Cork oak landscapes


A perfect balance

In many cultures the sound of a cork popping out of a bottle is synonymous with joy and celebration. But do you know where cork actually comes from and what it really is?
Cork stoppers originate in landscapes which cover nearly 30,000 sq km of Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia, and France.

They’re a vital source of income for thousands of people and they support one of the world’s highest levels of forest biodiversity, including endemic plants and endangered species such as the Iberian Lynx, the Iberian Imperial Eagle, and – symbol of the Maghreb – the Barbary Deer.

Because cork is the bark of the cork oak tree (Quercus suber) which renews itself after harvesting, commercial exploitation is environmentally friendly, as not a single tree is cut down.

Precious woodlands
Indeed it’s the best way to preserve the precious and beautiful woodlands that have uniquely clustered in the western Mediterranean for millennia.

Increased market share for alternative wine stoppers could reduce the value of cork oak areas, leading to their conversion or abandonment, and possibly the complete loss of one of the finest examples of a system which perfectly balances the needs of both humans and nature.

If the forests maintain their economic value, people care for them, reducing the risk of fire and desertification.

But if the demand for cork is not maintained there’s a risk the cork oak landscapes of the western Mediterranean will, within a decade, face increased poverty, more forest fires, loss of biodiversity, and faster desertification.

In order to address these issues before it is too late, WWF started a major programme to conserve cork oak landscapes. It involves promoting products from sustainably managed cork oak forests, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, local income-generating activities, restoration, advocating for change in European Union and national policy, and capacity building.

“The market has become much more commercial and competitive since my grandparents’ days,” António Gonçalves Ferreira told WWF. “We are doing our best to keep up.”

António’s farm, in Coruche, north-east of Lisbon, stretches over some 30 sq km in the heart of Portugal’s montado – cork lands where cattle graze and pine grow alongside the cork oak trees.

Portugal is the world’s biggest cork producer, and cork is its most important forest product.

Surveying the trees that have been in his family for 5 generations and grow very slowly, António is reminded of the old cork grower’s adage: “Eucalyptus trees are for us, pine trees for our children, and cork trees are for our grandchildren.”

But for how much longer will that continue to be true?

Cork trees are for our grandchildren

	© H Bohbot (CEFE 2005)
Cork forests around the Mediterranean - click to enlarge.
© H Bohbot (CEFE 2005)
Luis N. Silva, WWF MedPO Portugal Forest programme Coordinator
© WWF Mediterranean / Rui CUNHA