September 26, 2019 / 5:05 PM / 21 days ago

Leonardo DiCaprio urged not to endorse 'disastrous' Indian river project

NEW DELHI, Sept 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Almost 130 civil society groups and environmentalists have urged actor Leonardo DiCaprio to withdraw his support for a controversial Indian river project, which they said could hurt local ecology and lead to the loss of millions of livelihoods.

The Hollywood environmentalist urged his Facebook followers to join the “Cauvery Calling” campaign to plant more than 2 billion trees along the banks of the Cauvery river, which is drying up due to urbanisation and pollution.

“(DiCaprio’s) supposed to be advised by some of the best ecologists,” said Leo Saldanha, coordinator of the Bangalore-based Environment Support Group, describing the project as “anti-environmental and disastrous”.

“What were they doing? What were they thinking?” asked Saldanha, one of 128 signatories to an open letter to DiCaprio.

DiCaprio did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Oscar-winning actor is a keen conservationist and has granted millions of dollars to environmental causes through his Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, set up in 1998. He also met the Pope to discuss their mutual concern about climate change.

The sharing of water in the Cauvery river has caused tension between India’s southern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for more than a century, leading to deadly riots.

Cauvery Calling was started in July by the Isha Foundation, founded by celebrity Indian yogi and mystic Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev who rides motorcycles, travels the world and gives talks on spirituality and yoga.

The Coalition for Environmental Justice in India, which organised the letter, said the project was too simplistic and promotes monoculture tree plantations that could dry up streams and destroy wildlife habitats.

It also zaps nutrients from the earth and leaves soil weak. All of this, it said, could lead to displacements and affect the livelihoods of millions of farmers and fishermen.

“Support for this kind of a campaign sets a very wrong precedent,” the letter said.

The Isha Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.

Cauvery Calling - endorsed by Bollywood celebrities and high-profile politicians including Prime Minister Narendra Modi - said on its website that it has already collected enough funds to plant more than 40 million trees.

Vasudev has come under scrutiny in the past. Last year, India’s comptroller and auditor general found that he built his ashram headquarters on protected forest land.

There is a pending court case in Karnataka brought by a lawyer seeking to stop Cauvery Calling fundraising to plant trees on protected government land without receiving official environmental clearance.

DiCaprio’s foundation hit the headlines in 2017 over allegations it had received $2 million from a Malaysian financier under investigation for money laundering. It promised to return any donations found to have come from the fund. (Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Katy Migiro; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)

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