Future of cork oak forests hangs in the balance

Posted on May, 15 2006

According to a new WWF report, three-quarters of the western Mediterranean’s cork oak forests could be lost within ten years, threatening an economic and environmental crisis.

London, UK – Three-quarters of the western Mediterranean’s cork oak forests could be lost within ten years, threatening an economic and environmental crisis, according to a new WWF report.

On the eve of the International Wines and Spirits Fair in London this week, WWF warns that up to two million hectares of cork oak forests — around half the size of Switzerland — will be put at a heightened risk of desertification and forest fires due to a predicted decline in the cork stoppers market.

The report, Cork Screwed?, says that the future survival of the cork forests strongly depends upon the market for cork wine closures. However, the trend away from cork stoppers could lead, in the worst case scenario, to synthetic and screw tops holding 95 per cent of the closure market by 2015. This would result in the loss of 62,500 jobs in the cork-producing regions.

"The cork oak forests could face an economic and environmental crisis unless we take action to secure their future now," said Rebecca May, a forests campaigner with WWF-UK. "It is vital that the wine and cork industries maintain the market for cork stoppers and, in turn, help ensure the survival of the cork oak forests.”

Cork stoppers, which are biodegradable and can be recycled into other products, represent almost 70 per cent of the total cork market value. Every year, over 15 billion cork stoppers are produced and sold to the wine industry. The cork landscapes provide a vital source of income for more than 100,000 people in the cork-producing countries of Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia and France. They are also home to endangered species such as the Iberian lynx, Barbary deer and the Imperial Iberian eagle.

Cork harvesting is an environmentally-friendly process during which not a single tree is cut down. Synthetic and screw top closures are more harmful to the environment because they use more energy in production and are oil-based products.

WWF is calling on the cork industry to continue to invest in the quality of cork stoppers and the wine industry to make cork the preferred closure option. Better management practices in cork oak landscapes also need to be coupled with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) accreditation, an internationally recognized environmental certification system.

“A whole landscape, which has environmental as well as economic importance for the western Mediterranean is at risk," said Nora Berrahmouni, coordinator of WWF's Cork Oak Landscapes Programme. "We need to take action now so we don’t lose this unique landscape forever.”

For further information:
Alison Sutton, Press Officer
Tel: +41 483 412388
E-mail: sutton@wwf.org.uk

Chantal Menard, Communications Officer
WWF Mediterranean Programme
Tel: +39 346 387 3237

Cork oak tree, Spain.
© WWF / Edward PARKER
Freshly harvested cork. New research shows that the bad taste of 'corked' wine comes not from the cork, but rather from a flame retardant used in wine barrels.
© WWF / Edward Parker