AFP

MOSCOW

A Russian environmental group said Wednesday it is returning a grant received from Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio, and other foreign donors, after the government branded it a “foreign agent”. Environmental Watch on Sakhalin, an organisation working in the Russian Far East, was labelled a “foreign agent” earlier this month, under a controversial law targeting NGOs accused of receiving money from abroad and being involved in politics. In an attempt to try to shake off the tag, the group said in a statement that it had now decided to give “all foreign funding” back to its overseas sponsors and “refuse to take it in the future”. This would include $159,000 it received from the Hollywood actor in July.

The grant - DiCaprio’s first to a Russian organisation - was meant to help protect the Vostochny reserve on the eastern coast of the Sakhalin island, described by his foundation as “the most productive and undisturbed salmon ecosystem in the world.” Russia’s environmental protection system is woefully underfunded, and the Vostochny reserve has no resources to fight poaching, which threatens to eviscerate Sakhalin’s salmon stock, said Environmental Watch head Dmitry Lisitsyn. “It was a project for comprehensive protection, including anti-poaching, research, for protection of salmon habitats,” he told AFP. “Here on Sakhalin, the population of wild salmon is shrinking very quickly... the project was to create a model area for sustainable fishing” in the park, which has only two government inspectors to cover a huge area, he said.

Environmental Watch has existed for 20 years, focusing on protecting wilderness and marine life around the island.

Scores of NGOs have been dubbed “foreign agents” under the 2012 legislation that was introduced after distrust of the West soared following President Vladimir Putin’s return for a third term.

The justice ministry demanded that Environmental Watch use the “foreign agent” label over an opinion piece Lisitsyn wrote in a local paper calling for saving urban parks, and a petition the group shared on its social networking page to save the Arctic - actions considered “political”.

Lisitsyn said he still hopes the “absurd” decision can be reversed in court. “We’ve never dealt with politics,” he said. “We will keep fighting for our good name.”

Keeping the group afloat only on Russian money is likely to prove challenging. “Unfortunately, only five percent of the money comes from Russia,” Lisitsyn said. The group has now appealed to Sakhalin natives and other Russians for help. “This should concern Sakhalin’s people,” he said. “It’s not in Hollywood where DiCaprio lives that we are protecting nature but on our own island.”