The Two Faces of Leo

Leonardo DiCaprio will host this year’s Earth Day, but his past two film projects — including the recent movie ‘The Beach’ — have done more to hurt the environment than he wants to admit.

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Leonardo DiCaprio has been tapped by Earth Day organizers to host Earth Fair 2000 this weekend in Washington DC. The event is the centerpiece of the 30th anniversary celebration of Earth Day. That’s a bit like making Jesse Helms the poster boy for civil rights.

DiCaprio has long been an outspoken environmental advocate, but has oddly decided to serve as apologist for a film studio with a rotten ecological record. Consider: In the past three years, DiCaprio has starred in two major film projects — 1997’s blockbuster “Titanic” and the newly released “The Beach” — which both earned raspberries, not to mention lawsuits, from environmentalists. Both films were produced by 20th Century Fox. And both inflicted significant environmental and even social damage on the places in which they were shot.

For “Titanic,” Fox built an enormous studio, complete with a near-scale model of the ship itself and surrounded by a giant cement wall, along the Baja coast near Popotla, a small village and fishing cooperative. There, the producers pumped ocean water into an enormous tank, treated it with chlorine to make it clearer for the cameras to shoot in, and repeatedly sank and raised the ship. At regular intervals, the studio pumped the chlorinated water back into the sea, gradually polluting the water, damaging kelp beds, and killing off huge numbers of the marine animals upon which the local economy depended, according to locals.

“I’m a skin diver,” said Popotla resident and businessman Juan Valencia. “I go down there now and everything is burned by chemicals.”

In the better-publicized case of “The Beach“, the DiCaprio vehicle which opened in February, Fox allegedly bribed Thai forestry officials with a paltry $111,000 to allow it to bypass environmental laws and alter the landscape of a beach on Phi Phi Leh island. The island is a national park and nature reserve where picking flowers and even moving stones are strictly prohibited — unless you’re from Hollywood. Fox reportedly bulldozed two sand dunes, planted 60 non-native coconut trees, and ripped out native vegetation.

Fox pledged to return the beach to its original state, but instead removed the coconut trees and replaced them with bamboo stakes, ostensibly to prevent erosion of sand no longer protected by low-lying brush. While the studio did keep the native brush which they had cleared alive in a nursery during filming, witnesses say most of the bushes died after attempts to rerplant them. When the first major monsoon hit in 1999, as much as half of the beach washed away, according to local activists.

Villagers from a nearby Thai town and local environmentalists have filed a $2.6 million lawsuit against Fox for the damage. Civic groups from across Thailand last month petitioned the US Embassy in Bangkok, urging American officials to investigate whether the deal Fox made with Thai forestry officials violates the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. And Women’s Voices for the Earth is sponsoring a boycott of the film.

DiCaprio, for his part, is shocked and dismayed — mainly by the bad press “The Beach” has received as a result of such environmental complaints. He has actively defended the studio’s actions in the press, and maintains that the island is in the same, or perhaps even better, condition than when the crew first arrived two years ago. “From what I’ve seen, [the allegations against the film] are false, made up out of thin air,” DiCaprio told the Los Angeles Times last year. “I’ve seen everyone [on the set] take the utmost meticulous care. They took tons of trash off [the beach] and it looks better than it ever has before.”

The Thai government is defending Fox too, perhaps because — if history is any indication — location shoots inevitably bring tourists, and tourists bring the almighty dollar. Conservationists worry that tourism will cause the already compromised beach to end up further developed and trampled beneath millions of feet. There is a major precedent for their fears: Ecologists say the coral reefs off the nearby island of Tapu — where the James Bond movie “The Man with the Golden Gun” was filmed — have been irreparably damaged by millions of tourist boats. The same forestry department which made the deal with Fox has said that Tapu –since redubbed James Bond Island — is in danger of toppling into the sea because of tourist-caused erosion.

Therein lies perhaps the greatest irony of “The Beach”: The movie itself is about rampant tourism destroying the environment. Or perhaps there’s no mistake about it: The studio proved its point before the movie even brought the message home to the people.

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We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

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