2012年3月14日 星期三

In Trusted Hands. Taiwan’s environmental movement has received a boost from the creation of Nature Valley, the island’s first land trust.

本文由行政院新聞局 Taiwan Review 提供,撰稿記者 鍾孟學(Oscar Chung),原文出處: http://taiwanreview.nat.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=174104&CtNode=1364

經 鍾孟學先生同意轉載。也提供給外國友人認識台灣環境信託的故事。

In Trusted Hands

Wu Yu-chiao, left, and Wu Jie-feng, two of the three dreamers who worked with the Society of Wilderness to establish Nature Valley, Taiwan’s first environmental land trust (Photo by Huang Chung-hsin)
Publication Date:09/01/2011

Taiwan’s environmental movement has received a boost from the creation of Nature Valley, the island’s first land trust.
In the summer, the Nature Valley environmental land trust is especially full of life. “I used to fear bugs. But not anymore; not after staying here and spending some time with them,” Wu Yu-chiao (吳語喬) said in June this year while guiding a group of journalists at the 1.8-hectare site. Nature Valley is located at an elevation of 380 meters on Nanhe Mountain in Hsinchu County, northern Taiwan. Except for a few trails, the densely forested area shows little evidence of human disturbance. Wu, a 51-year-old mother of two, has literally called Nature Valley home for two years as it provides such an opportunity to get close to and learn about nature.
But Nature Valley offers more than a respite from the hustle and bustle of urban life or a huge outdoor classroom for nature lovers. In fact, the reason the property has been drawing attention from the media is because it is operated as Taiwan’s first environmental land trust. “It’s about people with a dream and those who made it come true,” says Wu Ling-chu (吳鈴筑), who is a senior executive officer of the Cabinet-level Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) as well as a key figure in developing regulations to promote land trusts in Taiwan. In the case of Nature Valley, the dreamers are Wu Yu-chiao and two other co-owners of the land, while the dream maker is the Society of Wilderness (SOW), an environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Taipei since 1995.
Nature Valley is operated under a legal relationship between the settlors (those who make a settlement of property) and a trustee. In this case, Wu Yu-chiao and her partners are the settlors and SOW is the trustee. As such, SOW is tasked with administering the trust fund established for Nature Valley, as well as with the property’s upkeep. “It’s not simply a donation,” says Antonio Chou (周東漢), SOW’s director of environmental conservation. “Both parties have to act according to the contract they signed. That prevents the settlor from selling the land or the trustee from managing it outside the terms of the agreement for the duration of the contract.”
The contract governing Nature Valley will run for three years. When the contract expires, Chou says that if neither the settlors nor SOW seeks changes, it will continue for another three years. Alternatively, the parties could decide to extend the contract for five, 10 or even 50 years, he adds.
The existence of Taiwan’s first land trust can be traced to the effort of environmentally conscious Wu Yu-chiao, who formerly served as the secretary for SOW’s Hsinchu chapter. “Taiwan’s land has been developed at too fast a pace. I felt the need to do something about it,” she explains. In 2006, she thought of creating an environmental trust and began inviting other like-minded people to pool their money to purchase a piece of land in the mountains. She received positive responses from five other SOW members, and together they established a fund worth NT$7.2 million (US$218,200). In July 2007, after looking for suitable spots, mainly in northern Taiwan, for more than a year, they decided on a privately owned area on Nanhe Mountain and purchased it for NT$6 million (US$181,800).
Environmental Protection Administration Minister Shen Shu-hung, fourth left, pays a visit to Nature Valley in June. (Photo by Huang Chung-hsin)
Around the same time, Wu Yu-chiao and two of her prospective co-buyers met with a group of high school teachers from Taipei County (now known as New Taipei City) who were devoted to instructing people in tree climbing. After learning the requisite skills from the teachers, Wu Yu-chiao’s group began using the Nature Valley site to give their own tree-climbing courses to the public, as well as to provide training sessions for workers from SOW’s Hsinchu chapter. In fact, Nature Valley’s educational mission was critical to gaining approval from the EPA to operate as a land trust, as the agency requires that trusts under its authority offer classes on environmental topics.
The global economic recession that began in the fall of 2008, however, affected the financial status of all six landowners. The downturn forced three of them to back out, which meant selling their shares to Wu Yu-chiao and co-owner Wu Jie-feng (吳杰峯). Liu Hsiu-mei (劉秀美), the other original co-owner, remained with the project, but was unable to help in purchasing the shares of the three owners who wished to withdraw.
Wu Jie-feng, who came up with the name Nature Valley with Wu Yu-Chiao, raised his financial commitment to the project when the three partners backed out, even though doing so drove him into debt. “I wanted to keep my dream alive,” he says, referring to his goal of maintaining the integrity of the site’s environment, as one potential developer was eying it as the location for a columbarium.
Like Wu Jie-feng, Wu Yu-chiao was committed to finding a way to give Nature Valley long-term protection. “I wanted this to be difficult to reverse,” she says. “I didn’t want my children to be tempted to sell the land to developers in the future. I felt like I needed to move forward by creating an environmental trust that could run permanently, according to the terms of a contract.”
In the spring of 2010, the three co-owners began serious discussions with SOW over the best way to secure long-term protection for Nature Valley. In April this year, those negotiations resulted in the owners and SOW submitting an application to the EPA to operate 1.3 hectares of the site as Taiwan’s first environmental land trust. The EPA gave its approval on June 1.
A tree-climbing training course at a site next to Nature Valley, which offers similar courses as part of its environmental education program (Photo by Huang Chung-hsin)
Nature Valley’s singular status, however, is an indication that Taiwan lags behind in terms of progress in establishing environmental trusts. The United States established its first conservation land trust in 1891, while the practice began in the United Kingdom in 1895. In Asia, Japan established its first land trust in the mid-1960s.
Healthy Development
In Taiwan, the Trust Act was promulgated in 1996, providing a legal foundation for charitable trusts as well as regulating their operations. Among other provisions, the Trust Act requires that supervisors advise land trusts, thereby ensuring that conservation sites develop in a “healthy” manner. In the case of Nature Valley, the supervisors are three environmental experts chosen by SOW. The EPA is required to conduct an annual review of trustees’ management plans as well as review the minutes of meetings between those operating the trusts and the supervisors.
The year 2000 saw the birth of the Taiwan Environmental Information Association (TEIA), an NGO that focuses much of its attention on the issue of environmental trusts. In 2003, the EPA announced regulations based on the Trust Act that govern licensing and supervision of charitable trusts oriented toward environmental protection.
In 2008, TEIA formally became a member of the International National Trust Organization. Participation in the London-based non-profit society, which consists of groups from more than 20 countries, has helped TEIA learn more about trust-related issues.
There are several factors behind the slow emergence of land trusts in Taiwan, one of which is simply that most people do not know about them. “The public needs to become more familiar with this concept, because it’s relatively new in Taiwan,” Wu Ling-chu of the EPA says.
Another reason land trusts have been slow to catch on is that despite the promulgation of the Trust Act and the EPA’s regulations governing the operation of environmental charitable trusts, there are still numerous regulatory issues to be addressed. The Legislative Yuan, for example, has yet to pass the Wetlands Act, which means that protecting such areas is difficult. In the spring of 2010, for example, TEIA and other environmental NGOs launched a campaign calling for public donations to purchase a wetland area at the estuary of the Zhuoshui River on the west coast of central Taiwan. The fundraising effort was a response to the Kuokuang Petrochemical Technology Co.’s proposal to build a petrochemical refinery in much of the wetland area. The environmental groups and their supporters feared that the destruction of the wetland ecosystem and possible pollution released by the plant would harm the habitat of an endangered dolphin species. The campaign had enlisted the support of about 70,000 prospective individual donors before the construction plan was officially dropped in March 2011.
A wooden bungalow at Nature Valley serves as an educational venue as well as home for two of the site’s three settlors. (Photo by Huang Chung-hsin)
The Construction and Planning Agency under the Ministry of the Interior began drawing up the Wetlands Act in 2009 and released a public draft at the end of 2010, but aside from public hearings on the act, no further progress has been made. The draft specifically allows wetlands to be administered by an environmental land trust, but until it is promulgated, land trusts in wetland areas like the Zhuoshui estuary will continue to lack a legal basis.
The campaign to create a land trust at the estuary continues, but it has lost significant momentum since the government made the decision to drop the project to construct the controversial petrochemical plant. “Instead of the petrochemical plant, now there’s talk about building a wetland park there. But we’re afraid that it’d be an overly artificial park. We want it to be as natural as it is now,” says Norna Wen (溫于璇), coordinator of TEIA’s environmental trust and volunteer program, explaining why there is still the need to protect the wetland through an environmental trust.
Meanwhile, the development of land trusts has also been hampered by other regulatory issues. The EPA allows for the establishment only of land trusts that have an educational mission, as is the case for Nature Valley. The Council of Agriculture (COA), however, is the government agency responsible for land conservation, but it has yet to adopt regulations regarding the creation and operation of land trusts. The result is that at the present time, there is no government agency to apply to for those who would like to create a land trust dedicated solely to conserving an area’s natural environment.
That situation could change after January 1, 2012, however, when the EPA and part of the COA will be combined into a new environmental ministry responsible for both environmental education and conservation, among other functions. The new ministry will eventually have a single set of regulations based on a combination of the EPA’s current regulations and those proposed by its incoming COA colleagues. Groups seeking to establish trusts solely for conservation purposes will therefore likely be able to apply to the new ministry.
In addition, SOW’s Antonio Chou notes that the Agricultural Development Act stipulates that a so-called “artificial person,” a legal term used for entities such as groups or corporations, may not own agricultural land. That stipulation applied to Nature Valley because a half hectare of the property is designated for agricultural use, and because SOW, the trustee, is considered an artificial person, not a single “natural person.” The rule is the reason why only 1.3 hectares of Nature Valley’s 1.8 total hectares could be transferred to the land trust administered by SOW.
A 2010 campaign to establish an environmental trust at the mouth of the Zhuoshui River received a huge public response, but stalled when plans to develop the area were dropped, as well as because of the lack of a legal framework for trusts in wetland areas. (Photo Courtesy of Taiwan Environmental Information Association)
Unable to donate all of the property to the land trust, Wu Yu-chiao and Wu Jie-feng built a wooden bungalow on the half hectare of land that was left over. Today, it is not only used as a venue for indoor educational activities, but also doubles as their home.
Taxation is another area of concern for land trusts in Taiwan. In the United States, land trusts typically do not file state or federal tax returns, with taxes paid by landowners, not trustees. In Taiwan, a land trust that receives property must pay a one-time stamp tax, equal to 0.001 percent of the value of a property transaction, in addition to a one-time land transfer fee. In the case of Nature Valley, the amounts were relatively small—around NT$5,000 (US$172) each for the tax and fee—but SOW’s Antonio Chou worries that some regulations are unclear, and that future property transfers to a trust might also incur a gift tax levied at a hefty 10 percent of the value of a property. Wu Ling-chu of the EPA suggests more incentives would speed up the development of land trusts in Taiwan. “Tax incentives also should be offered to those involved in an environmental trust, which is not the case now,” the official says.
While land trusts face an array of difficulties in Taiwan, environmentalists are unquestionably excited about the creation of Nature Valley. According to Chou, within days of the Hsinchu case winning official approval in June this year, SOW received phone calls from people who were interested in creating land trusts at four separate sites around the island. Chou cautions, however, that numerous factors are likely to prevent his organization from working with all of them, at least in the near future. SOW will have a difficult time assisting one of the groups that is trying to establish a land trust in Miaoli County, central Taiwan, for example, because the NGO has an insufficient number of staff members there to serve as the trustee.
As the media spread the story of Nature Valley, SOW also began to receive phone calls from people enquiring about visiting the area. The strong response has led the organization to consider setting limits on the number of visitors to the property to reduce environmental impact. “We have the right to set up rules regulating visits to the site since it’s privately owned,” Chou says. TEIA’s Norna Wen concurs about the need to protect sites such as Nature Valley, saying “It’s important to break through barriers to creating an environmental trust, but it’s even more important to manage it well afterwards.”
Meanwhile, TEIA has been promoting a long-running program that targets cultivating volunteers who can help in managing environmental trust sites. That effort started in 2004, when the organization introduced Taiwan’s first environmentally oriented working holiday program in Taitung on the east coast of the island. In such programs, volunteers take part in work to protect natural and historical sites. TEIA has also called on volunteers to participate in similar working holidays in foreign countries, where they can learn new management techniques, among other skills.
The Society of Wilderness is planning further environmental education activities for Nature Valley while also considering ways to regulate access. (Photo by Wu Jie-feng)
Finding Funding
Along with developing a trained volunteer corps to manage protected sites such as land trusts, it is also critical to develop funding mechanisms to sustain their operations. Chou believes that NGOs like SOW have the upper hand in fundraising, saying it is easier for them than it is for the government to solicit funds from private enterprises. To administer the Nature Valley land trust, SOW has earmarked NT$300,000 (US$10,345) for maintenance during the first year of operations. “We’ll see how much of that money we actually use,” he says. “When we know that, we’ll launch a fundraiser exclusively for the purpose of offsetting future maintenance costs.”
New environmental courses are also being developed by SOW at Nature Valley in the hope of enhancing the site’s value as a base for environmental education. SOW will charge fees for some of those courses, and the proceeds will be used to offset Nature Valley’s operating expenses.
There is no question that the establishment of Nature Valley has had a game-changing effect on environmentalism in Taiwan. “The public had little idea about the concept of environmental trusts because there was not a single case here before,” the EPA’s Wu Ling-chu says. “Now if SOW can do a good job and set a good example, we’ll see a trend toward this practice in the future. The EPA hopes this first case can help involve more and more people in Taiwan’s environmental protection campaign.”
Write to Oscar Chung at oscar@mail.gio.gov.tw