Meet the Israeli Buying Land Across the Globe to Keep It Green

With the help of volunteers, Prof. Uri Shanas purchases private land to save forests and rare animals

Night monkey in a slice of the Peruvian amazon purchased by Shanas.

According to the handicap principle, proposed by the late Israeli researcher Amotz Zahavi in 1975, an animal can have a feature that at first seems to be a handicap, but actually signals a true message to its surroundings. For instance, a male peacock’s magnificent but cumbersome tail, which reduces its chances of survival, is a message that the peacock is actually strong enough to have such a useless feature.

This important theory in zoology and evolution is at the center of the efforts of Prof. Uri Shanas, a zoologist and ecologist, to enlist volunteers and donors to join a unique organization he established to protect nature. “According to the handicap principle, if you want to convey a true and reliable message, you have to handicap yourself,” says Shanas. “So if you really want to help the Earth, instead of buying another smartphone, donate to save a forest.”

TiME (This is My Earth) is exceptional among environmental and nature protection organizations. Nobody who works for it receives a salary, and it has no offices. Its only objective is collecting money from the public to purchase land all over the world and turn it into protected nature reserves. Last week, after raising money by word of mouth (because TiME has no advertising budget, either), the organization succeeded in purchasing a large plot in a tropical forest in Colombia, full of animals in danger of extinction.

In 2018 TiME (This is My Earth) purchased a small area of only 20 dunams at a high price of $30,000, on a small reef in Belize in the Caribbean.

“I tried to think of what kind of ideal organization could bring about a significant change on both the personal and the global level,” says Shanas, who teaches at the University of Haifa at Oranim. “I’ve always had one foot in the academy and one in environmental organizations. I was a member of Adam Teva V’Din [Israel Union for Environmental Defense], the Israel Society for the Protection of Nature and the Nature and Parks Authority. I saw the good things and those that were less so, and I started to think that I want to start an ideal organization. Meanwhile I wrote down ideas that I saved.”

One of the facts that motivated him to found the organization is that half of the natural areas in the world that are endangered are in private hands. Shanas thought that the best thing to do is to purchase these lands from their owners in order to guarantee their future as nature reserves.

TiME was founded in 2015 after a crowdsourcing initiative that yielded $35,000. Since then it has operated on a purely volunteer basis. These volunteers include a Manhattan law firm that handles the purchases pro bono, and an international team of experts who advise on which land tracts are worth acquiring. If the central idea behind recruiting donors is the handicap principle, from the moment that a donor joins, the reigning principle is democracy: Everyone who donates even a single dollar is allowed to vote on how it will be used.

The first three territories that were put to a vote were a savanna in Kenya, part of a coral island in the Caribbean and a tropical forest in Peru. At the end of 2016, after they had raised another $30,000, the donors voted in favor of the forest in Peru. The money was enough for the purchase of 600 dunams (150 acres).

A reef in Belize that Shanas turned into a nature reserve.

The transaction almost failed after the owner of the land demanded the money within a prescribed time period and it was impossible to do a bank transfer that quickly. “They told us that if by Saturday the money didn’t arrive, they would sell the area to loggers,” says Shanas. His co-founder, Prof. Alon Tal of Tel Aviv University, managed to reach a bank in New York in time to carry out the transfer. “That was the greatest deal of my life, except for my wedding,” says Shanas. The savanna in Kenya, which didn’t make the vote, was sold to farmers and ultimately destroyed.

“According to the policy formulated by the organization, the areas designated for acquisition are all hotspots with very rich biological diversity, or land in danger of development and destruction,” says Shanas. “The purchases are made from private landowners and in cooperation and consultation with a local environmental organization. After the purchase, the organization recruits local residents who take care of the land.”

In the case of Peru, TiMe gave a small plot of land to two farmers, who take care of the area in return, under the supervision of a local organization. “Recently we also bought drones for the organization in order to help them with supervision,” says Shanas. “We’ve already received reports about people who tried to enter to chop down trees and to hunt, but the farmers stopped them and handed them over to the authorities. Apparently it’s working.”

Prof. Uri Shanas

The organization has so far succeeded in purchasing one area each year, by means of small donations that for the most part come from Israelis. In 2017 TiME purchased 7,000 dunams in the Peruvian Amazon watershed at a bargain price of $17,000. In 2018 the organization purchased a small area of only 20 dunams at a high price of $30,000, on a small reef in Belize in the Caribbean. Shanas admits that the price is high, but claims that it’s worth it. “That was a strategic purchase, because it’s an area that prevents the development of almost the entire island.”

In 2019 the organization decided to make a relatively large purchase, for $70,000, of 350 dunams in the tropical forest in Colombia. Many animal species in serious danger of extinction live in the area, including brown spider monkeys, a river turtle, a rare bird called the blue-billed curassow, and another two species of monkeys that are in less danger of extinction.

The new territory is near a nature reserve, and the goal is to expand the reserve. According to Shanas’ calculation, preserving the trees and flora in the area that was purchased prevents the release of 12,000 tons of carbon dioxide, which would have been released as greenhouse gases had the forest been cut down.

A sea turtle in a reef bought by the organization in Belize.

In early December, a month before the deal was to close, the organization had less than half the money necessary. But thanks to a campaign on Israeli social networks and a relatively large number of donations, it succeeded in raising the necessary sum at the last moment.

The amounts money TiME deals with are small fractions of the budgets of international environmental organizations. Shanas admits that this disparity is frustrating. “It’s true that they can do more,” he says. “There are organizations and private individuals who purchase land for preservation, but only in our organization can every child feel that he’s a partner.”

Shanas hopes to go far with his initiative. “We’re marathon runners, we look far ahead and education is important to us,” he says. “I dream big. In the future I see an organization of millions of people worldwide, including many children, in which everyone is a partner, and that we rescue areas not once a year, but many, many areas every year.”

A forrest the group bought in Peru. “That was the greatest deal of my life, except for my wedding,” says Shanas.