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A Patchwork of Imagery Hints at the Hidden Complexity of the American Prairie

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Terry Evans's Ancient Prairies project

By Clara Chaisson

Photographer Terry Evans has been piecing together prairies for more than 40 years.


After she first encountered the plant life growing in these iconic midwestern habitats in 1978, Evans memorized their "names like poems": the silverleaf scurfpea, a dark-violet wildflower; the prickly pink catclaw sensitive briar; the white orchid known as nodding lady's tresses; and green antelopehorn, a milkweed that serves as a nursery to monarch butterflies. "I felt embarrassed when I came across one whose name I'd forgotten or hadn't yet learned," Evans said. "It was like slighting a friend."

Today Evans is continuing her education by breaking down these grassland ecosystems into their component parts. Each large-scale image from her new series, Ancient Prairies, is made up of a patchwork of individual photographs hinting at the ecological complexity that underlies the prairie landscape.

Terry Evans's Ancient Prairies project

Landscape photography was not part of Evans's original plan during her years at the University of Kansas, where she received a BFA in painting. For years the Missouri-born artist drew inspiration from the relationships between people. But a decade after Evans graduated, a friend asked her to capture some images of a virgin prairie not far from Evans's home in Salinas, Kansas. She agreed, and the friendly favor forever changed the trajectory of her career.

"Suddenly I began to see the ground," Evans wrote of the experience. "The realization came that I could stand in one spot and look at the ground for at least an hour and still not see everything happening at my feet ... There was a whole cosmology there, and that was fascinating to me."

The artist's depictions of prairies have traveled far beyond the habitat's natural range in the middle of our continent. Her work has brought the American prairie to the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and more.

Terry Evans's Ancient Prairies project

Even when people are not directly in the frame, Evans's photography still captures the kinds of intricate human relationships that originally caught her eye as an artist — only instead of studying how people interact with each other, she now explores how people engage with the land.

Each composite image in Ancient Prairies takes Evans about a month to complete. At the outset, the artist has no idea what the composition will ultimately look like. She draws on her education as a painter to structure the piece.

Only 1 to 4 percent of the tallgrass prairie that once covered 170 million acres of North America still exists today; settlers plowed the vast majority to make way for the eventual vast monocultures of wheat and corn. While pockets of native prairie remain, Evans said they "would not exist without human care." Some, like her first love, Fent's Prairie, thrive as a result of intensive preservation efforts. Others have been painstakingly restored with prescribed burns, invasive species removal and native plantings.

Terry Evans's Ancient Prairies project

Evans's interest in humanity's influence on the environment has also led her to industrial landscapes. Working alongside writer Elizabeth Farnsworth earlier this decade, she documented activists fighting to ban petcoke on the Southeast Side of Chicago, the city where she now lives and works. But after spending years working on projects such as Petcoke vs. Grassroots, Fractured: North Dakota's Oil Boom and Steel Work, Evans said, "I started having this longing to see some undisturbed prairie again . . . Beauty matters for our spirit."

When she returned to Fent's Prairie, though, she found that something had changed within her. "I was no longer satisfied with making single images," Evans said. "It seemed like there's so much rich information and wisdom in an untouched or restored ecosystem."

Terry Evans's Ancient Prairies project

The name of the series, Ancient Prairies, isn't intended to consign its subject matter to the past. "It's not about nostalgia, and they're not a eulogy of something that's gone," Evans said. "Rather, they're a celebration of life that can still inform us. We need these places as an archive of what an undisturbed ecosystem looks like."

Five images from Ancient Prairies are featured in the winter issue of Orion magazine.

Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

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Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

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