Our Solutions: WWF's work for the cork forests

 / ©: WWF-Canon / M. GUNTHER
Myrtle collection in El Feija cork forests, Tunisia
© WWF-Canon / M. GUNTHER
WWF aims to protect the unique natural heritage of the Mediterranean’s cork oak forests, which face a number of threats including the shrinking market for cork bottle stoppers.
WWF’s work, from the forest itself to the international cork market, is based on:
  • Promoting products from sustainably managed forests and responsible purchasing by the wine sector.
  • Capacity building for best practice in the management and restoration of cork oak forests.
  • Developing and improving management techniques.
  • Advocacy at national and EU level, especially to ensure any subsidies contribute to the long-term sustainability of cork oak areas.
In its contacts with the wine industry, WWF has been working to publicize the environmental and economic value of cork stoppers, especially with the wine industry and its choice of bottle stoppers, and show what would be lost if cork forests disappeared.

A report assessing the impact of a decrease in the bottle-stoppers market on cork oak landscapes, Cork Screwed?, was launched at the London Wine Fair in 2006 – one of the global wine industry’s biggest events.

WWF asks wine producers and retailers to choose cork.

A campaign run by WWF Spain, meanwhile, gathered more than 20 international celebrities from Spanish gastronomy. Outstanding chefs helped promote WWF Spain’s campaign, Corcho Sí. Alcornocales Vivos (“Yes to cork. For living cork oak forests”).

Certifying forests
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) provides a label which allows consumers worldwide to choose products that come from responsibly managed forests. It demonstrate the ecological benefits of cork products.

WWF lobbies the cork and the wine sectors to strive for FSC certification.

In 2005, Portugal, Spain, and Italy became the first countries in the world where cork oak forests obtained FSC certification: 3,912 hectares of Portugal’s cork woodlands; 11,405ha of Andalucia; and 66ha of cork oak forest in, Sardinia, where nearly all Italy’s cork forests are found.

The first bottle stoppers originating in FSC-certifed forests are now available, with full traceability back to the field guaranteeing they are produced in good environmental and social conditions.

Portugal is currently developing an initiative to support FSC certification nationwide. Backed by WWF, it has attracted heavyweight support from key government and industry bodies, cork producers and processors, and the winner of the 1998 Nobel prize for literature, Jose Saramago.

The Moroccan government has also decided to manage its forests within the FSC system. The country’s 9m hectares of forest and grassland are seen as invaluable in the fight against desertification.

Among the objectives of the Cork Oak Landscapes Programme is to promote networking among organizations working on similar issues, and the development of a vital common strategy for restoration, protection, and management.

WWF invited managers and technical staff from forestry directorates and NGOs from Morocco and Tunisia to visit Portuguese and Spanish cork oak landscapes and exchange expertise.

Training courses were also organized on sustainable cork harvesting techniques in Tunisia, including lectures, field practice, and discussions. A standard model axe has now been developed.

We must save the cork oak landscapes, a jewel of biodiversity not found elsewhere – full of treasures for people, yet ignored by many.

Nora Berrahmouni, head of the WWF Cork Oak Landscapes Programme

 / ©: WWF-Mediterranean / Chantal MENARD
Seminar on FSC certification, Morocco
© WWF-Mediterranean / Chantal MENARD
 / ©: WWF-Mediterranean / Rui CUNHA
Meeting cork land owners, Portugal
© WWF-Mediterranean / Rui CUNHA
 / ©: WWF-Mediterranean
Training on cork harvesting techniques, Tunisia
© WWF-Mediterranean
 / ©: WWF-Mediterranean / Chantal MENARD
WWF at the London International Wines and Spirits Fair, one of the major wine trade events worldwide
© WWF-Mediterranean / Chantal MENARD
Enhancing skills
“The WWF capacity-building idea is to get people from the cork countries – Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, France, and Italy – to discuss and improve the way things are done,” says Xavier Escute, capacity building officer of the WWF Cork Oak Landscapes Programme.

In North Africa, WWF works with local communities to improve forest management, ensuring people use forest resources in a balanced way rather than employing intensive grazing which destroys the habitats and the soils. This includes honey and pine production, myrtle distillation, and cork harvesting.

A pilot project in Chefchaouen, Morocco, focuses on restoring the complete ecosystem, including not only cork oak trees but also the plants they depend on. Local people are involved through a tree and plant nursery.

In Portugal too WWF has been working with its local partner NGO ADPM in Mertola to restore some 200ha of cork oak landscape using local species produced in a tree nursery.

In Monchique, in the heart of the Algarve, where devastating forest fires several years ago destroyed 70 per cent of the cork oak area, WWF is collaborating with the Portuguese Forest Resources Directorate, paper companies like Portucel and Celbi, and local landowner associations to restore burnt areas.

It’s hoped the restoration of Monchique area could become a model for other degraded or burnt cork landscapes.

EU subsidies
Despite the EU’s commitment to biodiversity, it is still investing in intensive agriculture and cattle grazing as well as some forestry practices that threaten already endangered species and habitats.

According to WWF’s report Conflicting EU Funds, EU subsidies to landowners for clearing firebreaks have also helped destroy the habitats of rare plant and animal species, and contributed to the soil erosion that was a factor in the worst bush-fire season Portugal has ever known in 2003–4, when 400,000 hectares were lost.

WWF and its partners participate in negotiations on EU rural funds and the Common Agricultural Policy to try to influence budget decisions.