Preserving Portugal’s cork heritage for the next generation

Posted on 15 August 2005

This summer António Ferreira is harvesting the cork trees of his grandparents under a hot Iberian sun. Taking a break from the labour-intensive activity to survey his farm, which has been in his family for five generations, he is quickly reminded of the age-old adage of his ancestors – Eucalyptus trees are for us, pine trees for our children, and cork trees for our grandchildren. Find out more about forest fires and cork production in Portugal.

By Claire Doole
This summer António Gonçalves Ferreira is harvesting the cork trees of his grandparents under a hot Iberian sun. Taking a break from the labour-intensive activity to survey his farm, which has been in his family for five generations, he is quickly reminded of the age-old adage of his ancestors: Eucalyptus trees are for us, pine trees for our children, and cork trees for our grandchildren
Cork trees can live up to 500 years. Although the cork can be stripped every nine years, it takes at least 40 for the bark to become commercially viable. That is why most cork farms are passed down to the next generation, hoping they will eventually benefit from this unique forest product. 
António's farm in Coruche, an hour’s drive north-east from the capital, Lisbon, stretches over some 3,000ha in central Portugal in the heart of the montados – the corklands where cattle graze and plantations of pine and eucalyptus grow side by side together with cork trees. During the summer, the montados resonates to the sound of cork bark being stripped by axe-wielding workers. The long broad strips are then piled up to make a ‘wall of cork’ before being taken to the local factory for processing into wine stoppers, insulation materials, tiles, and  shoe soles. 
The harvesting techniques have not changed greatly since António's great, great grandparents’ day. It was in the 18th century that the wine and champagne industry began to use cork stoppers, which now accounts for 70 per cent of Portugal's cork production. Today, Portugal is the world's leading producer followed by Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia, and France. 
“The market has become much more commercial and competitive since my grandparents’ days,” said Ferreira. “We are doing our best to keep up and keep the tradition going.” 
Up in smoke   
For Antonio Ferreira and other big cork producers in Coruche and the neighbouring region of Alentejo, the future looks relatively bright, especially as their farms are large and diverse enough to be economically sustainable. However, in the Algarve in the south of Portugal, where cork plantations are small, growers of cork oak (Quercus suber) are facing an uphill struggle for survival. 
Some landowners estimate that in order to generate an average annual income of €20,000, their farms need to be at least 400ha in size. According to Ferreira, one hectare of cork yields earns about €45 per year, whereas eucalyptus, which can be harvested for paper and pulp after 12 years, earns €150. 
In Monchique in southern Portugal, one of the richest natural cork oak habitats in the country, farmers have done the math and have been readily converting to such fast-growing species as eucalyptus…but not without a cost. Eucalyptus trees burn much quicker than cork, whose durable bark acts as a protective barrier. This became most apparent when farmers in Monchique lost 70,000ha of woodlands in the forest fires that ravaged Portugal in 2003.     
“It was tragic,” recalled Helder Aguas, president of the Algarve Forest Producers Association. “It was the worst day of my life when I saw everything go up in smoke.” 
Aguas, one of the biggest landowners in the area, lost nearly all his 320ha of land. Demoralized and bogged down by government bureaucracy, few of his association members bothered to fill out the compensation forms needed to start up again. Two years on, Monchique’s woodlands stand as a testament to the destruction. Charred trees and stumps line the roadsides, while fast growing eucalyptus have taken root in the valleys.   
“This species burns quickly so if the fires come again the whole area will go up like a tinderbox,” warns Aguas, adding that this will be the ‘death knell’ for the local economy which is so dependent on forestry. 
Leaving the corklands behind
If that isn’t enough, many landowners have been leaving their properties in record numbers, some heading for the coast. As a result, absentee landowners have made the risk of fire even greater. 
“If neighbours are not there to remove scrub, tidy the brushwood, and create firebreaks then the fires will spread more easily,” complained Antonio Sousa, who has been living off his savings since he lost 55ha of his 60ha property in 2003. 
As Portugal faces its worst drought in decades, locals are crossing their fingers that there won’t be a repeat of the forest fires of 2003 that destroyed 425,000ha throughout the country – the worst fires in 20 years. According to Portugal’s Department of Forest Resources, over 68,000ha of forest have burned since the beginning of 2005, of which 52,000ha were lost in July alone. 
“Fires are the first signs of abandonment,” said Luis Silva, a WWF forest programme officer in Portugal. “If we don't act now, we will see an unstoppable rural exodus which will have a major impact on the economy.”  
But, the rural exodus is well underway in the Guadiana Valley near Portugal's southern border with Spain. In the 1960’s there used to be 25,000 people in the region, now there are 8,000. 
Sebastiao da Luz, a retired farm labourer has spent all of his 74 years in the village of Amendoeira da Serra. He has seen its population dwindle from 300 to 60 with nearly all the young people, including his son and daughter, leaving for jobs on the coast. 
“When I was a young shepherd, it rained a lot and the fields were green…good land for raising animals and growing arable crops, but now it doesn't rain in the rainy season and everyone is worried.” 
In Guadiana, most of the children of farmers have already left, while in Monchique none of the landowners want their children to follow in their footsteps. 
“My son is a doctor in the US and my daughter is studying IT,” said Algarve Forest Producers Association President Aguas. “Once the farm becomes too much for me and my wife we will have to sell it.” 
According to Jorge Revez, head of the rural development organization, ADPM, desertification – caused by intensive agricultural production and exacerbated by climate change – has been a psychological blow to locals, particularly farmers. 
“The wastelands de-motivate people,” Revez said. “They lose the will to become part of the community and to act for change.” 
ADPM is now working with WWF to encourage farmers to restore desertified lands through the planting of cork and other native tree and shrub species to its original forest and woodland ecosystems, and to adopt new agricultural techniques that require less water consumption. 
Cork to the rescue
Marta Cortegano, an environmental officer with ADPM points out the cork oak seedlings the organization is growing in its nurseries on a 200ha farm in Monte do Vento. Although many of the seedlings did not survive this year's drought, Cortegano is confident that cork can play a part in reviving the regions fortunes.  
“Cork landscapes not only have an economic but also an environmental value,” she said. “They help soil conservation, act as buffers against forest fires, and retain water to control run off and erosion, thus curbing the impacts of desertification and climate change.” 
In June 2005, WWF, the global conservation organization, launched a project with Portugal’s reforestation commission and local landowners in the Algarve, in the country’s south, aimed at preventing large-scale forest fires in the future. Known as the Cansino project, it involves restoring burnt areas and redesigning forest landscapes to make them more fire resistant. Patches of cork oak trees will be planted in key eucalyptus plantations as a barrier against fire. It is hoped that the 4,000ha pilot site, to be developed over the next three years, will act as a model for other degraded areas in Portugal. 
“It is vital that forest and plantation owners as well as local authorities take part in this pilot scheme,” said José Rosendo, president of the Algarve region’s reforestation commission. “We are only going to be able to combat the threat of forest fires if we work together on improving our lands.” 
WWF is currently supporting efforts by the Portuguese cork sector – oak cork forest owners and processors alike – in demonstrating the responsible management of cork oak forests through a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification scheme. In Portugal, 912ha of cork land in the Alentejo region are now FSC-certified, enabling cork manufacturers to supply the market with the first FSC cork products. 
“This is a major step for biodiversity conservation and for the cork trade,” said Nora Berrahmouni, coordinator of WWF’s Cork Oak Landscapes Programme. 
“Cork oak forests rank among the top biodiversity hotspots in the Mediterranean and in Europe. At the same time, they are the backbone of an entire economy. FSC certification will reinforce the already environmental-friendly characteristics of the cork economy, leading to new opportunities in cork markets.” 
The worlds biggest cork processor, Amorim, has agreed that for next summer’s harvest they will supply the market with FSC products from two of its factories in Portugal. 
“We are convinced there is an increasing number of people who on popping open a bottle of champagne are keen to toast a way of life that is traditional, environmentally friendly, and economically viable," said Alexandra Lauw, a quality control manager at Amorim’s Coruche factory. 
There is a growing interest from cork producers to comply with FSC criteria, which will not only benefit the cork oak trees themselves, but the intact forests that provide habitats for the endangered Iberian lynx and Bonelli eagle. The producers also share a strong belief that more needs to be done to promote the ‘cork’ story and the important role it plays in Portuguese society. 
“People have been harvesting cork for generations,” said António Ferreira from Coruche. “We have a moral duty to carry on the tradition for our children and grandchildren.” 
* Claire Doole is Head of Press at WWF International 
• There are seven major cork producing countries in the world: Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia, and France. 
• Launched in July 2004, WWF's five-year Cork Oak Landscapes Programme aims to protect, manage, and restore the natural wealth of cork oak forests by influencing the policies, practices and markets that affect them. The programme addresses key challenges by promoting sustainable markets, improving governance, changing policy, building capacity at local, national and international levels, and demonstrating solutions through field projects. It will focus first on Portugal, Spain, Morocco, and Tunisia, and is based on four inter-related pillars including capacity building, good practices establishment, market support, and policy/advocacy.  
• The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an independent, not-for-profit, non-government organization based in Bonn, Germany, providing standard setting, trademark assurance, and accreditation services for companies and organizations interested in responsible forestry. It was created in 1994 by environmental organizations such as WWF, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace; indigenous forest dwellers; professional foresters; big retailers such as Sweden’s IKEA and the UK’s B&Q; and large and small forest companies.  
• The FSC’s forest certification scheme is a system of forest inspection with a means of tracking forest products through a "chain of custody" – following the raw material through to the finished product. FSC certification provides an internationally recognized label, used to encourage and promote responsible forest management. Increasingly, major retailers and customers are demanding assurance that products they source or buy come from responsibly managed operations. 
Cork trees, which can live up to 500 years, cover about 2.7 million hectares across Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia, and France.
© WWF / Michel Gunther
Cork oak harvesting in Coruche. Ribatejo region, Portugal.
© WWF / Sebastian Rich
Although cork can be stripped from a tree every nine years, it takes at least 40 for the bark to become commercially viable.
© WWF / Claire Doole
Helder Aguas, President of the Algarve Forest Producers Association, inspects the remains of his property after the devastating fires of 2003 when he lost all his 320ha of land. Monchique, Algarve region, Portugal.
© WWF / Claire Doole
Cork oak seedlings in a local tree nursery.
© WWF / Claire Doole
Scattered cork oak trees on lands heavily affected by desertification. Mertola, Alentejo region, Portugal.
© WWF / Sebastian Rich