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Cutting it fine for cork?

The highly skilled process of harvesting the cork from the cork oak tree (APCOR)
The highly skilled process of harvesting the cork from the cork oak tree

Evolved over thousands of years, Montados in southern Portugal are a unique mixed farming system dominated by open cork oak woodlands and interspersed with areas of grassland and cultivated fields of crops. This mosaic of different environments has made Montados very important for their biodiversity and a number of endangered species, such as the Iberian Lynx and Imperial Eagle, make their home here. The Montados are equally important for the communities of the Alentejo, particularly as the cork oak has always provided the economic lifeline for this historically deprived region, one of the poorest in Europe. However, the future of the cork industry, and in turn that of Montados, is under threat.

For hundreds of years, the Alentejo communities have grazed their cattle and pigs under the cork oaks and collected the wild mushrooms that grow in the woodlands. Across the region almost 10,000 people rely directly on the cork oak for employment with a further 19,000 employed in the cork processing industries. Cork harvesting has been a way of life in the region for at least a thousand years but the advent of plastic and screw top alternatives to natural cork wine stoppers is putting a unique cultural and natural heritage at risk.

An ancient practice

For over 40 years, Francisco Fortunato has been working as a tirador, a cork stripper from Coruche which lies in the heart of the Alentejo, the most important cork producing region of Portugal. Fortunato's skill lies not in felling a mighty tree with his machada, his trusted handcrafted axe, but in ensuring that he doesn't damage the cork oaks as he removes the bark from the trees. "You have to be very careful otherwise you can easily harm and even kill the tree," he says as he breaks from working in the blistering Iberian sun.

Cork harvesting is a genuinely sustainable practice. The cork oak's bark can be stripped by the tiradors every nine years without damaging the trees which can live on average for 200 years. It takes a good tirador only seconds to make a few well aimed cuts in the trunks and branches of the cork oaks to peel away huge 30cm thick sheets of cork bark to reveal the blood-red skin of the tree underneath. "Cutting cork is a very important part of my annual income," says Fortunato. "I earn 90 Euros a day cutting cork compared with just 24 Euros that I get as a farm labourer the rest of the year."

An industry under threat?

Cork is used in a number of ways from providing insulation for the Space Shuttle to the production of shuttlecocks. However, the use of cork as wine stoppers is by far the most economically important. Globally around 15 billion corks are produced each year, 60 per cent of which are made in Portugal. This represents 70 per cent of the value of all Portuguese cork products and exports making the cork stopper industry one of the most important sectors in the economy. However, this age-old industry is now at risk.

Quality control ensures high standards are maintained (APCOR)
Quality control ensures high standards are maintained

"In the past ten years the international wine industry has begun to replace natural cork stoppers with plastic corks and metal," explains Conceição Santos Silva, a forest engineer from the Association of Forest Producers of Coruche. "The concern is that if this trend continues then the cork oaks will lose their economic value and the Montados will be unable to survive."

Retailers in countries such as the UK are largely driving the trend for using synthetic alternatives. These companies claim that an unacceptable number of bottles of wine are being made undrinkable because of a chemical called TCA, a naturally occurring compound which can be found in cork. However, the Portuguese cork industry fiercely disputes the scale of the TCA problem and is fighting back. Within the past five years the industry has invested over 400 million Euros on a modernisation programme building new processing factories and developing new procedures to eliminate the risk of TCA contamination.

Raising standards

Similar moves to raise standards of cork production have also been initiated in the Montados, most notably the introduction of the Forest Stewardship Council certification scheme. "We are convinced that 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," says Alexandra Lauw from Amorim, the world's biggest cork processor which has started supplying FSC corks from its Coruche factory.

Without the cork stopper market the cork oaks would become virtually worthless and campaigners are already predicting worst-case scenarios for the Montados. "Economic pressure would grow for the Montados to be replaced by more intensive, less sustainable forms of agriculture such as eucalyptus and pine plantations. This in turn would increase the risk of widespread fires as these trees are less fire resistant than cork oaks. These changes would have a massively negative impact on the unique biodiversity of the Montados," says Domingos Leitão, from SPEA, Portugal's leading bird conservation society. Leitão also predicts that the traditional way of life of the Alentejo would collapse leading to a large-scale exodus of the population in search of work elsewhere.

Back at Coruche, Fransico Fortunato is clearly concerned about his future and that of his fellow tiradors. "If people stop buying cork stoppers where would we work?" he asks. "We'd all be in the unemployment line."

Written by: Simon Birch

Date published: September 2006


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