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Earlier this year, Leonardo DiCaprio traveled to Indonesia to raise awareness for deforestation, visiting an area on the island of Sumatra, home to indigenous tribes and endangered animals that his Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation has been helping protect.
The trip generated numerous newspaper column inches, alongside pictures of the newly minted Oscar winner with several endangered elephants.
But six months on, the actor is now being accused of “double standards” for accepting donations to his charity from people linked to a corruption scandal that is itself fueling deforestation less than 500 miles away.
The Bruno Manser Funds, a rainforest charity active in Malaysian Borneo, has written an open letter to DiCaprio calling on him to return money he received from individuals connected to the 1MDB Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, now the subject of a major Justice Department asset seizure complaint. While there is no direct link between the Bruno Manser Funds and the actor, the organization says DiCaprio, as founder of his environmental charity and a designated U.N. Messenger of Peace, has a responsibility to help stop corruption.
The development comes just a week after The Hollywood Reporter published a major expose looking into the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, questioning its ties to 1MDB and lack of transparency, as well as DiCaprio’s relationship with controversial businessman Jho Low and Riza Aziz, the stepson of the Malaysian prime minister and co-founder of Red Granite Pictures, which produced the 2013 DiCaprio starrer The Wolf of Wall Street.
The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation is alleged to have received money from a Christie’s charity auction in 2013 where Low is alleged to have used $1.1 million of diverted 1MDB funds to buy two works of art. Later that year, Low and Red Granite co-founder Joey McFarland were among those reported to have helped raise $3 million for the foundation by buying marked-up bottles of champagne at DiCaprio’s birthday party. And just last year, Low donated a Roy Lichtenstein sculpture to the foundation, which auctioned it off at a charity event in St. Tropez.
In its letter, the Bruno Manser Funds said it was “deeply disturbed” that DiCaprio and his foundation would accept “assets that originate from the proceeds of corruption in Malaysia,” adding that it was a “total disgrace” and in “total contradiction” with the foundation’s declared aims.
“We were appalled to see that a foundation that basically champions very similar causes to ours would accept corrupt funds,” Bruno Manser Funds’ executive director Lukas Straumann tells THR. “It’s double standards. It really damages his credibility and the credibility of the foundation. If he wants to be a role model, a U.N. ambassador for peace and for climate change, then he should also be an example in how he handles his role.”
But it’s not simply DiCaprio’s charitable finances that have been called into question, with Straumann also focusing on his wages for The Wolf of Wall Street, now alleged to have been funded via siphoned-off 1MBD funds. The actor is thought to have been paid as much as $25 million to star in the hit 2013 film, and more as a producer.
“Money was stolen from the treasury and went straight into Leo’s pocket,” says Straumann. “That is dirty money, and he should pay it back.”
The charity boss asserts that political corruption in Malaysia – of which the 1MDB scandal is the biggest known example, with billions of dollars laundered internationally – has been a “major driver” of deforestation, with local politicians handed lucrative logging contracts as bribes to support the under-fire government.
“It’s a corrupt system and directly affects the way natural resources are being handled,” Straumann says. “Politicians in Malaysia have earned billions of dollars from cutting down the rainforest illegally.”
Although Straumann doesn’t doubt that the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation has put money to plenty of good causes, he doesn’t believe that this should stop it from being called to account for its association with corruption.
“We hear he has a genuine commitment to nature and championing indigenous rights, and I think it’s extremely important for someone in Hollywood to do that, but if it comes to accepting stolen money, that’s a simple no go,” Straumann says. “Maybe he has a bipolar personality.”
The Bruno Manser Funds, which has been active in Malaysia for more than 20 years, was set up by Swiss environmental activist Bruno Manser, among the first to highlight deforestation in Malaysian Borneo. He went missing while visiting the province of Sarawak in 2000 and is presumed dead.
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