Latin American spiritual ceremonies. Harvested from the Palo Santo tree, which grows along the South American coast, the small sticks of wood are burned (much like incense) for energetic clearing, cleansing, and healing.
The popularity of Palo Santo has skyrocketed in America over the past decade, likely due to the rise in spiritual awareness and related practices. With more attention on this sacred wood, rumors started swirling about its endangerment over the past couple of years, leaving many dedicated Palo Santo users terribly confused and even panicked.
This controversy has caused many to wonder: Is buying Palo Santo ethical? Are we destroying nature and fueling exploitive work practices—all so we can cleanse our spaces of negative energy? If you’ve been asking those same questions, take a deep breath—you’re absolutely not causing any harm to nature or indigenous workers. Today, we’re going to explore how this misinformation came about and discuss why using Palo Santo is actually of great benefit to both the land and the people working to harvest it. Let’s get started.
First things first, how did this misinformation start?
While rumors about the endangerment of Palo Santo having been swirling on-and-off since 2005, the most recent controversy started in 2019 when 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. A slew of concerned people took to social media encouraging everyone to boycott the wood, reiterating that there are only 250 trees left in the Gran Chaco region and that anyone who buys or sells Palo Santo is contributing to the extinction of the tree.
A case of mistaken identity
Eh, not so fast. When you actually read the details of the IUCN report that inspired the blog posts, you’ll see that the tree referenced in the report is called Bulnesia sarmientoi—not Bursera graveolens, which is the Palo Santo we burn. The confusion lies in the fact that both trees are referred to as “Palo Santo,” yet they are actually two different trees.
Bulnesia sarmientoi (Image Below) produces dense, mahogany-like wood that is used for a number of reasons, including making kitchen utensils, furniture, and other home goods. The sand-hue wood that we burn to rid of negative energy is an entirely different tree species called Bursera graveolens.
Bursera Graveolens, not endangered!
Bulnesia sarmientoi is sadly endangered, whereas Bursera graveolens is classified as a species of “least concern,” according to an IUCN report published in March 2019. In other words, the Palo Santo we burn is not endangered.
Why you should keep buying Palo Santo
This viral mix-up has caused many people to stop buying Palo Santo. While these people likely think they’re doing a good thing by boycotting Palo Santo, they’re actually unknowingly hurting the livelihoods of workers and the land. The indigenous people in places like Peru that sell Palo Santo depend on this trade for money—it keeps their villages alive. Natives have also expressed that they’re happy to share their sacred wood with Americans and enjoy the cultural connection it creates.
Additionally, experts at the IUCN believe that boycotting Palo Santo will have a negative impact on the environment. They say that the increased demand of Palo Santo would be good for the Bursera graveolens trees and their habitat, as long as ethical cultivation and harvesting practices are used. Decreased demand for Palo Santo, on the other hand, could lead to forest clearing for cattle ranching and other land-decimating industries.
Choose an ethical small business
Knowing where your Palo Santo comes from is key in making an ethical purchase, as unfortunately, not every business in this industry operates ethically. Allegedly, there are companies that illegally and prematurely cut down trees to sell the wood. To properly harvest Palo Santo, the trees must fall over naturally (i.e. not be cut down) and spend at least four to ten years on the ground before the internal sap solidifies and the aromatic oils develop.
Thankfully, there are laws in place from the Yucatan to Peru that outlaw cutting down Palo Santo trees. Local farmers and indigenous families who depend on Palo Santo farming for their livelihood typically uphold sustainable and ethical harvesting practices. They only take what’s needed, never deplete an area, only take wood from trees that have fallen naturally, and regularly plant new Palo Santo trees.
To ensure you’re buying ethical Palo Santo that supports the well-being of the farmers, trees, and land, avoid buying from corporate chains who are more likely to use an unethical supplier. Find a small business that is transparent about their partnership with their Palo Santo supplier and the practices they use to harvest.
Certified ethical Palo Santo
At Maxwell’s Mystic Market, we partner with ethical companies in Peru that practice sustainable and ethical harvesting and consistently plant new Palo Santo trees. In total, we have planted almost 5,000 trees (and counting!). By purchasing this sacred wood through us, you can rest assured that you’re not harming the Palo Santo tree population or indigenous workers. In fact, you’ll be supporting the well-being of them both.