When Wu Je-fon (吳杰峰) and his partners first came to the hills of Hsinchu County’s Cyonglin Township (芎林) in 2006, the orchards and tea plantations on the once cultivated hillside had already been abandoned for 15 years. Wild creatures had begun to return. Caves belonging to pangolins could be seen from the country road; animal droppings were in abundance.
Yet previous human settlement had left lasting traces. Wu and other landowners took the initiative to plant indigenous trees and clean up the environment. Little by little, the area began to resemble what it originally was: a forest.
Wu and his partners call the 1.3 hectares of hillside forest Natural Valley (自然谷). In 2011, it became Taiwan’s first legal environmental charitable trust recognized by the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA).
“All of us share the goal of protecting the environment ... But life is transitory and never certain. We thought we needed to find a way to make sure that our objectives will be carried on continuously,” Wu says.
An environmental trust is a mechanism that entrusts property to a trustee — a civic group, for example, or an individual — that protects and maintains the environment within which it’s located. It can also serve as a site to educate the public about issues related to the environment.
In the case of Natural Valley, Wu and two other fellow owners handed out their shared forest land to the Society of Wilderness (SOW, 荒野保護協會), of which they are members, for management. A mutual contract was signed, defining the purpose of land use, which includes habitat preservation and environmental education.
Natural Valley is considered a charitable trust under the Trust Act (信託法), which came into force in 1996, and which was followed by the Environmental Protection Trust Permit and Monitoring Regulations (環境保護公益信託許可及監督辦法), promulgated by the EPA in 2003. However, when the trio applied for their trust, they discovered that no one knew how it worked.
“We spent days going from one government office to another. They often told us to go somewhere else or said they had to ask their supervisors for advice,” Wu says.
Wu says that one of the obstacles lies in the law that prohibits civic organizations from owning agricultural land. As a result, only 1.3 hectares out of the 1.8 hectares of the purchased land can be entrusted to SOW since the remaining area is designated agricultural land.
Another difficulty involves taxation. While environmental trusts in many countries enjoy exemption from most forms of tax, the owners of Natural Valley don’t.
But Wu hasn’t been put off.
“It’s good to have problems. Then we know what needs to be discussed and corrected,” he says.
According to Wen Yu-hsuan, (溫于璇), project manager of Environmental Trust Center at the Taiwan Environmental Information Association (TEIA, 台灣環境資訊協會), conflicts often arise when governmental agencies haven’t prepared for new trends in environmental protection. The government’s division of authority doesn’t help either.
“The environment is an encompassing concept. Environmental education is the responsibility of the EPA. Habitat and species conservation is supposed to be the Council of Agriculture’s responsibilities,” Wen says.
“But the council doesn’t have regulations for environmental trusts, which means that if you apply for a trust to the council, it doesn’t know how to process the application,” she says.