News Brief: Rainforest Fires, G-7 Summit, Iran's Economy

Aug 23, 2019
Originally published on August 23, 2019 11:20 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

The Amazon rainforest is sometimes called the lungs of the planet because it produces an estimated 20% of the oxygen in this planet's atmosphere.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah. And that rainforest, which is so vital for our existence, is now being ravaged by fires. And those fires are spreading fast. About half of the more than 74,000 fires in Brazil so far this year, most of them in the Amazon, ignited in just this past month. Complicating matters further is that there's disagreement about what's causing the fires and even allegations that some are being set intentionally.

KING: All right. Jake Spring is a reporter with Reuters. He's in the city of Brasilia today. Good morning, Jake.

JAKE SPRING: Good morning.

KING: So you...

SPRING: Thanks for having me on.

KING: Oh, we're happy to have you. You spent the past week in the Amazon, watching the fires. Tell us what you saw.

SPRING: So we were driving around in the southern of Amazonas state and the north of Rondonia state. And we were seeing fires every few kilometers that were very striking. Some of them were gigantic. They could only be captured by drone or by plane, sending pillars of smoke hundreds of feet into the air. Others we were seeing were just starting. There was smoke starting to curl around still green vegetation as...

KING: Wow.

SPRING: ...Kind of the dry underbrush, after months of the dry season, starts to catch fire.

KING: Jake, wildfires happen every year in most regions with large forests, including in the Amazon. But this year is different, right?

SPRING: Yes. That's right. So it is part of the natural ecosystem in the Amazon that there are fires. But this year, the statistics from the Brazilian Space Research Agency (ph) show that fires are up 83% year-to-date over the previous year. And also just anecdotally, I've been hearing from people it's never been like this before.

KING: What's being done to get them under control? As you were driving through, do you see firefighters? Do you see planes dumping water?

SPRING: I didn't see a lot of that, honestly. I saw one truck with - a yellow truck with a fire prevention logo on it rush past. But beyond that, I mean, the fires are very - it's not one big fire. It's a bunch of little - or some little, some very big fires, but kind of spread out. So it's not like there's a united front where firefighters are rushing to.

KING: OK. President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has been criticized for not seeming especially worried about these fires. And he's even claimed - without evidence, we should note - that nongovernmental organizations are setting them as some sort of retaliation for his policies. What's he arguing here?

SPRING: So he's making an argument that much of his right-wing government has been making since they took office in January. That - basically arguing that NGOs are working on behalf of international forces to undermine Brazil's sovereignty. So this is just an extension - a particularly extreme extension - of that logic that they've been carrying out. And, yes, it's important to note that he's made these claims without presenting evidence. That said, I've been in the field. I haven't been as tapped into what's been going on in Brasilia.

KING: OK. Fair enough. But then you have the flip side, which is that Bolsonaro is being accused by some people of playing a part in the fires - not of setting them but of helping them along. Who's making that argument? And what are they saying exactly?

SPRING: So it's environmentalists who are making that argument because based on Bolsonaro's kind of rhetoric in favor of developing the Amazon and Indigenous reserves and these sorts of things, they're saying that farmers and loggers feel emboldened to set fire to the forest to clear land - mostly for agriculture - and that the rhetoric is making them feel it's OK to do this.

KING: Reuters journalist Jake Spring in Brazil. Jake, thanks so much.

SPRING: Sure thing.

KING: These fires in the Amazon really have gotten the attention of many world leaders.

GREENE: Yeah, including French President Emmanuel Macron. He's calling this an international crisis. And he says this is what leaders should be talking about at the G-7 summit - that's the meeting of the world's seven largest economies. The summit begins tomorrow. It's being hosted by France. And global issues like the economy, trade, international security are topping the agenda as of now. President Trump is going to be there. And we should remember, at the same event last year, this is where he refused to sign a multilateral agreement.

KING: White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe is on the line. Good morning, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: OK. So what's on President Trump's agenda at the G-7?

RASCOE: So the president's leaving Friday night to head to France. And at the summit, there'll be sessions on the global economic outlook and foreign policy, security issues. There's also going to be a panel on climate change and addressing - another panel focused on addressing gender inequality. This is something that Ivanka Trump has championed a lot, trying to bring more women into the workforce around the world.

For Trump, a lot of the attention is going to be on these bilateral meetings with other leaders. Right now, there are about six scheduled. And he's slated to hold his first face-to-face meeting with Boris Johnson since he became prime minister of the U.K. They're supposed to talk about Britain's exit from the European Union and the possibility of a trade deal after that happens. Another scheduled bilat is with India's prime minister, Narendra Modi. There's been a lot happening with Kashmir. And an administration official said that Trump will want to hear from Modi how he plans to reduce regional tensions.

KING: So a lot of geopolitical conflict stuff happening. The original purpose of the G-7 was to focus on economics and trade. And those are also areas where President Trump often makes waves. What are we expecting there?

RASCOE: Trump is going to be kind of beating the drum about trade and his concern about the U.S. being taken advantage of and his desire to increase access for U.S. companies to foreign markets. As you said, France is hosting this summit. But U.S. officials say that Trump plans to press French President Emmanuel Macron about France's digital services tax. The administration says it unfairly targets U.S. companies like Google and Amazon. And Trump has threatened to retaliate against France over this tax. You may remember he tweeted about possibly taxing French wine.

KING: Yeah.

RASCOE: Trade - and trade is just one piece of this because you have this backdrop of rising concerns about a potential global slowdown. Germany's economy shrank last quarter. U.S. industrial output is being weighed down by trade disputes. And so the White House insisted on having a forum - the first session focus on the global economy. It says it's not worried about a recession. But these markets are all connected.

KING: Ayesha - just quickly - last year, President Trump didn't sign the joint agreement that everyone usually signs. It seems like, this year, France is trying to avoid any embarrassment about this.

RASCOE: Yes. To avoid this, they're not going to have any big joint agreement to sign. They're just going to avoid it altogether.

KING: Got it. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe. Thanks, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. Now we have a sample of public opinion coming from Iran.

GREENE: Yeah. An NPR News team has spent the past week in the country asking a question of almost everyone they meet. Who do you blame for Iran's trouble? The U.S. withdrew from a nuclear agreement and imposed new economic sanctions on Iran. Iran blames the U.S. for breaking an agreement. The U.S. blames Iran's government for its involvement with militant groups and wars. Though Iran's clerical rulers do not allow full democracy, it does really matter what Iran's people think.

KING: And so MORNING EDITION host, our colleague Steve Inskeep, has been asking in and outside of Tehran. Hey, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Hi, guys.

KING: So is there much debate in Iran around these questions of who's to blame?

INSKEEP: You have to look for it, but yes, it's limited debate. Activists and journalists have been jailed here. There is a lot of tension. And when I interview people, they sometimes worry out loud they're going to get in trouble for what they say. And yet some people do speak out in conversation, find ways to get as much of the truth out as they can or as much of their views out as they can, especially ordinary Iranians who you find on the street corners or around town.

KING: OK. So what did you hear?

INSKEEP: Well, some criticism of the government for the economic troubles. That's part of the discussion here. People do blame the United States. People are upset with the United States. And yet they're also upset with corruption in Iran. They're upset with mismanagement and inefficiency. And, sometimes, even within families, there's this debate.

I went yesterday to Karaj, which is a city on the edge of the Alborz Mountains, a little outside of Tehran. We met this extended family having a picnic outside. And they had different opinions. A couple of them were in the import-export business and have lost their jobs. Some of them are in real economic trouble, they said, and want to leave the country. And yet they still seemed like, by and large, a middle-class family, looked like a middle-class family. And some said they felt like they were patriots. And they still supported the government even as people in the same family said they were tired of rule by the mullahs and that they wanted more freedom, including, by the way, more freedom of expression.

KING: OK. That's really interesting. So the people in the family who said, no, we're patriots, we support the government - what was their argument?

INSKEEP: Well, their argument was, simply, this is Iran. This is our country. And things are not so bad here. And there are a lot of Iranians who are finding reasons to support the government, even people who might be a little bit surprising. We've spoken with some - what they're called - reformist activists here, people who favor more democracy. And even some of them have been, while critical of the government, also critical of the United States, very critical of the sanctions. The other day, we had tea with Marzie Azarafza (ph). She is a longtime reformist here in Tehran. And here is what she said about the sanctions.

MARZIE AZARAFZA: I believe that there is a radical lobby of Arabs and Israel. And they don't like the Islamic Republic. They don't like independence and national government in Iran.

INSKEEP: Now, as we know, Noel, the U.S. says sanctions are meant to encourage more freedom, among other things, in Iran. But she says the sanctions actually close off Iran and get in the way of efforts for democracy.

KING: NPR's Steve Inskeep has been reporting all week from Tehran. Steve, thanks so much for bringing us these voices.

INSKEEP: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHITA'S "MIZORE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.