Academy Award Winner Leonardo DiCaprio’s Belize eco-dream turned sour

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By Hollywood standards, Leonardo DiCaprio’s surprise appearance at Cop26 was a study in modesty. When the actor-turned-eco-warrior arrived in Glasgow on Tuesday, he chose not to join world leaders centre-stage, but headed to the gritty suburb of Maryhill, meeting activists at a fringe event. And while other wealthy delegates swanned in by private jet, DiCaprio flew commercial: as close, travel-wise, as A-listers ever get to slumming it.

Yet amid his earnest Tweets to his 19 million followers about the Global Methane Pledge and the need for “solidarity and action”, DiCaprio has been rather quieter about his own plan to stop the planet from extinction. Or, at least, one small, picturesque corner of it.

In 2015, the actor announced plans to build a “ground-breaking” eco-tourism resort at Blackadore Caye, a two-mile-long island in the Caribbean off Belize. The actor had fallen in love with it during a scuba-diving trip ten years before, describing it as “Heaven on earth”. But even Heaven could be made more eco-friendly, according to the plans he drew up after buying the island for $1.75 million (£1.3 million).

Belize

Composed of luxury villas priced at up to $15m (£11m), the resort would be the “greenest luxury development” ever, according to its New Agey eco-blurb – parts of which sound like they might be aimed at Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow or the Duchess of Sussex. Residents would enjoy not just a holiday, but a “restorative” experience, complete with a “a renewal and anti-ageing centre” designed by the celebrity “wellness” guru Deepak Chopra.

Indeed, not only would the resort makes its guests feel better, it would even “heal” the island itself, courtesy of a sustainability program to reverse decades of deforestation and overfishing. Talking to the New York Times in 2015, DiCaprio sounded like he could have been Elon Musk planning his space venture. “The main focus is to do something that will change the world,” he declared.

Leonardo DiCaprio arrives at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow - Stefan Rousseau
Leonardo DiCaprio arrives at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow – Stefan Rousseau

Six years on, however, the world around Blackadore Caye has changed very little. For DiCaprio’s project has fallen foul of fierce objections from locals, who claimed its design would harm the very eco-habitat it claimed to be saving. It was scheduled to open in 2018, but according to reports earlier this year, work has not yet even started, prompting speculation that the project may have been quietly abandoned.

So what has gone wrong? After all, tiny Belize – formerly British Honduras – is already a well-established home for eco-tourism, with holidaymakers flocking to admire its coral reefs and mangrove forests. The area, however, is also popular internationally for “flats fishing” – where anglers hunt game fish such as barracuda and tarpon in shallow island waters. Local fishing guides claimed the Blackadore Caye resort would deprive them of a prime spot that they had used for generations.

Had the resort’s backer been anyone other than DiCaprio, these gripes might not have got much attention. But as a champion of the rights of “indigenous” communities, DiCaprio soon found himself accused of hypocrisy. A local Facebook Page, Defend Blackadore Caye, quickly dug up a video of a speech he made after his Golden Globe award for The Revenant, where he pledged to “protect indigenous lands from corporate interests”.

That was then juxtaposed with interviews with local fishing guides such as George Rodriguez, who said he had been chased off Blackadore Caye by armed guards after stopping there with some fishing clients. “There was a guy with a shotgun, approaching us, pointing the gun at us,” Rodriguez said. “He said we have to leave because the bosses don’t want nobody on the island. I don’t think that is fair, because it belongs to everybody in Belize.”