The cork oak (quercus suber) is grown nearly exclusively in the Mediterranean countries of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and France. It is the combination of the soil, the heat and the lack of humidity that makes the cork oak flourish in this part of the world.
It is believed that there are about 25,000 hectares of cork oak forests in the Mediterranean area. It is a resource that has been valued for a long time. The ancient Egyptians used cork as stoppers. The Greeks used cork for fishing buoys. The ancient Romans used cork for roofing and women’s shoes.
Cork in Portugal
Such was the importance of cork to the economy of Portugal (the world’s biggest producer of cork) that all cork oak trees were protected by Royal Edict. If you were caught chopping down a cork oak you were liable for severe punishment.
The Portuguese government is now more lenient on those who harm a cork oak tree, but environmentalists are now the keenest to see the preservation of these ancient forests.
Cork Oak Forests
The great thing about cork as a resource is that it can be harvested without destroying natural habitat. Thus, cork oak forests can be economically used without damaging the wild life. That is if the cork is harvested correctly with minimum disturbance to the forest.
The reason for the concern for the cork oak forests is that they are the natural habitat of a number of species including the endangered Iberian lynx and the Barbary ape.
As long as we tread carefully we can have the best of both worlds – a useful resource as well as trees that maintain biodiversity and help to recycle carbon from the atmosphere.