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January 28, 2019 1:56 pm

Israeli NGO Buying Up Remote Areas to Establish Nature Reserves

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

A natural landscape in Israel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

An Israeli NGO is quietly buying up small, remote areas around the world to establish protected nature reserves, thus preventing environmental destruction and the extinction of diverse species.

Most recently, the group This Is My Earth (TIME) acquired Turneffe, a tiny coral atoll off Belize that is home to rare species of sea turtles, swordfish, and coral formations, among others.

TIME was founded three years ago with the idea of an organization that would use crowd funding to raise the money necessary to purchase endangered habitats and biospheres in order to save the flora and fauna that flourish in them.

One of the founders of TIME, Professor Uri Shanas of Haifa University, told the Israeli news site Mako, “I was always involved in saving the environment — I’m not capable of sitting in the ivory tower.”

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The idea for TIME came to him, he said, “when I started teaching a course on conserving nature. I started to study the data and I was shocked by what we’re doing to nature and what’s been happening to it over the years. We’re destroying forests at the rate of a soccer field every two seconds, and when you think about the plants and animals who suffer from this, it’s just horrible.”

Wondering how the problem could be dealt with, Shanas wanted “to create an organization that acts in a different way from those I knew in Israel and around the world.” To do this, he decided to reverse usual methods of conservation by preventing environmental damage in the first place.

“That’s how the idea was born to purchase forests and ‘biodiversity hotspots,’” he explained.

“We’re talking about areas on Earth that have a rich ecological diversity that is endangered, so they are more important than other areas, so if you want to save and protect the environment, it’s worthwhile to start with them,” he added.

Such areas compose 2.3 percent of the Earth’s surface, and 50 percent are in private hands, making their purchase relatively easy.

Shanas’ efforts were initially unsuccessful. When he went to environmental NGOs with his idea “no one believed in it.” In 2015, however, he connected with Alon Tal, a startup investor who works with many environmental organizations. Tal recommended using crowd funding to raise the necessary funds to establish Shanas’ organization.

The tactic worked, as the funds they received totaled $35,000 — $10,000 over their initial goal. The duo launched their website in 2016.

Anyone can become a member of the organization with a donation as low as one dollar a year. A group of experts then picks three areas that need to be preserved, and members vote on which one should be purchased. Once the acquisition is completed, the process starts over again. “One hundred percent of the donations go to preserving nature,” said Shanas.

When a specific area is purchased, responsibility for protecting it is handed over to local organizations or individuals.

“The first land we purchased was in the Peruvian Amazon,” recounted Shanas. “The members decided that they wanted to preserve it because of a severely endangered monkey that lived there. … Two local members received the areas, and they are responsible for protecting it from hunters and loggers. In return, they can grow fruit for their own livelihood. This way, everybody benefits.”

TIME is also seeking to provide lesson plans to Israeli educational institutions to increase awareness of the importance of preserving the environment. Preliminary efforts have already been undertaken and “we’ve gotten wonderful reactions,” said Shanas.

“The children understand that this is real, that we’re not talking about a story or a movie, in the end we really are buying territory and saving animals,” he continued. “At first it’s hard for them to believe that they’re really involved in saving the Earth, but with time, the learning becomes real and very deep.”

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