A corky dream in Alentejo

All photos © Derya Akkaynak. Want them? Please email.

-Are you British?

– No, I’m Turkish.

-… It is not very normal.

The region south of the river Tejo, simply termed Alentejo in Portuguese, is home to nearly half of the world’s cork oaks. Map modified from here.

Some version of this conversation took place between startled Portuguese and myself enough times during my 1400-kilometer road trip in Alentejo that made me think one of three things: 1) According to the way Portuguese perceive the world, Britain is the only nation capable of producing women with chutzpah to travel solo, or 2) The absurd amount of documentation an ordinary Turkish citizen must produce to maybe obtain a Schengen visa is a phenomenally effective deterrent that stops tourism before it happens, or 3) When Turks go to Europe, they don’t wander off the beaten track and therefore have never stepped foot in Alentejo.

Another possible, but somewhat bizarre explanation is that I don’t look Turkish and that’s what startled the Portuguese. What does a Turkish person look like? The answer depends on whom you ask. Once I surprised the hell out of a British acoustics professor –a female British acoustics professor – I had met for the first time. After visually processing me from head-to-toe that lasted an uncomfortable thirty seconds, she said: “I didn’t expect you’d look like us”.  To this day, I feel like a fraud for not having lived up to her expectations. Was I supposed to have a third arm?  Was my olive skin lighter than she imagined? Perhaps it was my blue-green eyes and dark blonde phenotypic features, commonly found across the country from the Black Sea coast, to the Aegean to the southeast, that threw her off.

I will never know.

Yet, here I was, in Alentejo, on a mission to witness cork oak harvest. Watching the harvest was not the original plan, though. Originally I wanted to go to southern Portugal because it is home to more than half of the world’s cork oaks, and I wanted to learn how to cultivate these magical trees. Then, fantasy has it, sometime in not-so-distant future, I would start growing corks on my small parcel of land in Aegean Turkey. There were many practical problems with this plan, but I treated it with the respect big dreams deserve, and started to do some research. I read all the scientific papers that mentioned cork cultivation in Mediterranean Turkey, which did not take long because there was just a half dozen. One paper reported high failure rates due to inadequate watering. Good, I thought, I am already a few steps ahead because I had been accounting for the fact that if I planted trees, I might have to water them.

The gift that keeps on giving

From a brief mention in one of the research papers, I found a lead that pleasantly surprised me. A courteous King of Spain, Alfonso XII, sent six cork seedlings to the Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II, as a gesture of friendship in 1879. It was more or less known back then that cork trees did not survive well east of the Adriatic Sea. But the power of our empire had to be demonstrated to the Spanish, especially at a time when much of that power was delusion, so the well-being of these seedlings were taken very seriously. They were planted logistically on state-owned farms near Istanbul and Izmir and dedicated gardeners were commissioned to ensure their survival.

Practically anyone planting cork oaks today in Turkey will be planting a descendent of  one of the original seedlings gifted by King Alfonso XII to Sultan Abdülhamid in 1879.

Fast forward one century, in 1975, the Turkish forestry service started to plant and propagate the acorns from four of the six original trees that survived — and they succeeded. As of 2005,  235,000 seedlings were available for sale to the general public. In December 2013, I called up Torbalı Orman Fidanlığı (a government-run nursery near my hometown) and asked if they had cork oak seedlings for sale to uneducated and overly excited enthusiasts. Yes, they did! And they came with a government subsidy. Because, why not?

It appeared that the stars had aligned and pieces were falling into place – now I just had to go to Portugal and learn about cork oak cultivation in the terrain where they naturally thrived.

I rented a car at Lisbon airport and drove some 200 kilometers south to Odemira, through seemingly endless cork forests. I tried to keep track of the maximum number of stork nests on a single electrical transmission tower on the side of the road.  The winner had 13 — all nests were very close to one another, but it wasn’t possible to see if all were inhabited.

Cultivation: growing old together

Then two wrenches came flying into my dream.

First, I found out in person that Portugal is the absolute worst place to learn about cork tree cultivation. Because in Portugal, corks just grow. Nobody thinks about how to grow them. The soil and the climate conditions are optimal – so optimal that the only threat to young, unestablished cork trees are the wild boar that uproot the trees to eat bug larva. This organic bug-control service might have been welcome in a different setting, but cork owners systematically shoot the boar and make them into delicious chouriço. A win-win situation, I suppose, for most parties involved.

The second practical limitation was more problematic.

A cork tree can be harvested for the first time when it is 20-25 years old. That bark is called "virgin cork" and it is not economically valuable.
Virgin cork. This is the bark from the first harvest of a cork tree, when it is 20-25 years old. Surprisingly, an application to make it economically valuable has not yet been found, so it is either mostly thrown away, or sold for very little profit.

The economically valuable part of a cork oak is not its timber, but its bark. When cork is harvested, no part of the tree is cut; the outermost bark is simply peeled off. Striping its bark (i.e., girdling) would kill any other tree because it would disrupt the tissue network that transports water and nutrients from the tree’s roots to its leaves. But in cork oaks, this fragile layer of tissue (xylem) is protected with an inner bark, in addition to an outer bark (the part that is harvested). As long as the harvesting process does not damage the inner bark or the innermost xylem, cork trees can tolerate losing their outer bark, which they start regenerating almost immediately. Here is the catch: it takes a minimum of 20 years before a cork tree can be harvested for the first time – and that bark is not even of any value. Called “virgin cork”, at best, it is used as a planter or as decoration in terrariums.  The first proper harvest can be made 9 years later, and then repeated every 9 years. Mathematics tells me that if I were to plant my cork seedlings today, my first viable harvest would be 29 years from now, when I am 62. You see, my grandmother was 68 when she died of cancer, and my mother, only 62.

That is cutting it pretty close.

Harvest: a hot, long affair

Plan B.

I had already contacted the largest cork producer in Portugal to see if they would allow me to photograph harvest on one of their forests. But something better turned out before I received their response (they never responded).  The owner of the Herdado I was staying at had just finished harvesting her 900 acres of cork trees, but found out that one of her neighbors was still harvesting. Given how late in July it was (the harvest season was practically over), this was lucky. We were at the neighbor’s door the next morning. Manfred, a professional photographer,  also joined us. (It felt encouraging to run into a professional on the trail I had mapped out for myself purely out of curiosity.) I’ll let my non-professional photos tell the rest of the story.

Cork is harvested by experienced workers using only an axe. Labour is divided into three parts; the strippers carefully score the bark and then simply peel it off (much like peeling an orange without piercing the fruit); the haulers follow strippers around and carry freshly harvested bark to a truck-accessible spot, and the labelers paint the last digit of the harvest year (e.g., “4” for 2014) on the tree trunk.
Cork workers make about 100-120 Euros per day, starting at sunrise, and working 12 hours a day during the harvest season that spans May -July. For rural Portuguese, this is extremely good income and most workers do not seek jobs for the rest of the year. Top right: The last digit of of the harvest year (e.g., “2” for 2012) is painted on the trunk. Harvest happens once every 9 years. Bottom: this worker ran after me to show his discomfort from the hundreds of ants crawling on his shirt. I later picked up a fresh piece of bark and got bitten myself; the pain doesn’t last long, but hundreds of bites a day, many days in a row can not be pleasant.
In Portugal cork forests are predominantly in the south, but the factories that process raw cork are in the north. The harvest will be hauled hundreds of kilometers with flatbed trucks like this one, a sad contradiction given the high carbon absorption capacity of harvested cork trees.

Fact: we can go to space, but we cannot synthesize cork

A healthy cork can live an average of 150-200 years; and grow up to 50 meters tall, yielding something like 100-500 kg of bark per harvest. This makes a good retirement investment and a valuable asset for the next generation to inherit – assuming cork value does not depreciate. In 2014, prices for raw cork were almost at their all-time lowest; roughly 1 Euro per kilogram. When times were good,  prices have been triple that. This year raw cork didn’t bring in as much money because every industry in Europe has been suffering, and agro-commodities are no exception. The increasing use of plastic and screw-top wine stoppers is directly hurting cork prices, and indirectly, jeopardizing the future of the rich ecosystems cork forests sustain. I kept hoping to run into an Iberian Lynx, a breathtakingly beautiful wildcat known to reside in Portugal mostly in the cork forests. But this was a dream more unrealistic than farming cork, because the lynx are critically endangered, and in southwest Iberia their current population estimate is close to zero. Why? Decades of poor conservation and most recently, a virus killing off their major food source, the European rabbit (see a recent Nat Geo article here).

It would be naive to think landowners want to preserve cork forests diverse ecosystems they support. It is currently it is illegal to cut cork trees in Portugal – even the removal of the dead ones require special permission, but if the price of raw cork continues to fall, the farmers will turn to alternatives.  Eucalyptus, for example, a non-native, water-greedy tree that grows fast, is already the most abundant tree in Portugal. Its invasion started about a decade before King Alfonso’s gift to Sultan Abdülhamid, perhaps with good intentions common to many ecological disasters: controlling soil erosion and draining swamps to eradicate malaria (the wood and pulp brought in good money, too).

Luckily, more and more industries are seeking out cork and its hybrids to replace lightweight and durable manmade materials because keywords “renewable” and “sustainable” open many doors in the west. Portugal alone produces 200,000 tons of cork per year, and not all of that is made into wine stoppers. In addition to flooring, sexy wedge shoes, yoga mats, Indiana Jones hats and bulletin boards, gaskets and heat shield tiles used on spacecraft are made from cork. But, most  innovative uses of cork happens in other countries, such as the US. This puts a hard a limit to the income cork brings to the Portuguese, essentially capping it with just the export of processed raw material. On the consumer side, we can continue to boycott plastic wine stoppers, but until Portugal can bring the design, development and manufacturing more of the high-tech cork products in-house, the future of the cork forests will be heavily dependent on market fluctuations of raw bark.

When I was a child, my grandpa had cleverly wrapped my fishing line around a slab of cork (left), so if I hooked a fish bigger than myself  and got pulled in the water, it would float (right: how I compared in size to a trança, or seabream, in 1986). I wonder where my grandpa’s cork was sourced from.

Turkish women (and everybody else): go to Alentejo!

One doesn’t need to be cork-obsessed to visit Alentejo. This unspoiled part of Europe offers scenic drives through cork, pine and eucalyptus forests, and easy access to the Atlantic coast where you can sail, tan, SCUBA dive, surf or hike the beautiful St. Vicente trail. Kayaking on one of the numerous rivers that are the backbones of agriculture in the region (in addition to having shaped local culture and customs) can take you to well-preserved wetlands and habitats that support hundreds of bird species, some of them quite rare and endangered. Along the way, you get to eat delicious food (try the barnacles!), and of course have a cold Super Bock.

(Late edit:There is a chance Turkish and Portuguese teams would play each other in the 2016 UEFA cup,  that is, if we both manage to emerge from our qualifying groups.)



For more on cork, check out the July 1908 issue of National Geographic Magazine (Vol 19, Number 7), and Helena Pereira’s book: “Cork: Biology, Production and Uses”.


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