Put a cork in it!

Posted: 9 December 2002

Author: Tanya Petersen

Cork harvesting has been a way of life in the Mediterranean for at least a thousand years. The forests are ancient, with cork oak trees living for up to 600 years. But the advent of plastic and screw top alternatives to natural cork stoppers is placing cork oak forests - and the people and wildlife that depend on them - under threat. Tanya Petersen reports.

Miguel Cabecana cutting cork, Portugal.© Tanya Petersen/WWF-CanonMiguel Cabecana is a cork cutter. For 21 years he's spent his summers in the cork oak (Querus suber) forests of central Portugal, stripping cork bark off the trees. Contrary to some propaganda, not a single tree is cut down to get the cork - cork extraction is one of the most environmentally-friendly harvesting processes in the world.

Harvesting cork is a highly skilled job: even the axes are specially designed. Cork cutters make precise incisions into the cork bark and then strip it off the trees - like peeling a skin away from a banana. An experienced worker can gather up to 600kg of cork each day, and Miguel is certainly in this league. After harvest, each tree is painted with a big white number to indicate when it was last stripped. The trees are left for nine years to allow the cork bark to grow back and then the whole process starts again.

The cork industry is vital for the Mediterranean, which supplies more than 99 per cent of the world's cork. Portugal, home to a third of the world's cork trees, is the biggest producer, and in some Portuguese villages, such as Luzianes, 80 per cent of people depend on cork for their income.

The most important part of the cork market is the production of cork stoppers. More than 15 billion cork stoppers are made every year to supply the international wine market, accounting for around 80 per cent of the cork harvest by value. Other cork products, such as tiles, insulation materials, and products for industrial applications, are made almost entirely from the recycling of "waste" cork from the cork stopper-making process. Thus, cork stoppers are the economic backbone of the entire cork oak forest economy.

"Port wine is the Portuguese ambassador, but cork stoppers represent more in export value for Portugal than port wine," says Alvaro Cavaleiro, Director of APCOR, the Portuguese Cork Association. "We have about 12,000 workers directly involved in this business and, for instance in our district in the north, 50 per cent of our economy is based on cork." As an example of the importance of the cork stopper industry, one Portuguese factory, Subacentro, employs 220 people and produces a million cork stoppers in each eight-hour shift.

Unique mix

The cork oak forests support more than just the people directly involved in the cork industry. In the small Portuguese town of Odemira, Alcinda Catarina Jacinto has been making cheese all her life. She buys the milk from local farmers - milk from sheep and goats that graze under the cork trees. Other locals make honey from beehives in the forests, cork acorns are used for animal feed, and fruits and berries that grow in the grass and scrub go into other local produce. Called montados in Portuguese, the forests support a unique, integrated mix of agriculture, forestry, and pastoralism.

The forests are also home to a rich variety of wildlife, including endangered species such as the world's rarest big cat, the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) and the Iberian imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca) in Spain and Portugal and the Barbary deer (Cervus elaphus barbarus) in Tunisia. In addition, Europe's entire crane population overwinters in Spain and Portugal's cork oak forests.

Threatened industry

The use of synthetic and screw-top stoppers is on the rise. Currently it's estimated they make up about eight per cent of the stoppers manufactured every year. If current market trends continue, this figure could rise to more than 30 per cent in coming years. There are fears that if this happens the cork forests will disappear - and with them, a unique cultural and natural heritage.

Cork harvestHarvested cork© Tanya Petersen/WWF-CanonThe equation is simple: without a continued demand for cork, the forests lose their economic value, putting their survival in danger. This is exacerbated as people, especially the younger generations, desert the countryside. Thirty years ago 3,000 people lived in the village of in Luzianes; now there are only 700.

When people leave the countryside, the montados fall to pieces. For example, with no grazing cattle the grass grows higher and scrubby vegetation invades the pastures, increasing the amount of fuel for fires - an extremely serious problem in the Mediterranean region where every year more than 600,000 to 800,000 hectares of forest, an area equivalent to Crete or Corsica, are destroyed by fires. Scrub invasion also leads to loss of biodiversity and - crucially - loss of habitat for endangered species and the food chain they rely on. For example, loss of pastures means loss of habitat for rabbits, upon which the Iberian lynx feeds almost exclusively.

In many cases, the cork oak forests are replaced with other, less environmentally friendly forms of agriculture and forestry. Already, as local communities try to find alternative sources of income - and take advantage of environmentally damaging EU subsidies - large tracts of land that were once Mediterranean forest are now plantations. These include eucalyptus and pine plantations, which unlike cork oak trees that are partially fire-resistant, are major sources of fuel for fires.

Creeping desert

The loss of the cork oak forests is a catastrophe for the region's ecosystems, and could spell dire consequences for Europe as a whole. "Imagine the desert settling in, creeping up into Portugal and then into northern Europe," says Clara Landeiro of WWF's Green Belt Against Desertification project in Portugal.

"This is happening in all Mediterranean regions where native forests are being substituted with non-indigenous species, which just suck up water from the soil, take all the nutrients ,and don't give anything back. They're not the right trees for the conditions or the climate. If we don't act now we face the risk of having the desert at our door."

The survival of the Iberian lynx and the Iberian imperial eagle, both already on the verge of extinction, also depends on the survival of the cork oak forests. Eduardo Goncalves, author of the "The Algarve Tiger", a book about the Iberian lynx, says that the two are crucially interlinked. "The reason the cork forests are so important for the lynx is that they are vast expanses of forest. If there's no more demand for cork then that's obviously going to be bad news for the cork forests and bad news for the lynx." Like the Iberian lynx, cork trees are perfect nesting sites for the Iberian imperial eagle, and the forest habitat is an ideal hunting ground.

Cork harvesting is one of the best examples of a sustainable agro-forestry system, where people use the natural resources around them without disturbing or destroying nature. It can survive, as long as demand for cork stays high.

Tanya Petersen is Executive Producer at WWF International's TV Centre.

Related link:

WWF's Work in the Mediterranean: Forests & Scrub

WWF's Forests for Life Programme