Taiwan's 'King of the Trees' fights for the forests
By Benjamin Yeh, AFPTAICHUNG--With his blue stetson and thick grey jacket, Lai Pei-yuan looks like a modern-day cowboy, but rather than raising cattle, he grows trees.
February 11, 2013, 12:52 am TWN
The 57-year-old Taiwanese entrepreneur made his fortune in transportation and property, but his real mission in life is to reinstate at least some of the forests that once covered most of the island.
“It was just a simple idea I had,” said Lai, meeting AFP on a hillside near his native Taichung city in central Taiwan. “If I was to safeguard Taiwan, I would have to plant trees.”
For the past three decades, Lai has bought and planted thousands of trees every year, often with his own hands.
Today his efforts can be seen in the form of 130 hectares (320 acres) of mountainsides near Taichung covered with 270,000 deep-rooted trees, representing indigenous species such as Taiwan incense cedar and cinnamomum micranthum.
“He's a legendary person,” President Ma Ying-jeou said during a recent visit to Taichung, when he met and sipped coffee with Lai. “No one else in Taiwan has planted so many trees.”
It is an endeavor that has cost him hundreds of millions of New Taiwan, but it has helped him achieve fame as “King of the Trees.”
He says he was inspired by seeing how rapid industrialization laid waste to Taiwan in the postwar era of super-high growth.
“Many, many trees growing in the mountains were cut down and exported,” Lai said.
It had begun under Japanese colonial rule from 1895 to 1945, when ancient trees were cut down in the name of progress, a process that continued until the closing years of the 20th century.
Only in 1989 did the Taiwanese authorities ban the logging of primeval forests, but by that time it was almost too late.