Copaiba oil has a long history of use in South America, where it has traditionally been used as a topical remedy to help clear up skin problems including dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema, rashes, herpes, insect bites, injuries, wounds and boils.
Amazonian healers also recommend diluted copaiba oil for internal use as a treatment for a wide range of conditions. For example, it acts as an expectorant and can help alleviate respiratory problems like bronchitis. In Peru, a traditional sore throat remedy involves taking four drops of copaiba oil mixed with a spoonful of honey. Its antiseptic properties also make it an effective gargle for easing sore throats and tonsillitis.
Copaiba oil was first introduced to the rest of the world in the 17th century, when it was known as Jesuits balsam (because it had been brought back from the New World by the Jesuits). Among other things, it was used as a topical preparation applied to hemorrhoids, and also to soothe chilblains.
There are more than 30 different types of copaiba tree, and they are found mainly in the South American rainforests of Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Guyana, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela. The oil the tree produces is what is known as an oleoresin a substance that accumulates naturally in cavities within the trunk of the tree.
The oil is harvested by tapping or drilling holes into the trunk and collecting the oily resin that drips out. When it is actually leaving the tree, this substance is clear, thin and colourless; but when it comes into contact with the air, it becomes thicker and darker and has a bitter taste.
The copaiba tree is a sustainable crop in that it can provide about 40 litres of oleoresin a year, without destroying the tree or the forest in which it grows.