Friday, May 19, 2006

Cork Oak Forests at Stake in Wine Closure Battle

by Environment News Service

May 15, 2006

Every year over 15 billion cork stoppers are produced and sold to the wine industry, but the increasing popularity of plastic and screw top closures could spell the end for the cork oak forests of the western Mediterranean, an environmental group warns.

Issued on the eve of the International Wines and Spirits Fair that opens Tuesday in London, a new report by the global conservation organization WWF predicts that three-quarters of the western Mediterranean’s cork oak forests could be lost within 10 years.

The survival of these unique forests depends upon the market for cork wine closures, but the WWF report, "Cork Screwed?" says the trend away from cork stoppers could lead, in the worst case scenario, to synthetic and screw tops holding 95 percent of the wine closure market by 2015.

"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 at 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 harvesting is an environmentally friendly process during which no trees are cut down. WWF says synthetic and screw top closures are more harmful to the environment because they use more energy in production and are oil-based products.

Cork stoppers, which are biodegradable and can be recycled into other products, represent almost 70 percent of the total cork market value. The cork forests support more than 100,000 people in the cork-producing countries of Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, Tunisia and France.

Because of the predicted decline in the cork stoppers market, up to two million hectares of cork oak forests, an area half the size of Switzerland, will be put at a heightened risk of desertification and forest fires.

The cork oak, which thrives in the hot, arid conditions of southern Portugal, helps protect the soil from desertification and cork oak forests are inhabited many species, including the wild boar and rare birds such as the black stork and the Egyptian mongoose.

Endangered species such as the Iberian lynx, Barbary deer and the Imperial Iberian eagle would be further put at risk of extinction, if natural corks are displaced by plastic and screwtops, the WWF report says.

Cork trees can live up to 500 years. Harvesters strip the thick bark, leaving the trees alive to produce more. By Portuguese law, the cork can be stripped every nine years, but it takes at least 40 years for the bark to become commercially viable and most cork farms are passed down from generation to generation.

But a warming climate and a changing economy are squeezing the cork industry.

In the rich cork oak habitat near Monchique in southern Portugal, farmers have been converting to fast growing species like eucalyptus that can be harvested more quickly and at greater profit.

But eucalyptus trees burn faster than cork, with its durable protective bark. Farmers in Monchique lost 70,000 hectares of woodlands in the forest fires that swept Portugal in 2003.

“It was tragic,” recalled Helder Aguas, president of the Algarve Forest Producers Association in southern Portugal. “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 of his 320 hectares of land.

Aguas is staying, but many discouraged cork farmers are abandoning the cork oaks and leaving the region, rather start again.

Jorge Revez, head of the rural development organization ADPM, told WWF that desertification caused by intensive agricultural production and climate change, has demoralized local farmers.

To address the loss of the cork oak forests, last June 2005 WWF launched a project with Portugal’s reforestation commission and local landowners in the Algarve, aimed at preventing large-scale forest fires in the future.

Known as the Cansino project, it involves restoring burned 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. The project is viewed as a model for other degraded areas in Portugal.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2006

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