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Turning Green into Gold:The Revival of Taiwan’s Timber Industry

2020-10-19
Lynn Su /photo by Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Geof Aberhart
 
The Revival of Taiwan’s  Timber Industry (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
The Revival of Taiwan’s  Timber Industry (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
 
Steel is cold and hard and plastic looks cheap and light, but wood, being so much closer to nature, gives more of a feel of gentleness and calm. Used since ancient times, wood was instrumental in the rise of human civilization.
Taiwanese have many deep associations with wood, from traditional camphorwood beds and cypress bathtubs to more unassuming tea tables. However, recent decades have seen the rise of petrochemical products, resulting in the rapid fall of wood from everyday life. Now, seeking to revive an industry that fell into deep decline following the ban on logging natural forests, the Forestry Bureau has relaunched its policy for domestic timber production, encouraging the possibility of a harmonious balance between mankind and the forests.
 
Entering the Hengchun Peninsula in the far south of Taiwan, we arrive at the town of Checheng. It is the height of the summer typhoon season, and the outer edges of a typhoon system have brought dense drizzle. However, as soon as we get out of the car, Yongzai Forestry Company’s vice president Vic Lin greets us with a sunny smile.
Just like farming, the logging industry is ever depend­ent on the weather, and such rains are nothing but good news for them. After the rain passes and the weather turns fine again, plant life thrives. That includes not only the wild grasses around the timber yard, but also the tree seedlings newly sown in the mountains.
 
Vic Lin considers forestry not just an occupation, but a lifelong vocation.
Vic Lin considers forestry not just an occupation, but a lifelong vocation.
 
A new approach to forestry

Yongzai spent nearly 50 years assisting the Forestry Bureau with afforestation, mainly focusing on cultivating seedlings. Then, in the 1990s, after logging of old-growth forest was banned, the company went quiet. About ten years ago, third-generation boss Cai Ruihong mapped out a new direction for the firm; when Vic Lin joined the team, he further fleshed out this new approach.
“Come on, let me show you how different forestry is from what you imagine!” Lin exhorts, leading us to a greenhouse with smart environmental controls that was built in May 2020. There, manual work has been reduced to a minimum, with everything—lighting, shade, ventilation, and watering—all handled by computer. Elevated racks are packed with planting tubes containing seedlings of eucalyptus and earleaf acacia (Acacia auriculiformis). Though not especially large, the greenhouse is expansive enough to accommodate some 90,000 plants.
Our next stop is the chip mill next to the greenhouse. Yongzai’s forests are concentrated in Checheng, Shizi, Hengchun, and Mudan Townships, on mountain slopes some 100‡200 meters above sea level. They cover 900 hectares and are mainly planted with Taiwan acacia (Acacia confusa) and chinaberry (Melia azedarach). The trees are regularly tended and thinned, and after being felled, both large-diameter timber and the branches and other leftovers, often considered garbage, are collected. The latter are then sent to be chipped, creating a product that is much in demand in the mushroom cultivation industry.
This is all part of Lin’s long-term vision. A Nantou native, he noticed that local mushroom growers relied on bags filled with a growing medium, with sawdust as a key component. Inspiration struck him. “Those bags have been in use for three decades in Taiwan, and every year the industry uses 500 million of them. That needs about 500,000 tons of sawdust. So where does all that sawdust come from?”
As you can imagine, it comes from wood that can and should be cut down, but also from wood that shouldn’t and is logged illegally; there are even rumors that no small amount comes from chipped waste furniture, but that wood usually has chemical coatings that can cause food safety issues when used for growing mushrooms.
This pain point for mushroom growers opened up space for Yongzai Forestry. The company now emphasizes “whole tree utilization,” getting maximum value out of the lumber while also transforming the trash into “100% pure” woodchips. They churn out chips in twice the quantity of other chippers, and even though their price is higher, they still can’t keep up with demand.
 
After being milled into sawdust, logging trash serves as a substrate for mushroom growing bags. This represents a new economic model for the forestry sector. (photo courtesy of Yongzai Forestry Company)
After being milled into sawdust, logging trash serves as a substrate for mushroom growing bags. This represents a new economic model for the forestry sector. (photo courtesy of Yongzai Forestry Company)
 
After being milled into sawdust, logging trash serves as a substrate for mushroom growing bags. This represents a new economic model for the forestry sector.
After being milled into sawdust, logging trash serves as a substrate for mushroom growing bags. This represents a new economic model for the forestry sector.
 
Felling trees to save the planet

With the rise of environmental awareness and the negative impressions left by past unscrupulous operators, the term “logging” has come to have a stigma attached to it. This is particularly the case in big cities, where one often sees big trees with their branches lopped off. In the minds of many, the timber industry seems inextricably linked to pillaging the forests and devastating the land beneath.
In fact, this is far from the truth. Vic Lin presents ­aerial photo­graphs of the company’s forests as evidence, showing fully harvested areas being promptly reforested and back to thriving woodland a year later. “This isn’t anything like the extractive process practiced by mining and quarrying,” he emphasizes.
Just as aquaculture can be a sustainable approach to preserving the ocean’s bounty in a time of dwindling fish stocks, given humanity’s inability to give up on wood, the timber industry needs to stop logging old-growth forests and should actively work to develop planned plantations as a substitute source of supply.
In Taiwan, annual timber demand is some 6 million tons, but less than 1% of that comes from domestic sources. At the same time as calling for conservation efforts, ­Taiwan imports massive amounts of wood from abroad, greatly increasing its carbon footprint through long-distance shipping. And with wood being sold and resold, passing through many hands along the way, traceability can be a challenge, so that illegally logged timber also makes its way into the market.
A few years ago, a Malaysian environmental group came to Taiwan to protest, pointing out that Taiwan is the second-biggest importer of Malaysian old-growth wood, making us a major culprit in the destruction of their rainforest. Only then did the Taiwanese public begin to wake up and pay attention to domestic forestry.
Moreover, a substantial body of research shows that while trees have strong carbon sequestration capacity, as they age this capa­city decreases, with older trees fixing far less carbon than younger ones. And obviously abandoning the use of wood for petroleum products out of concern for the environment would be completely muddleheaded. Trees are a renewable resource. After they are cut down and replanted, the land can still thrive. As it says in the Mencius, “If the axes and bills enter the hills and forests only at the proper time, the wood will be more than can be used.” This remains as true today as ever.
After nearly 30 years of the logging ban, in 2017 the Forestry Bureau announced a new start for Taiwanese timber, launching a policy to revive the domestic forestry sector. Bureau director Lin Hwa-ching even said of this decision, “Don’t you think it would be weird not to do this?” Indeed, as global citizens, it is imperative that we shoulder our responsibility to “cut down trees to save the Earth.”
 
Since becoming director of the Forestry Bureau, Lin Hwa-ching has been actively pursuing a policy of promoting domestic forestry products. He meets with guests in a room that displays items made with Taiwanese timber.
Since becoming director of the Forestry Bureau, Lin Hwa-ching has been actively pursuing a policy of promoting domestic forestry products. He meets with guests in a room that displays items made with Taiwanese timber.
 
These products made with Taiwan acacia have a rich, dark color and a rustic style.
These products made with Taiwan acacia have a rich, dark color and a rustic style.
 
A vision for forestry

Perhaps because they take a longer-term perspective, the forestry industry’s new generation are showing a greater willingness to find ways to coexist with nature even as they seek to make a living, a profit, and a market out of these resources given freely by nature. They have returned to the old philosophy of “relying on the mountains for their livelihood,” taking this as the philosophical basis for making better use of what the Earth is offering.
“I want this company to be around for the long haul. As a businessperson, you need to be looking to the future,” says Kunn Yih Wood president Guo Zongqin, standing on his land in Wujie, Yilan County.
Kunn Yih is Taiwan’s leading wood processor. To pave the way for the future of the domestically grown lumber market, the company recently launched a new brand, TWBwood. This brand is driven by locally sourced Taiwan acacia, the resilient wood being put through a proprietary thermal modification process and made into products including TWBwood’s standouts, classically beautiful wine barrels and acoustic guitars. This echoes Guo’s desire to build a company that will stand the test of time.
In a similar vein to Yongzai Forestry’s expansion into the fungiculture industry, Kunn Yih has not only earned certification from the Forest Stewardship Council, but also joined forces with OwlTing Blockchain Services to make their products’ entire production history traceable and open to the public. In this way, forest sustainability becomes something that consumers, as well as producers, can contribute to, helping ensure the environment is being protected by buying only certified sustainable products.
 
Guo Zongqin stands among acacias he planted himself, looking forward to the day when they will grow large and strong, much as he hopes Taiwan’s forestry industry will.
Guo Zongqin stands among acacias he planted himself, looking forward to the day when they will grow large and strong, much as he hopes Taiwan’s forestry industry will.
 
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama
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