Opinion & Analysis


The dehesas and cork production today, and its alliance with FSC
Gonzalo Anguita (Executive Director, FSC Spain)

Dehesa is an agro-silvo-pastoral system, of multiple use, with a heterogeneous landscape that highlights the existence of scattered woodland (densities ranges between 50 and 60 trees/ha or 30 and 60 trees/ha).

zoom (© FSC Spain) © FSC SpainThe trees are species of the genus Quercus, mainly holm oak (Quercus ilex subsp. ballota) and cork oak (Quercus suber) and occasionally other species such as Algerian Oak (Quercus canariensis), Quejigo or Portuguese Oak (Quercus faginea) and Narrow-leafed Ash (Fraxinus angustifolia). In Andalusia, wild olive (Olea europaea var. ‘Sylvestris’) is also common.

Dehesa can be defined as a system oriented toward simultaneous and combined land use for Iberian pig, sheep, hunting, firewood, charcoal and occasionally cork. Because of this diversity of uses, the dehesa can be regarded as a mosaic, formed of different pieces with different uses and harvests: forest, labor and pasture (Cuevas et al., 1999).

The role of trees is paramount. They stabilize the production of pasture land and improve conditions for livestock; provide acorns, breadnuts, firewood and charcoal, cork, erosion protection, shelter for wildlife, improve the landscape and fertilize the soil with organic matter. These habitats also produce honey and mushrooms.

The dehesas and their Portuguese equivalent, the montados, are Mediterranean ecosystems created by humans thinning the Mediterranean forest and are maintained by the type of use they are put to (extensive livestock farming) and vegetation management (pruning, clearing and crops).

In Spain, the dehesas mainly comprise the south and the west of the country, covering about 2.3–2.4 million ha, although 80 percent is divided between Andalusia and Extremadura (Martin, 1996). Comparing this area with Portugal, the latter’s share is significantly higher, accounting for 33 percent of world area, in contrast to Spain, which has 23 percent (Francisco Manuel Parejo Moorish, 2010).

The role of trees is paramount.

They stabilize the production of pasture land and improve conditions for livestock; provide acorns, breadnuts, firewood and charcoal, cork, erosion protection, shelter for wildlife, improve the landscape and fertilize the soil with organic matter. These habitats also produce honey and mushrooms.

The dehesas and their Portuguese equivalent, the montados, are Mediterranean ecosystems created by humans thinning the Mediterranean forest and are maintained by the type of use they are put to (extensive livestock farming) and vegetation management (pruning, clearing and crops).

In Spain, the dehesas mainly comprise the south and the west of the country, covering about 2.3–2.4 million ha, although 80 percent is divided between Andalusia and Extremadura (Martin, 1996). Comparing this area with Portugal, the latter’s share is significantly higher, accounting for 33 percent of world area, in contrast to Spain, which has 23 percent (Francisco Manuel Parejo Moorish, 2010).

Although cork was a significant element in the export of forest products (in the early 20th century exports of cork products comprised 7 percent of total exports), in terms of employment and production, the cork sector currently represents less than 0.1 percent of the Spanish economy and less than 0.2 percent of Spanish exports. However, it still carries significant weight in Extremadura and Andalusia, and in some locations, such as San Vicente de Alcántara (Badajoz) and Palafrugell (Girona), it remains the main resource in many oak dehesa areas.

Cork production

Although cork was a significant element in the export of forest products (in the early 20th century exports of cork products comprised 7 percent of total exports), in terms of employment and production, the cork sector currently represents less than 0.1 percent of the Spanish economy and less than 0.2 percent of Spanish exports. However, it still carries significant weight in Extremadura and Andalusia, and in some locations, such as San Vicente de Alcántara (Badajoz) and Palafrugell (Girona), it remains the main resource in many oak dehesa areas.

From the point of view of cork production in Spain, there are two geographical areas, each with a different role: the processing industry is situated in Gerona (Catalonia), which manufactures the cork harvested in the country, while forest owners and the pre-processing industry are located in Andalusia and Extremadura. Until the early 20th century, Spain managed to lead Portugal in the export of cork stoppers, despite the development of industries in non-producer countries and the imposition of duties. Currently the situation is reversed, as Portugal leads in the production and marketing of manufactured products while Spain sells Portugal its raw cork for export to other countries (and imports cork stoppers from Portugal). This situation has arisen since the 1960s and 1970s, as the Spanish cork industry could not recover its competitiveness against the Portuguese. Spain’s advantage was lost as a result of various factors, one being the concentration of Spanish production in agglomerated cork for use in coverings and insulation in the construction industry. Once replaced in international markets by other synthetic materials, those markets were lost.

Since then production has been aimed toward the manufacture of wine corks, with 50 percent of production allotted to satisfy domestic demand for corks. This single-product concentration in the sector has created more vulnerability to changes in demand. There is currently a resurgence in corking wine with natural cork for high-quality segments and using other substitute materials such as metal twist-off caps for segments of lower quality and in certain wine markets.

The price for cork bark has currently reached € 120 per Castilian quintal (roughly € 3 per kilogram), although the price level varies greatly with the quality of the cork. FSC-certified cork has enjoyed increases in its reference sales price between € 1.5 and € 3 per Castilian quintal, equivalent to between 1 percent and 2 percent of the sales price. This price differential is clearly insufficient to cover the costs of forest management certification. It would therefore be preferable to improve prices. The increased differential in the sales price for certified corks should be aimed at wines in high-quality segments and be accompanied by a commercial strategy that successfully informs consumers of the benefits that certification provides. FSC Spain collaborated throughout 2013 in the “También Carta de Corchos” campaign, prompted by the magazine 19 líneas at Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain, and in promoting Raïmat, an ecological wine from Codorníu that is bottled with FSC-certified cork.

Under pressure

However, despite the dehesa being a unique ecosystem with interrelated uses, there are now major threats to its survival. Periods of booming exports of cork products have produced premature bark harvests and excessive stripping; the dehesas are going through a lean time since forest management measures that would promote their recovery have not been applied. Likewise, intensification of livestock farming has resulted in degradation of the soil, compromising the conservation of the dehesa pastures. These phenomena exist as much in Spain as in Portugal, the only countries on earth where the cork oak grows naturally and which monopolize the world’s supply of cork – its disappearance would therefore have important implications at the social, environmental and economic levels.

Major environmental and social values that are inherent to the dehesa are essential to forest management in accordance with the principles and criteria of the standards of FSC Spain. So, throughout 2013 and 2014, FSC has undertaken a project financed by FSC International with the purpose of reviewing how we can apply our standards with regard to the dehesa. The result of this project, which saw pilot projects carried out in dehesas with game management while evaluating other non-wood yields such as cork, may be taken into account in the process of transferring the new international standard to the new Spanish standard, an ongoing process which will end in late 2015.

Meanwhile, FSC Spain will promote sustainable use of the dehesa through its standards and by establishing itself as an organization that promotes dialogue between the interests of the cork industry and the rest of society; therefore we invite all those who want to plan a sustainable future for the dehesa to the General Assembly of FSC to be held in Seville next Tuesday, 9 September, from 8.30 a.m. to 10.30 a.m.