AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Twenty million dollars is not a lot of money when measured against the devastation happening in the Amazon rainforest right now. But every little bit helps, right? Well, wrong - at least if you're Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil. The money is being offered by the Group of Seven nations to help fight the fires in the Amazon. Bolsonaro says he won't even talk about accepting the money until he has an apology from the president of France.
NPR's Philip Reeves joins us now to explain all this from Rio de Janeiro.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.
CHANG: Why is Bolsonaro so adamant about getting an apology from the French president when the rainforest is on fire?
REEVES: Well, at one level, this is about a personal feud that he's having with Emmanuel Macron. It's personal and nasty. Bolsonaro's mocked Macron's wife in a very offensive way. Macron says Bolsonaro's disrespectful and not up to the job and so on. But at bottom, this is about a fundamental issue.
When Macron led the effort to highlight the destruction being caused by the Amazon fires at last weekend's G7 meeting, he talked about internationalizing efforts to preserve the Amazon. Bolsonaro sees that as a threat to Brazil's sovereignty. He's very suspicious of outside interference. He thinks it's the first world treating Brazil like a colony.
So now he's saying he won't accept the 20 million from the G7 unless Macron retracts that statement. And he's also demanding that the French president apologize for accusing him of lying about Brazil's commitment to climate change on an earlier occasion.
CHANG: How has Macron responded to all of this?
REEVES: Well, he appears to be shrugging it off, but he has pointed out that the Amazon doesn't just belong to Brazil. Sixty percent of the forest is in Brazil, but it also stretches into neighboring countries. And the 20 million from the G7 is supposed to help those countries, too.
And incidentally, one of the areas that the forest also covers is French Guiana, which is a French territory. So Macron will feel that he's not only entitled to demand that the rainforest is protected 'cause it's so crucial to everyone as a buttress against climate change, but that France also actually has a stake in the neighborhood.
CHANG: To what extent is this whole feud with France damaging Brazil's standing in the world?
REEVES: I mean, it looks terrible to the outside world to be squabbling with the French with these fires eating through parts of the rainforest. And matters are made worse by the tone of this squabble. It's been very petty. Bolsonaro's chief of staff has been saying the G7 money should be spent on reforesting Europe.
So many Brazilians are really worried about all this, and they think it might backfire on trade and isolate the country. And some of those concerns came up today at a meeting that Bolsonaro held with governors of the Amazon states. Bolsonaro said he shares the world's concern about preserving the Amazon, but first and foremost, he's concerned about Brazilians and his country's development. And he also said there's one thing that has cheered him up.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).
REEVES: That's Bolsonaro reading out a tweet from President Trump. Trump says how hard Bolsonaro's working to combat the fires, what a great job he's doing generally and that he has the full support of the U.S. So Bolsonaro's using this to prove that maybe he's incurred the wrath of Europe, but he still has support from the Trump administration.
CHANG: Putting aside this whole issue of diplomacy, these feuds, what about these fires themselves? I mean, what kind of progress is being made?
REEVES: Well, Bolsonaro's made about 44,000 troops available. The Brazilian Defense Ministry is saying that the number of regions that are hit by fire is down and that they're not just putting out fire, but they're also going after people setting these fires and that Bolsonaro has said that his government has zero tolerance for criminal activity. And let's not forget that environmentalists say that most of these fires have been set by farmers and by cattle ranchers who are exploiting the fact that Bolsonaro has loosened environmental regulations and using that as an opportunity to grab land.
CHANG: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio de Janeiro.
REEVES: You're welcome.
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