Saturday 15 Jun 2024

Trees Company

Taiwan's 'King of the Trees' fights for the forests, turning them into a successful business as well

AFP | FEBRUARY 16, 2013, 08:47 PM IST

With his blue stetson and thick grey jacket, Lai Pei-yuanlooks like a modern-day cowboy, but rather than raising cattle, he grows trees.The 57-year-old Taiwanese entrepreneur made his fortune in transportation andproperty, but his real mission in life is to reinstate at least some of the foreststhat once covered most of the island. "It was just a simple idea Ihad," said Lai, on a hillside near his native Taichung city in centralTaiwan. "If I was to safeguard Taiwan, I would have to plant trees."

For the past three decades, Lai has bought and plantedthousands of trees every year, often with his own hands. Today his efforts canbe seen in the form of 320 acres of mountainsides near Taichung covered with270,000 deep-rooted trees, representing indigenous species such as Taiwanincense cedar and cinnamomum micranthum. "He's a legendary person,"President Ma Ying-jeou said during a recent visit to Taichung, when he met andsipped coffee with Lai. "No one else in Taiwan has planted so manytrees."

It is an endeavour that has cost him hundreds of millions ofNew Taiwan dollars (millions of US dollars), but it has helped him achieve fameas "King of the Trees." He says he was inspired by seeing how rapidindustrialisation laid waste to Taiwan in the post-war era of super-highgrowth. "Many, many trees growing in the mountains were cut down andexported," Lai said.

Lai nevertheless saw it as an opportunity to build somethingthat would leave a legacy for posterity. "I had seen how companiesprospered and declined. I felt I wanted to do something which could last forgenerations to come," he said.

Lai began his crusade for the trees when he was about 30,setting out every morning to plant trees on plots of land that he owned. Oftenhis family would only see him after sunset. His children were puzzled."When my brother and I were young, we had no idea what Dad was doing. Ourimpression was that he was on the mountains all the time," his elder sonLai Chien-chung said. Today Lai Chien-chung sells coffee beans, grown in hisfather's forests, under the brandname "Coffee & Tree". He alsoopened his first coffee shop in downtown Taichung last year.

Around 95 percent of the profits from the coffee sales havebeen used to finance the maintenance of the forests and the planting of trees,Lai Chien-chung said.

To ensure sustainable management of his forests, LaiPei-yuan pledges no deforestation and sell-off. Nor will he give the forests tohis family after his death, he said. They will instead be managed by anon-profit foundation set up by Lai. Meanwhile, he can take pleasure in thefact that others are following in his footsteps.

Since 2008, Taiwanese individuals, companies and governmentbodies have jointly planted more than 23,000 hectares of trees, according toTaiwan's forestry bureau as part of President Ma's iTaiwan projects launched in2009.

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