Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Save the ancient cork forests- put a cork in it

I am just back from a reporting trip looking at the beautiful Montados, the cork forests in Portugal, which produce more than 50% of all the cork consumed worldwide. These forests, which spread over 2.7 million hectares along the Mediterranean Basin in Portugal, Spain, North Africa, France and Italy, are listed amongst the world’s major biodiversity hotspots and support an economy and culture that have grown up around cork farming over thousands of years.

The recent trend of replacing cork wine stoppers with plastic and screw caps, however, is threatening these forests and the animal and people who depend on them to survive.  Synthetic tops now account for close to 30 per cent of the some 17 billion stoppers used every year. If this trend continues, up to three quarters of the Mediterranean's cork forests could be lost within 10 years, estimates the World Wildlife Fund

It is harvest time in the Montado forest of Coruche in the Alentejo. Groups of men from nearby villages are skilfully stripping the thick bark off the cork oak trees with a special axe, performing the same precise, measured gestures as their fathers and grandfathers have done before them.  Women gather the bark strips into large piles, which men load onto tractors. They paint the year of the harvest on the light chocolate tree trunks, so they won’t be touched again for another nine years. The cork oak (Quercus Suber L.) lives up to 250 years and can on average be stripped 16 times during its lifetime, producing enough cork in each harvest to cover 4,000 wine bottles.

The cork forest I visited is a mosaic of cork and other oaks species, pine trees (producing pine nuts), wild olive trees, many different brackens and grassland.  Each one thousand square meter of forest contains about 135 species of plants, many with aromatic, culinary, or medicinal properties. 

The longevity of the cork forests and the diversity of the flora they harbor provide a myriad of niches for many different animals, says Nuno Oliveira, an independent conservation biologist, who guided our visit.  The forests’ open areas, shrubs and tree crowns offer escape, cover, nidification and foraging grounds to 24 species of reptiles and amphibians, 37 mammal species and 100 birds species, some of which are endangered, like the Imperial Eagle and Iberian Lynx.  The forests also host large colonies of insects of all kinds, which provide abundant food for birds nesting in the area and stopping here during migration.

These ancient forests absorb 10 million tones of CO2 every year and act as the last barrier against advancing desertification in North Africa.

Then there are the people: The Mediterranean cork forests not only support some 100,000 cork workers  (harvesting, general forestry and industrial processing), but also sustain a traditional way of life. There, farmers have practiced a low-intensity mix of agriculture and forestry for millennia - on even a small patch of cork land, they can raise a herd of goats, a few cows, goats and some pigs, which forage for acorns and graze beneath the trees. Villagers gather mushrooms, use rockrose bushes for firewood and tap local beehives for honey.

 The Montado is not about top species like lions or elephants, but it is its communities of plants and animals – so rich, so diverse and living in perfect harmony – that make it so unique,” says Rainforest Alliance local representative Rui Simoes. In fact, he adds, the cork forests are one of the best examples of balanced conservation and development anywhere in the world. 

To help protect their endangered cork forests, cork producers in Portugal, Spain and Morocco are working with Rainforest Alliance through its Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, which shows they comply with the highest social and environmental standards of the market.  Cork manufacturers in Portugal have also significantly improved the quality of their corks and launched publicity campaigns to urge consumers and retailers to value the cork in their wine bottles.

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