A great article by Maria Santos & J Cabrera with pictures by A Vazquez in La Voz Digital
Muleteers and cork cutters are keeping alive a centuries-old tradition which is in danger of dying out. Between mid-June and the end of August the harvest provides 129,000 people with temporary work, mostly in the Parque de los Alcornocales in Cádiz. They rise at 5.00am and drink coffee while they prepare the mules and the tools, mainly axes, for another hard day. The man in charge, Lázaro Jiménez, has 50 years of experience and is a third generation muleteer. This year they are going to the Finca El Aljibe where the alcornoques – or “chaparros” as they prefer to call them –are ready to be harvested. They expect to produce 10,000 “quintales” (460,000 kilos) in 40 days.
Cork is a raw material which, due to the crisis and competition from other materials such as plastic, is gradually being devalued even though the methods of extraction and the exhausting work involved have hardly changed in decades. In the intense two and a half months of heavy labour the harvesters and muleteers are likely to lose some 7 kilos in weight. If the Levante (a hot dry east wind) blows hard it can dry the trees and make the bark stick. Once the bark has been taken it is important to have decent weather so the trees can re-generate and produce cork as good as or better than last time.
This job normally runs from father to son, and there are no schools so it is necessary to practise and learn the necessary skills, as in unprofessional hands the trees can suffer. With the loss of their jobs as a result of the crisis in construction many people sought work in the countryside, but with their lack of skill, climate change and pollution there is increased risk of disease in the trees, even death.
The Mediterranean climate is ideal for these trees so the Parque de los Alcornocales is the sort of nerve centre of the forests producing cork oaks in Andalucía. In fact it is the most important in Cádiz and one of the most important in Spain. Even though it takes 9 long years for the bark to regrow, the 170,000 hectares of the Parque are harvested in rotation, so there is activity every year which keeps industry supplied, mainly the wine industry, and of course employment.
Up in the hills everyone just gets on with the job at a frenetic rate without chit chat or getting in each other’s way. The quicker the cork gets to the weighing scale the less moisture it loses and the more it is worth so there men up trees, men collecting and piling up sheets of bark and men loading the mules from the piles. The muleteers take the bark to a “patio” (an opening among the trees) where the bark is unloaded for weighing. A simple but strong scale is employed which measures how many quintales (46 kilos) the cork weighs. Each harvester usually extracts about 25 quintales per day and earns between €90-150 daily depending on what his job is. The economic crisis hasn’t spared the cork industry and prices have fallen some 40% from €100 to €60 per quintal.
In the old days they used to work for two weeks of long days then take two days off. They would rise early and stop for lunch about 3 o’clock, sleep for an hour and finish up at about 7 o’clock. There was no time to go home so they would camp out in the hills for the season, but they would take with them cooks and helpers. Nowadays, what with scooters and cars they have an easier life: they work hard from 7 o’clock till 3 o’clock then go home returning the following day. The muleteers are a bit more tied to the land, however as their working tools are mules, live creatures which require care and attention to be able to take heavy loads of cork to the patio. As Lázaro says, a real muleteer really looks after his animals.
For Lázaro, his son Alejandro and the other two muleteers, Rafael and Luís there is another hard job to do before their day is over. They must remove the paniers and backcloths from the mules, wash their backs with a saline solution and make sure they have no sores, then feed them and check that the backcloth needs no repair. The mules and their equipment must be in good condition to be able to work efficiently, cost effectively and healthily and Lázaro is a stickler for this. These hills in Cádiz can only be accessed by mules; there is no machinery which can do it, and while that is the case the hard work done by muleteers will survive. It should be remembered that they have to look after their mules all year round and that is costly what with vet bills, horseshoes, feed, saddlery etc., and there are no grants available.
All these jobs form part of an ancient tradition which still survives thanks to men like these who go up into the hills to cut the cork bark. They wish there were more interest in their trade and that there could be some training, even financial support offered. Let's all try and buy wine sealed with cork!