Main characteristics of the cork-producing sector

The extraction and use of cork, in addition to its environmental function, has been and continues to be a feature of territorial cohesion and of the generation of wealth for many rural areas. It has enabled sustainable forest management to be developed and has created an economic structure of reference in the territories with cork oak forests. Thanks to this, it has prevented the emigration and the loss of population from these rural territories.

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This situation did not start in our times; it is a very old activity: cork is documented as having been used as stoppers for Roman amphorae. However, it was the appearance of "champagne", thanks to Dom Pérignon, that made cork and its use become normalised and turned it into an economic motor.

During the initial period, immediately after Dom Pérignon, a craftsmanship dedicated to manufacturing highly appreciated cork stoppers started to grow. From France, following the supply of the raw material, there was a systemised use of Catalan forests. From there, it gradually spread throughout the Iberian Peninsula and Italy. The evolution from artisanal work to industry increased the economic value of the raw material and its manufactured products. New applications appeared which, throughout the 19th century, led to deep changes in the sector and, above all, in the municipalities involved. In all of them, there was a genuine industrial revolution that favoured the appearance of cosmopolitan towns due to the progressive spread of the cork business. An authentic cork civilisation was created.

The first half of the 20th century saw the culminating moment of the cork sector: cork stoppers for still wines and sparkling wines was just one of the subsectors together with two others: the discs for crown seals for beer and soft drinks and industrial applications in paper for cigarette filters, refrigeration, insulating material and car parts which were obtained from agglomerated cork. The cork industry broke the barriers of the cork territories and semi-prepared raw material was exported to industries introduced in the rest of Europe and in the New World.

However, it was the last third of the 20th century when a new double evolution in the sector took place: on the one hand, the growth of the Portuguese industry which became the leading cork power in the world and, on the other hand, the appearance of synthetic products which made cork disappear from the beer and soft drinks subsector, as well as from an overwhelming part of other industrial applications. Cork stoppers alone have remained the mainstay of wine markets of all kinds to the present. Nevertheless, in recent years, synthetic materials (plastic and aluminium) have started to undermine the role of cork stoppers. Today, it is estimated that 70% of wine bottles are sealed with cork stoppers and 30% with alternative materials.

Nevertheless, unlike the last century, the current situation may (and, in our opinion, should) lean towards cork. There are an increasing number of studies that show that under no circumstances do metal or plastic stoppers improve wine in the way that cork does, confirming cork as the ideal material to ensure the correct evolution of wine in the bottle.

At the same time, there is growing concern for and need to manage the environment correctly. In this field, the advantage of cork over synthetic materials is even greater; astoundingly so.

This allows us to believe that cork is moving into a new era: not just because cork stoppers are winning the battle against the alternatives, but because the quality and environmental values of cork products enable us to observe that the way is slowly being opened up to new uses that recover some of those which caused the market share to drop dramatically; flooring, insulating material, accessories and traditional craftwork are in a good position to gradually win back new ground.

However, today's cork sector must face some challenges which, if they are not dealt with, could limit it being able to make the most of the opportunities and its own potentials.

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An ecosystem of wreat wealth and biodiversity

The Cork Oak, Quercus Suber, in its various forms and locations, makes up an ecosystem of great wealth that is only found in the Western Mediterranean: Portugal, Spain, the South of France, Italy, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Its location is strategic in stopping desertification by improving water balances and being resistant to forest fires. It also efficiently acts against the climate change as a CO2 sink.

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It is also home to a varied biodiversity, in which species of great wildlife value, protected by European directives, live, such as Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti), Bonelli's Eagle (Hieraaetus fasciatus), Eurasian Black Vulture (Aegypius monachus), Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Black stork (Ciconia nigra) and Eurasian Eagle-owl (Bubo bubo). Mammals include: Grey Wolf (Canis lupus), Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardina), Wildcat (Felis silvestris) and Red Deer (Cervus elaphus).

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Cork, a driving force for sustainable development

Together with this environmental value, the physical and chemical properties of cork have meant that a very important economic activity has been developed in rural areas, linked to the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors.

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Of the approximately 2.7 million hectares of cork oaks that exist in the world, 1.48 million are in Europe, and the remaining, 1.22 million, in North Africa. The Iberian Peninsula has the greatest mass of cork oaks in the world; Portugal is the leading producer, followed by Spain.

The entire productive chain of cork is found in the rural environment. It is formed by three main agents: the owners of the cork forests, the people who prepare the sheets of cork and the manufacturers of the final products, mainly cork stoppers. In addition, the cultural and heritage legacy of this activity, with more than 200 years of history, together with the unique nature of cork oak landscapes, make up an excellent resource to create new opportunities in these territories, linked to the development of new sustainable models of tourism.

According to data from IPROCOR, el Instituto del Corcho, la Madera y el Carbón Vegetal of Extremadura and the C.E.LIÈGE, Confédération Européenne du Liège, the estimated production of cork is 340,000 tonnes per year. Full time forestry work and "stripping" (annual) work represent about 2 million working days a year in the forests. The industry of preparation finishes and commerce in Europe represents between 90,000 and 100,000 jobs and an overall invoicing (exterior and interior market) of €1.7 billion a year.

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Cork stoppers, the backbone of the sector

The physical and chemical properties of cork (compressibility, elasticity, oxygen permeability, durability, etc.) help the wine-producing process in a decisive way. This is why cork stoppers, in their wide variety of types, have become the backbone of the sector, as defined by the Portuguese researcher María Carolina Varela. Currently, in a setting of worldwide stagnation in the consumption of wine, the annual world production is estimated to be about 14,000 million stoppers.

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Therefore, we are looking at a sector that works with a raw material that is notably local but which has consolidated a worldwide market.

The industry is characterised by the coexistence of some large groups, with strong capital, and an industrial fabric of small, dynamic companies with local capital, deeply rooted in the territory, with an average of approximately 15 employees per company and an enviable level of know-how.

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The challenges that the cork sector faces

This sector is currently having to face some problems of an internal and external nature of which we would like to highlight: In the first place, the cork oak is facing diverse problems of a biological order, which are more notable in certain formations such as in pastures. For example, problems of regeneration and plant health have been detected, such as root rot which is caused by a Phytophtora cinnamomi infection.

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The particular nature of the cork oak is worthy of a mention with regard to its performance, as it requires long periods of time until one is able to obtain the first economically profitable "stripping". Therefore public policies to help set up exploitations need to be developed and they are currently not sufficiently well funded. However, it is necessary to maintain and, whenever possible, increase the production of cork in cork oak forests.

In the second place, there is a high dependence on a single product: cork stoppers for wine. This creates uncertainty for companies and cork-producing territories. Changes in consumption could reduce the demand for wine and the emergence of new wine-producing companies which do not have cork easily available could facilitate the appearance of alternative products. As an example, we should mention that the current market share for cork stoppers is 70% of the total bottles produced in the world, with a loss of approximately 10 points in the last decade, in calculated values.

Despite the joint efforts carried out to ensure quality (International Code of Cork Stopper Manufacturing Practices and SYSTECODE certificate), the value of cork stoppers as a natural, biodegradable product with food safety and traceability guarantees has not had sufficient repercussion amongst consumers and opinion makers, therefore we need to make a very significant effort to create awareness and to communicate.

The extraction of cork is a sustainable activity, which respects the tree, which makes the most of a renewable resource which, together with responsible management, does not affect the ecosystem or its environmental services.

In the third place, the cork sector, despite its importance, has had and still has a low political relevance, among other reasons due to its particular nature and due to the fact that the activity is focused on small companies and micro-companies. Partly as a result of this, there is a progressive loss of cultural heritage, of social recognition of its object values, and a commoditisation of the fact that its use is being replaced by synthetic products.

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Modernisation of the sector and new opportunities for the cork legacy

However, cork has key elements in its favour that can influence its development as a sector. On he one hand, there is its sustainable character, as it is a natural, organic, renewable, recyclable, which is what allows for different industrial uses, biodegradable material, the production of which does not contaminate, which consumes little energy and minimises the waste as it can be used to generate renewable energies. The cork-producing industry has carried out and continues to carry out a complex, integral modernisation process.

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In addition, the importance of cork oaks to combat climate change makes their use a strategic factor. In this sense, we should mention that, taking into account its life in the cork oak forest, cork stoppers present a total balance of CO2 that is negative whereas plastic and aluminium stoppers have positive balances, which means that these non-renewable and non biodegradable materials leave a greater ecological print. In addition, if we consider the entire life cycle of the cork stopper, it fixes a quantity of CO2 that is double its weight.

Finally, knowledge about the sector should be an economic motor for the territory. The sector currently maintains employment in rural areas and can create new employment related to different possibilities: nature, cultural and industrial tourism, eco-tourism, etc.

Taking into account the economy of the services and the fact that the quality of the territory is its economic capital and a factor of competitiveness, the quality of cork oak landscapes is a motor in local development and a territorial marketing instrument to confer value on its products.

To make the most of the opportunities that there are and to be able to deal with the weaknesses and threats to which the sector is subjected, we need a joint, coordinated action from all the agents in the productive chain and the value chain of the sector: from the companies, technological centres, business associations, areas of economic promotion and local development, natural protected open spaces and museums and interpretation centres. It cannot be forgotten that local administration plays a decisive role in maintaining and increasing the quality and competitiveness of the territory.

Due to the importance that this activity has on local development, the cooperation between cork-producing regions and towns is a fundamental feature for introducing common strategies that defend a model of sustainable development, based on the maintenance of cork production and the increase of its competitiveness.

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