Dear Mr DiCaprio, "You Are Poorly Advised"

29 Sep 2019 by Staff - Water Diplomat

A coalition of environmental actvists in India has sent an open letter to actor Leonardo DiCaprio describing his support for the Isha Foundation’s “Cauvery Calling” tree-planting campaign as poorly advised. The letter outlines negative impacts on Cauvery River flow and pollution, and has the support of at least 95 NGOs and numerous individuals who ask DiCaprio for a retraction of his appeal for support of the Foundation.

The Isha Foundation is proposing to plant over 2.4 billion trees along the Cauvery River and is attempting to raise $1.5 Billion USD to fund the activity. DiCaprio’s endorsement of the project would amplify the activities of Jaggi Vasudev, or Sadhguru, who is a (celebrity) Indian yogi, mystic, author and founder of the Isha Foundation with a somewhat mixed reputation.

The Coalition for Environmental Justice, in its 24 September letter, cites that the multiple diversions of the Cauvery has provided water to support water intensive agriculture, generate hydropower and bring water to ever expanding urban and industrial projects. The letter points out that such human influence has been taken without proper consideration for treatment of effluent, the importance of biodiversity, and has left the river highly polluted in some regions.

The Coalition does not object to tree planting, if using appropriate species and if implemented on a “bottom-up” approach based on local needs and sensitive to local ecological dynamics. The letter criticizes the tree planting campaign as not in the best interests of the full use of the river basin: “It appears to be a programme that presents, rather simplistically, that the river can be saved by planting trees on banks of her streams, rivulets, tributaries and the floodplains of the river.”

The letter admits that tree planting is one action among many that is required to restore river health.

“Tree planting alone won’t achieve the critical task of saving Cauvery. It is also important to note that even when tree planting is taken up in the most appropriate way, as described above, there is a critical need to stop mindless destruction of forests and watersheds of the Cauvery, which is taking place extensively across the rivers’ watersheds, all in the name of ‘development’.”

The letter also cautions against indiscriminate use of trees: “such a programme could create unintended and unforeseen social and ecological consequences, as planting trees in certain regions (grasslands and floodplains for instance) could result in drying up of streams and rivulets, and destruction of wildlife habitats. Further, it can also lead to encroachments of the floodplains and riverbeds, as has happened at numerous places.”

While the Isha Foundation is campaigning for tree planting, it is alleged that the Foundation does not have a good track record with Indian laws with respect to the environment and human rights. In fact, the letter indicates that the Foundation’s headquarters has been built on an elephant corridor in Coimbatore on land belonging to an indigenous community.

The letter attempts to cast a shadow on Sadhguru’s reputation citing the size of the fund-raising campaign of $1.5 Billion USD. “The implications of such massive funds being made available to a private foundation, particularly one that [h]as a very weak, and rather dubious, record of compliance of human rights and environmental laws, is quite worrying.” Further, Rajendra Singh (who is in charge of the Indian effort to provide water for all) has remarked that Jaggi Vasudev’s “Cauvery Calling” is a campaign “just to earn name and money”.

The Foundation has released a rebuttal of the main issues in the letter but there has been no response to date from DiCaprio.

Importantly, the letter praises DiCaprio’s work in “promoting rights of indigenous communities, protecting wildlife, case sensitively promoting conservation strategies, and, needless to state, pushing for clear action to tackle global warming”. To advance its The Coalition has invited DiCaprio to visit the Cauvery basin and in the meantime to withdraw his support.

In July this year DiCaprio joined billionaire investors and philanthropists Laurene Powell Jobs and Brian Sheth to found a new non-profit world organisation for environmental protection. According to a statement issued by the organisation at the time, Earth Alliance “will work globally to protect ecosystems and wildlife, ensure climate justice, support renewable energy and secure indigenous rights to the benefit of all life on Earth.”