This is the 3rd in a series of posts written by recipients of NiCHE New Scholar Travel Grants to attend the World Congress of Environmental History in Guimarães, Portugal.
While leading a Girl Guide troop a few years ago, we asked the girls to start collecting corks. The girls would separate the natural corks from the synthetic ones, which were discarded. The natural corks, rather than ending up in a landfill like they normally do, were sent to a local facility to be recycled into everything from coasters to shoe soles to flooring. As the program continued, we found that we were collecting fewer and fewer of natural cork: wine drinkers were increasingly finding their bottles corked with a synthetic stopper or sealed with a twist-off cap. In 2004, the Vintners Quality Alliance Ontario (VQA Ontario) for the first time permitted Ontario’s premium wines to be packaged with screw caps. Today, about one third of the nearly 18 billion stoppers used worldwide are made of cork alternatives. While proponents of cork-free wine argue that the synthetic stoppers are cheaper, more reliable, and produce more consistent wine, the move away from cork is harming Portugal’s cork industry and environment. Portugal is the world’s leading cork producer – responsible for more than half the world’s supply, as I learned when I was at the Second World Congress of Environmental History in Guimarães, Portugal – meaning that the move away from cork may have consequences for the nation’s economy. And for its biodiversity.
The cork oak tree (Quercus suber) is Portugal’s national tree. It is traditionally found on the montadas of southern Portugal (although there were a few recently harvested trees near Guimarães). The systematic cultivation of the cork forests of the Iberian Peninsula began in the 18th century and continues largely unchanged today: workers manually remove the bark from the base of the tree to its branches using axes. They then paint the last digit of the year on the now-nude trunk. It will not be harvested for another nine years. The cutting usually takes place in June or July so that the cork will have a chance to dry out before being processed. Cork is used for much more than bottle stoppers; I found cork hats, purses, belts, shoes, umbrellas, coasters, dresses, and more while shopping in Portugal.
Removing the bark does not damage the trees: the bark regenerates over time. A carefully maintained tree can live over 200 years. During their lifetimes, the trees provide important ecosystem services: their roots help regulate the water in this semi-arid landscape, preventing the formation of dustbowl conditions. Cork forests sequester 10 million tons of CO2 every year and each tree can sustain about 100 different species. They also support the 10,000 or so skilled Portuguese workers who remove the bark every summer, earning high wages in Portugal’s rural regions in the process. So important is the cork oak that legislation protecting cork oak forests was enacted in Portugal as early as 1209 and the wood was vital to the Portuguese voyages of discovery, since it was used for masts in the caravels sent in search of new worlds. Today, property owners are not allowed to cut down the trees without government permission and the World Wildlife Fund has begun a major project to conserve cork oak landscapes. The current shift away from cork stoppers is having a harmful effect on these initiatives, since there will be less incentive to protect the trees and the related biodiversity, especially when the value of cork has decreased by half in the past decade, which also jeopardizes many livelihoods. It is possible that the industry will recover, particularly if it shifts away from stoppers and becomes a major product in Green Building industry, which is increasingly searching for natural, sustainable, and biodegradable products, criteria which cork meets. While I don’t think it’s time to drink and be merry yet, I hope that Portugal’s cork oak forests will remain and that others will get to experience the unique montada ecosystem.
Want to know more?
– Challenges to Portugal’s Cork Industry