Economy & business

Aggressive Cuts to Obama-era Green Rules to Start Soon, EPA Chief Says

President Donald Trump’s administration will begin rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations in an “aggressive way” as soon as next week, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency said Saturday — adding that he understood why some Americans wanted to see his agency eliminated.

“I think there are some regulations that in the near term need to be rolled back in a very aggressive way. And I think maybe next week you may be hearing about some of those,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt told the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

Pruitt added that the EPA’s focus on combating climate change under former President Barack Obama had cost jobs and prevented economic growth, leading many Americans to want to see the EPA eliminated.

WATCH: EPA Head Pruitt Wants to Restore Role of States

“I think it’s justified,” he said. “I think people across this country look at the EPA much like they look at the IRS [Internal Revenue Service]. I hope to be able to change that.”

Pollution fears

Pruitt was confirmed as EPA head last week. His appointment triggered an uproar among Democratic lawmakers and environmental advocates worried that he will gut the agency and reopen the doors to heavy industrial pollution. He sued the EPA more than a dozen times as his state’s top attorney and has repeatedly cast doubt on the science of climate change.

But his rise to the head of the EPA has also cheered many Republicans and business interests that expect him to cut back red tape they believe has hampered the economy.

WATCH: EPA Head Pruitt: US Better at Growing Economy

Trump campaigned on a promise to slash regulation to revive the oil and gas drilling and coal mining industries.

Three targets

Pruitt mentioned three rules ushered in by Obama that could meet the chopping block early on: the Waters of the U.S. rule outlining waterways that have federal protections; the Clean Power Plan requiring states to cut carbon emissions; and the U.S. Methane rule limiting emissions from oil and gas installations on federal land.

A Trump official told Reuters late Friday that the president was expected to sign a measure as early as Tuesday aimed at rescinding the Waters of the U.S. rule.

WATCH: EPA Head Pruitt: Republicans Have Nothing to Be Apologetic About Concerning Environment

Pruitt said in his comments to the CPAC summit that the rule had “made puddles and dry creek beds across this country subject to the jurisdiction of Washington, D.C. That’s going to change.” He also suggested longer-term structural changes were in store at the EPA.

“Long term, asking the question on how that agency partners with the states and how that affects the budget and how it affects the structure is something to work on very diligently,” Pruitt said.

Like Trump, he said cutting regulation could be done in a way that does not harm water or air quality.

Economy & business

French Startups Venture Abroad for Chance at Global Recognition, Investment

Launching a startup is no easy feat. Launching one outside your native country is even harder. But for certain French startups, the French government is there to help. A government-sponsored competition that began last year offers startups marketing and promotional assistance.


The Creative Next Challenge is a series of competitions sponsored by Business France, the nation’s international business development agency. Each competition offers French entrepreneurs working abroad the chance at official endorsement and international exposure.


French startup founders who have set up shop outside of France (prior winners include entrepreneurs in India, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates) become global ambassadors for the “Creative France” marketing campaign. Winners are profiled on the Creative France website and their startups are featured in exclusive advertising campaigns. The free marketing and promotion also extends to public relations events, press reports and press releases.


Raising profiles and cash

The competition aims to raise the profile of French-founded startups and encourage outside investment. In France, the startup scene represents a cultural shift, according to Henri Baissas, executive director of Business France in North America.


“Twenty years ago, for the young generation, the ultimate goal was to be a civil servant and now it’s to be an entrepreneur,” Baissas said.   


At a recent event in New York City, a mix of French startup founders, venture capitalists and media gathered to honor the first U.S. winner of the Creative Next Challenge. Among the contenders were augmented reality advertising startup Augment, personal robot manufacturer Blue Frog Robotics and sports-centric crowdfunding platform, Sponsorise.Me.


To qualify, startups had to have registered their company in the U.S. and have at least one founder of French nationality. The competition also included a social media component, with entrants taking to Twitter and Facebook to make a case for their startup’s inventiveness and ingenuity.


In the end, biotech startup Hemarina claimed the prize. The company, which started in France in 2007, develops hemoglobin-based oxygen carrier products that aid in medical efforts such as organ transplants and wound treatments. Hemarina CEO and president Dr. Franck Zal told VOA a combination of government initiatives had helped his company through the years.


“We have a very good thing we call crédit d’impôt recherche,” noted Zal, referring to the tax credit French businesses receive for research and development initiatives. “We invented it in France and [President] Obama brought this idea [to] America.” The Creative Next victory was significant for the startup’s efforts to build global brand awareness, “Hemarina is well known in Europe, and we want to be more known in U.S.,” Zal added.


Investment booster

Overall, French startups have experienced a significant increase in investments that have allowed them to expand. French tech companies captured $2.88 billion in investments in 2016, up 80 percent from $1.6 billion the prior year, according to a report by, an online publication covering the European tech industry. Among the top five countries, France ranked third in investment volume, trailing only Britain and Israel.


“What you have experienced in Silicon Valley with the third or fourth generation of entrepreneurs, we are at the stage of experiencing in France with the second generation of entrepreneurs, and so the ecosystem is going to grow,” Baissas said.


Station F will add to that growth. Billed as the world’s largest startup campus, the 34,000-square meter tech incubator will soon open in Paris. When it does, it will house over 1,000 startups. Additionally, apartments for 600 entrepreneurs are planned for 2018.


Still, global ambitions mean startup founders will venture beyond their borders. A study commissioned by online payments processor Stripe and market intelligence platform VB Profiles found that 98 percent of the 329 French startups in operation since 2014 have customers outside of France.


The “Creative France” global ad campaign gives entrepreneurs and their businesses a presence outside of France. Baissas stressed the importance of effective marketing, especially for French companies entering the U.S. market, “It’s a big challenge. The U.S. companies are very good at that. It’s really inspirational for us.”

Science & Health

Scientists Teach Bees to Play Soccer, Watch Them Up Their Game

Using sweet treats and months of patient coaching, scientists in England have taught a group of bumblebees how to play soccer.

The 18-month study at Queen Mary University of London saw scientists train 50 bees to move a small yellow ball to a circled location in order to score a goal and receive a sugary food reward.

The first group of bees then showed others in the colony how to play, with the second group impressing scientists by expanding the game.

“The bees solved the task in a different way than what was demonstrated, suggesting that observer bees did not simply copy what they saw, but improved on it,” said Olli J. Loukola, who co-led the study.

“This shows an impressive amount of cognitive flexibility, especially for an insect.”

Their sporting prowess follows a study last year where the scientists taught bees to pull strings to get food and then relay what they learned to others.

Co-author professor Lars Chittka said it had taken months to teach the first bees how to play football, but that the second group picked up the game from their colony peers within 30 minutes.

Chittka said further studies would follow to better understand how an insect with a brain the size of the head of a pin could learn so much.

“Our study puts the final nail in the coffin of the idea that small brains constrain insects to have limited behavioral flexibility,” he said.

Economy & business

EPA Delays Rule on Funding Mine Pollution Cleanup 

Facing pushback from industry and Republicans in Congress, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency delayed Friday a proposal that would require mining companies to show they have the financial wherewithal to clean up their pollution so taxpayers aren’t stuck footing the bill.

Contaminated water from mine sites can flow into rivers and other waterways, harming aquatic life and threatening drinking water supplies. Companies in the past avoided cleanup costs in many cases by declaring bankruptcy.

Newly sworn-in EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a longtime critic of the agency during his previous position as Oklahoma attorney general, said the four-month delay would give more opportunity for public comment.

Four-month comment period

The financial assurance rule was proposed during the Obama administration and fiercely opposed by mining industry representatives, who contended it was unnecessary and redundant because of other programs meant to prevent mines from becoming government cleanup liabilities.

“By extending this comment period, we are demonstrating that we are listening to miners, owners and operators all across America and to all parties interested in this important rule,” Pruitt said in a statement.

Environmentalists generally endorsed the proposal as a way to make sure mining companies were held accountable. 

“It appears the new EPA administrator is already favoring industry over public interest with this delay,” said Bonnie Gestring with the advocacy group Earthworks.

The delayed rule was unveiled late last year under a court order that requires it to be finalized by December 2017. The order came after environmental groups sued the government to enforce a long-ignored provision in the 1980 federal Superfund law.

EPA officials said Friday they still intend to meet the court-ordered deadline.

The proposal would apply to hard-rock mining, which includes mines for precious metals, copper, iron, lead and other ores. It would cover thousands of mines and processing facilities in 38 states, requiring their owners to set aside sufficient money to pay for future clean ups.

Cleanup cost taxpayers $1.1 billion 

From 2010 to 2014, the EPA spent $1.1 billion on cleanup work at abandoned hard-rock mining and processing sites across the U.S.

Companies would face a combined $7.1 billion financial obligation under the proposed rule, costing them up to $171 million annually, according to the EPA. The agency said the amount could be covered through third parties such as surety bonds or self-insured corporate guarantees.

Republican U.S. Senators John Barrasso of Wyoming and Dean Heller of Nevada welcomed Friday’s delay. Barrasso has said the benefits of the proposal were dwarfed by its potential costs to industry. Heller criticized the previous administration for having been “too quick to hand down harsh regulations and rules without considering the impact.”

Last year, an EPA cleanup team triggered a 3-million gallon spill of contaminated water from Colorado’s inactive Gold King mine. The accident tainted rivers in three states with heavy metals including arsenic and lead and highlighted the problem posed by tens of thousands of mine sites across the nation.

Arts & Entertainment

Historical Dance School for Black Students Thrives

This is Black History Month in the U.S. A dance school in the nation’s capital has been making history for more than 75 years with its commitment to high-quality dance training. The school, which started at a time when African-American dancers had few opportunities to study classical ballet, is thriving. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to Jones-Haywood Dance School in Washington. Carol Pearson narrates.

Arts & Entertainment

Past, Present Collide on Set of ‘Bitter Harvest’

“I wanted something that looked like a fairy tale,” says German-born Canadian filmmaker George Mendeluk, describing what compelled him to tackle one of the darkest chapters in Ukrainian-Russian relations.

Opening with a picturesque scene of a Ukrainian village in the 1930s, the historical juxtaposition is stark: Bitter Harvest, a historical drama that weaves a love story around cataclysmic events surrounding the Holodomor — the devastating state-sponsored famine in Ukraine that killed millions — can’t help but draw comparisons with today’s news coverage of nearby regions.

Released worldwide Friday, Mendeluk’s first full-length film sheds light on a tragedy that, concealed by Soviet authorities for decades, remains little-known outside of Ukraine today.

Watch: Past, Present Collide on Set of ‘Bitter Harvest’

Anchored by the fairy-tale romance of rural teens Yuriy and Natalka, played by Britain’s Max Irons and Samantha Barks, the script rapidly interweaves cruelties of a Soviet regime steamrolling the Ukrainian peasantry, leaving millions dead in its wake.

Striving for historical accuracy

Toronto-based producer and financier Ian Ihnatowycz says the film, shot on location in parts of Kyiv and in London on a budget of $20 million, aims for unflinching attention to historical detail.

“When [Canadian actor] Richard Bachynsky brought this script in 2011, I immediately was interested because of my background and knowledge of the Holodomor,” Ihnatowycz told VOA’s Ukraine Service. “I felt it was important to present a film with international stars in a style that would appeal to Western audiences.

“We focused a lot of effort on making sure that the film was historically accurate,” he added. “It was verified by many historians.”

The weight of coming to terms with finer details of the Holodomor wasn’t lost on the cast.

“We were quite embarrassed that we didn’t really know too much about it,” said British actor Tamer Hassan, who plays Sergei, a Soviet commissar who terrorizes Ukrainian peasants. “You know, people say ‘Stalin, Stalin! Horrible!’ We all know something was there, that there was some kind of a tragedy, but to the extent of how bad it was, we really didn’t know.”

Current events echo the past

“When you read the script, you understand that there is a reason you don’t know about it,” Barks said. “There is a reason that so many people don’t know about it.”

In a seemingly ominous turn of events, anti-government protests broke out as filmmakers were finishing portions of the film shot on location in Kyiv.

“When we were filming in Ukraine, we were obviously going through this really sad part of history, and then a couple of weeks later revolution started,” Barks said.

Historical events that gave rise to the film, its creators say, seemed to collide with current affairs, in a way that they hope can help Western audiences better understand the deeper context of tensions left in the wake of a Russian invasion.

Although the film’s first reviews are not all positive, director Mendeluk says such an epic undertaking would challenge even the most seasoned cinematographers.

“There is such a huge, huge canvas,” he told VOA. “We had a love story. We had Holodomor. We began with Bolshevik Revolution. We had so many things that we needed to explain, and we had to edit it down.”

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Ukraine Service.

Science & Health

The Clean Air Act Under a Trump Administration

The Clean Air Act, introduced in 1963, empowers the federal government to control air pollution. It has cleaned up the air we breathe, and controlled acid rain and ozone depletion. In 2007, the Bush Administration began using it to regulate U.S. emissions that contribute to climate change. What is the future of the Clean Air Act under the Trump Administration? VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

Economy & business

‘Made in Paraguay’ — a Cheaper Label for Some Brazilian Manufacturers

When toymaker Estrela decided to move manufacturing capacity back to Latin America from China, it sank $2 million into a new factory not in its native Brazil – the region’s largest economy – but in its tiny southern neighbor Paraguay.

The plant, which opened this month in the border town of Hernandarias, stands near a 4,500-hectare (11,000-acre) industrial park filled with Brazilian companies making everything from autoparts to clothing.

The dark-blue electric scooters assembled by 20 workers at the Estrela factory, known as a “maquila”, will be shipped across the border to Paraguay’s giant northern neighbor under a Paraguayan system that allows hefty tax breaks for exporters.

An easy decision

For Carlos Tilkian, chief executive of Manufatura de Brinquedos Estrela SA, it was an easy decision to open the assembly plant in the landlocked nation of just 6.8 million people sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina.

Paraguay has important competitive advantages: cheap energy, labor flexibility and low social charges on wages, he said in an interview before the factory’s inauguration. “In Brazil, this would be much more expensive.”

Brazilian companies increasingly have been flocking to Paraguay since the election of former-businessman turned President Horacio Cartes in 2013, when he steered his nation to the right after the impeachment of leftist Fernando Lugo.

In a bid to create jobs, Cartes built on a 1997 reform that allowed foreign exporters to pay taxes in the low single figures and excluded them from customs tariffs with additional pro-business measures. Though more than 90 percent of its manufactured goods go to Brazil, Paraguay’s Mercosur trade bloc membership also gives exporters easy access to Argentina and Uruguay.

Since Cartes’s election, the number of foreign manufacturers in Paraguay has nearly tripled, according to government figures, also spurred by Brazil’s worst recession on record. The economic downturn has forced manufacturers to cut costs to remain afloat amid onerous taxes and bureaucracy.

Of the 126 foreign manufacturers now in Paraguay, four-fifths are Brazilian.

The move by Brazilian companies southward is sparking outrage among Brazilian unions.

Anthony Lisboa, secretary for international relations at Brazil’s umbrella union federation, denounced the “maquila” system, saying it relied on “slave labor.” He said he was trying to galvanize opposition in Paraguay — which lacks Brazil’s tradition of organized labor.

“The U.S. auto industry has the same issue with Mexico: they are simply moving production to a country where laws permit worse working conditions,” Lisboa said.

Brazilian businesses and economists say jobs created in Paraguay are replacing jobs in China, not Brazil, and that Brazil benefits from a more prosperous neighbor.

“As China gets more expensive, it becomes viable for some industries to produce closer to home and Paraguay is close to home,” said Thomaz Zanotto, foreign trade director for Sao Paulo’s powerful business chamber FIESP. “This is not going to rob Brazilian industry — Paraguay is not big enough for that — but … it shows we could be more cost competitive in Brazil if we had better economic policies.”

‘Better quality of line’

Hernandarias’ residents are overwhelmingly in favor of the Brazilian factories. The town of 80,000 has long been overshadowed by its neighbor Ciudad del Este, the second-largest city in Paraguay and home to a giant street market hawking everything from contraband perfume to televisions and assault weapons.

Convenience store worker Fabiola Vargas, 22, said the factories offer an option to residents who relied on part-time or informal jobs in Ciudad del Este as Paraguay tries to shed its reputation as a hub for illicit trade and finance.

“We won’t have to travel so much and will have a better quality of life,” she said.

Brazilians invested $101 million in Paraguay in 2015, according to the most recent Paraguayan central bank data, more than one-third of the total foreign investment of $260 million.

After posting China-paced growth as recently as 2010 amid a commodities boom, Brazil now has the highest unemployment ever among its 207 million inhabitants. By contrast, Paraguay saw GDP growth of at least 4 percent last year, helped by the manufacturing boom.

Eduardo Almeida, the Inter-American Development Bank representative in Paraguay, said a 2015 law guaranteeing foreign companies investing more than $100 million a stable tax rate for 20 years had provided vital stability.

Brazilian meat packer JBS SA, the world’s largest, said Paraguay’s stability was important to its decision to double output there this year and lift national revenues to $550 million.

“Paraguay is an economy that grows, has clear policies, and stable monetary policy,” its local director Felipe Azarias told Reuters.

In Brazil, ranked among the world’s most expensive nations to do business, benefits and taxes inflate workers’ salaries by 40 to 60 percent, according to Rio de Janeiro-based think tank FGV.

Labor costs are on average 45 percent less in Paraguay than in Brazil, while companies pay average taxes of around 3.5 percent in Paraguay, compared to 36 percent in Brazil, Almeida said.

Cartes’ government says it created 21,333 manufacturing jobs between August of 2013 and December of 2016, generating $900 million in exports.


In Paraguay, some academics say Cartes’ policies are depriving the government of revenue for long-term development, particularly in  infrastructure.

“The more exceptions and exemptions we have on manufacturing, the more we deprive the treasury of something foreign investors themselves need — financing for infrastructure,” said Fernando Masi, director of the Asuncion-based Center of Analysis of the Paraguayan Economy.

A source at a large Brazilian infrastructure company said Brazilian builders had mostly left Paraguay due to concerns the government did not have the money to provide support for private investment in bridges, dams, airports and other projects.

Paraguay’s Commerce and Trade Minister Gustavo Leite told Reuters that Cartes is committed to the low-tax policy and has no plans to seek more revenue from Brazilian companies.

“If jobs are so important, why wouldn’t we take care of employers,” Cartes said at the Estrela factory opening. “This is the Paraguay I believe in: we take care of those who provide jobs.”