Building trust

Natural Valley, Taiwan’s first environmental trust, is waiting for the nation’s legal system and bureaucracy to catch up to global environmental trends

By Ho Yi  /  Staff reporter

Mon, Aug 05, 2013 - Page 12

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.

New initiative

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.

Legal barriers

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.

An independent non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the country’s natural and cultural resources, TEIA has been introducing sustainable land management to places including Dongyuping (東嶼坪), an outlying islet belonging to Penghu islands, and Sansiantai (三仙台) in Taitung County, near the Amis village of Pisilian.

In 2010, when Kuokuang Petrochemical Technology Co planned to construct a naphtha cracker in Dacheng Township (大城), Changhua County, TEIA — together with several other environmental groups — proposed to buy the lands from the government and turn the Dacheng Wetlands (大城濕地) into an environmental trust.

More than 70,000 people subsequently signed a petition stating that they would either donate or buy the land if the case were accepted by the government.

Sun Hsiu-ju (孫秀如), director of TEIA’s Environmental Trust Center, says setting up an environmental trust is a long-term, continuous undertaking involving discussion and debate.

“What’s unique about the trusts is that they require plenty of communication so as to build trusting relationships and reach consensus,” Sun says. “You set up a goal and keep discussing it with others.”

Local involvement

Wu, who helps manage Natural Valley, agrees. He points out that they often think of ways to integrate local residents and businesses into activities meant to teach the public about the environment.

“It is important to connect and interact with locals. You need to let people understand what you are doing, so that they’ll believe in your goals. And perhaps one day they may even join up,” he says.

To further public awareness of environmental protection, Natural Valley holds a myriad of activities throughout the year, including growing vegetables, basket-weaving, tree climbing and watching fireflies. Wu’s team has also documented the area’s diverse species and their habitat. In so doing, they hope to accumulate experience and knowledge that can be used to help manage a new plot of land when it is purchased or donated.

“The 1.3 hectares of land is too small if we really want to protect species. It doesn’t take a bird much time to fly through it; the migration routes for flying squirrels and mammals like pangolins are also quite extensive,’” Wu says. “In 30 years, we want to be able to preserve 500 hectares of land.”