Portugal’s cork forests do more than provide half of the world’s cork. They are also the livelihood of thousands of people and, in the remaining rabbit-rich original areas, are a home for the Iberian lynx. This is the world’s most critically endangered cat: in 1960, about 4,000 of these cats roamed the Mediterranean cork forests; now there are fewer than 500.

About 38% of mainland Portugal is forested, with the cork oak (Quercus suber) a major species. But natural Iberian forests, with their iconic lynx and cork oak, have been largely replaced by human-modified forests with a far smaller diversity of species.

Cork oak grows only on the Iberian Peninsula and in northwest Africa. It’s the bark that is harvested – a spongy, pleasant material that floats and doesn’t burn. You may have encountered it as the stopper for a bottle of good wine. The trees are protected by law and by the communities that rely on them for income. But there are two issues with using cork: because it comes from such a small part of the world, supply is vulnerable to several threats; and producing cork on a commercial scale, in the way it has been done, threatens a range of species, including the lynx.

Over each cork tree’s 200-year lifespan, its bark is cut, left to regenerate for nine years, and then cut again on a continuous cycle so the tree doesn’t die. But the forests have lost other naturally occurring trees. Years of ‘managing’ these forests for their most valuable trees have seen only the cork oaks remaining. Other native trees and, most importantly – for rabbits and their predators – the shrubby vegetation has disappeared. These three components – an endemic tree of high value; a nearly extinct wild cat; and a community evolved around producing and caring for a global commodity – sit somewhat uncomfortably together.

People, both locals and visitors, benefit in every way. And Bussaco has an FSC certificate that proves this. It is a robust certificate, subjected to robust processes. This little spot on our planet encapsulates the essence of sustainability. This is what the FSC is about: bringing people together and delivering good to society.

Cork

Certification is built around principles of sustainability and promotes the whole package, not just one aspect. So, in Portugal, it considers the fact that they are dealing with a natural product and enhances both its value and its intrinsic character – the Iberian forests should have lynx walking in them. An FSC certificate also means a complete array of processes are in place, from the legality of land tenure to best practices, and from preserving key attributes of nature to protecting the rights of workers.

As consumers and retailers continue to choose FSC-labeled cork products, and as cork’s uses are increasing (reportedly even to spacecraft), the delightful cork forests will remain. The people who have worked cork forests for generations will maintain a livelihood, as well as a proud history. And while the lynx will struggle for a while, sustainable forest management will continue to restore its habitats. There is hope for its future.

Finding peace in the forest

Bussaco, just north of that great university of antiquity, Coimbra, offers a fascinating example of FSC certification at work. It is a 100 ha walled forest dating back to 1094 when Carmelite monks, seeking isolation and meditation, built a collection of cottages – and planted trees. With Portugal’s great age of discovery bringing new things to Europe, more plants arrived from the furthest reaches of the world. By the 17th century, a convent emerged and an arboretum of global scope took shape. An ethereal royal hunting lodge – a palace – came later.

Today, Bussaco is virtually unchanged from these ancient origins. To stay at the palace is to go back in time. Walking the forest trails and gardens is meditative and observing the work of the foundation is educational. Redwoods and Douglas firs from the new world stand next to eucalyptus from Australasia; ferns from North Africa frame pines from Mexico.

Bucasso is run by a foundation and the basic tenets of forest management are alluringly captured here. When a tree falls, its wood is used, for example to create souvenirs for visitors. Clean water from numerous forest streams sustains surrounding communities and farmlands. Wildlife – fish, birds and plants largely lost in the outside world – find refuge here. Your payment to stay at the palace goes towards managing the forests.