Is Palo Santo the unholy wood now?
The word “sustainable” is often associated with elements that come from nature, are compostable, preferably locally-sourced and can be obtained without excessive plastic packaging. Hence, if all we want to do is to “tick the boxes”, (locally sourced) wood would seem like the one most sustainable, eco-friendly thing on Planet Earth! And sure, it CAN be. But it CAN also become a part of highly unsustainable practices which is what is slowly happening to Palo Santo nowadays.
Stay with us to learn more about the holy wood and how it is now becoming part of some unholy attempts
Origin of and few facts about Palo Santo
Palo Santo (direct meaning: sacred wood) is a wood type that grows in the coastal areas of South America. It has been used for centuries for magical and shamanic rituals, ceremonies and for spiritual healing. Similar to myrrh and frankincense, Palo Santo contains brain oxygenating terpenes (organic chemical compounds) like limonene and terpineol; they give the Palo Santo its positive qualities.
In recent years Palo Santo has become more popular in the US and Europe, used as a fragrant, air-cleansing, energy-clearing remedy. More and more yoga studios smell like the sacred wood, even at our party-days during Wonderfruit Festival, we didn’t see people holding up lighters in front of the stage, but there were GROUPS burning Palo Santo in the dancing crowds!
The wood has for sure gained popularity, but let’s look at what cost!
Harvesting Palo Santo
Since the species is considered sacred, it is prohibited to cut a living Palo Santo tree. That is why, to collect the holy wood, the harvesters wait until the tree, or parts of it, fall naturally. The fallen wood is then left to dry for another 3 to 5 years! During this “resting” time, special chemical reactions (like a crystallisation of its liquids/resin) take place in the wood itself. As you can see already, we are facing quite a time-consuming process! To make it even more strict, the Peruvian government actually introduced regulations and laws that protect the Palo Santo tree; wood collection from living trees is forbidden by law and the gathering and reselling of the fallen branches happens under government supervision!
How does Palo Santo become unsustainable?
Good question! If both the cultural norms and the government agree to protect the sacred wood, it is almost hard to believe that the organic process described above could become unsustainable. And yet …
Like with everything, the demand is decisive. More and more people demand Palo Santo, they want it cheap, in large quantities, shipped at a low price. As with many other items, convenience and low-cost is heavier than honouring ancient traditions and practices or protecting the South American eco-systems. Money is a powerful player, a heavy argument. Whilst in Peru, areas with the Palo Santo trees are protected and the trees are taken care of, in other places we see unapologetic illegal grubbing of the sacred woods. And even with the strict regulations, the rules become more and more difficult to be executed, the popularity of smudging and the demand for the sacred wood makes the locals disobey the laws.
Is Palo Santo an endangered species?
Last part of this piece becomes quite nitty-gritty. For us, who do not know Latin, “Palo Santo” is the word we use, thinking it refers to one and same tree sort. That is not true! “Palo Santo” covers a range of different botanical varieties like Bursera Graveolens, Bulnesia Sarmientoi (also known as Verawood) and Guaiacum (often abbreviated to Guaiac). While Verawood and Guaiac, indeed, are listed as endangered species, the most common type of “Palo Santo” - Bursera Graveolens - is not filed on CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
What to do with Palo Santo?
Since not all “Palo Santo” is endangered and there are indeed farms and places that provide sustainably sourced (in a manner that is respectful for both the planet and the tribes that have used the sacred wood for generations as well as their practices) Palo Santo wood can be obtained ethically. That said, when you simply walk into a shop where you see a piece of Palo Santo packaged in a cute little plastic bag with a boho-styled stamp on it, your inner alert light should go on - like most of plastic-packaged items, really.
We do not have a perfect solution - we will not tell you not to buy Palo Santo - even though, traditionally it should not be traded, rather given to you by a shaman. But we will ask you to look into alternatives. In different places people through generations have developed different smudging practices, it is sufficient to look into Slavic alternatives to smudging herbs or Middle Eastern sandalwood. If you trust your supplier and you know that the Palo Santo wood you are buying is sourced ethically, go for it! But hopefully, with this piece, we have inspired you to dig deeper into where you’re sourcing your remedies, because, as you can see, even the most natural items can make our plant pay a heavy price in the end!