Author: Irina Ashman | December 2014
Small scale gold mining operations have proven to be extremely harmful to the environment and result in adverse pollution of the atmosphere, soil degradation, landscape damage, ground and surface water contamination, flooding, deforestation and an aggregate of health related issues. Bad mining practices are crucial to the environment, but most of the workers that are involved in the industry are of a poor social standing and lack basic knowledge about the potentially harmful outcomes. Environmental problems are overlooked by the small-scale minors and most governments where they operate mainly for a reason that the industry keeps the poor population employed and the small term economic gains prevail over long term environmental resolutions. The main issues covered in this work will be mercury pollution, specifically from the processes of mercury amalgamation with gold. Such pollution leads to diverse ecosystems destruction and poses a threat to fragile ecological communities. I will concentrate my research on the countries of South America such as French Guiana, Surinam, Guyana and Brazil. Pollution and degradation of water resources put a burden on many communities that rely primarily on various species of fish as their main food source. But the governments of these countries are unable to implement effective regulations and policies that comply with the environmental standards of the developed word and those that would eliminate present day pollution issues. Environmental management initiatives and practices that are taking place in those countries and their effectiveness will also be discussed.
Key words: Guiana Shield, small-scale gold mining, illegal mining sector, garimpeiros, mercury pollution, deforestation, turbidity, bioaccumulation, amalgamation.
Guiana Shield is where most of the mining takes place. It lies mostly beneath Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana and partially underneath Brazil, Venezuela and Columbia. It is covered with Tropical Forest and is one of the top biodiversity zones in the world. Guiana Shield region is also a home to vast number of aboriginal groups. Just in Guyana alone there are more than 70,000 indigenous peoples living in the Tropical Forests. Those environments are very fragile since all indigenous groups depend on the land, water and natural resources to sustain their livelihoods. Small-scale gold minors in Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana and Brazil are men, women and children, who are ether locals or migrant from the neighboring countries. Small-scale mining accounts for 10-15% of the worlds gold supply. Small-scale gold mining isn’t really that small in reality. Workers employ a variety of methods and mining techniques. They pan for gold, dredge rivers, manually dig up ground with shovels, work with hydraulic systems, use mechanized crushers, and often utilize large earth moving equipment. Small-scale mining is also altering the fragile ecosystems by unsustainable mercury amalgamation processes, deforestation, dredging, siltation and discoloration of the rivers. Mercury is not biodegradable and it’s highly toxic. It can seep into the streams and rivers of the Guiana Shield eventually making its way into the Caribbean. Small-scale mining activities are also liable for deforestation: the denuded land, which is left behind and is susceptible to erosion primarily by rainfall and wind. Substantial fragment of land have been run down by the mining activities in search of gold and have undergone serious deterioration. Land with the expected outcome is usually cleared of any vegetation and exposed.
The global demand for gold boosted the expansion of the market together with the prices for the resource. Surge in the gold prices outset the Gold rush in the Amazon. In small-scale mining gold ore is given the top preference for its effectiveness in generating revenue promptly. The extracting techniques vary: from rudimentary with the use of minimum equipment and involve intense physical labor to highly mechanized. Most of the time small-scale mining takes place at the surface of the riverbed alluvium deposits, where the rock is mostly unconsolidated, but mineralization has occurred. First the overburden is removed utilizing shovels and picks and pits are dug approximately 10 meters deep. Then the water is added to the pits and sieves are utilized to separate sediment from the larger particles. The resulting liquid mixture called slurry is then washed down the sluice box in order to capture gold and other valuable minerals particles. Once all the separation is accomplished, the mixture of gold particles is amalgamated with mercury. Metallic mercury (Hg) has been adopted in the process of gold recovery. It’s the most low-priced, handy and effective technique. Amalgamation is a technique of combining mercury with gold sediments, where mercury sticks to gold and forms an amalgam. The amalgam is then heated in order to recuperate the final gold product. Mercury may pose a threat when it appears in sufficient quantities. The toxic vapors of mercury escape into the atmosphere during the heating of the amalgams. Once mercury vapor is release into the atmosphere it stays in it’s elemental form and eventually settles in the water or on land. When it gets into the water supply, it undergoes a transformation from the inorganic state to its organic form known as methylmercury.
Deforestation and Watershed Contamination
One of the most effective mining techniques employed by the workers is utilizing a hydraulic system. It is also known to be one of the most severe and deteriorating mining methods that lead to aquatic ecosystems destruction and places a burden on the Indigenous communities. “Land dredging” is another name for the hydraulic technique. First of all, the land is denuded off any vegetation and all trees are excavated. Then high-pressure water jets are applied to break apart the rock material and carry the gold and sediment slurry to the well where gravel pumps convey the slurry to a sluice box for gravimetric separation. This process leads to higher levels of erosion: a lot of the sediment is discharged directly into the river, increasing the turbidity of the watershed. Waterways can also get polluted by the waste sediment and tailings, which are left behind after the mining. Tailings create higher levels of sedimentation and discolorations in the rivers. Turbid water is unsuitable for drinking and cooking, it becomes muddy, looses transparency and may cause digestive issues and various illnesses. For certain species of fish turbid water is uninhabitable and for some unsuitable for spawning. In many areas of the Jungle waterways are the only mean of transportation because there are no roads and extra silt is creating obstacles. Abandoned mining pits may release toxins if left uncovered and untreated once the operations are over.
Scale of deforestation in the artisanal mining is smaller when compared to other operation like large-scale mining and logging, but it still has an adverse effect on diverse ecosystems including the aquatic ones. According to a recent study of satellite images of the forest coverage: “in French Guiana, the size of surface areas that have been deforested due to SSGM has changed from less than 200 ha/year in 1991 to more than 500 ha/year in 1995, to about 1000 ha/year in 1998, to 1500 ha/year in 1999 and 2000. More recently (2006 to 2008), mining induced deforestation has been 1000 ha per year” (Theije, Heemskerk, 2009)
Small Scale mining regulations in Brazil
In Brazil small scale minors are known as garimpeiros. Oxford dictionary defines garimpeiro as an independent prospector for minerals. And the Mining Code of 1967 defines garimpeiro as a prospector who performs the work manually. The government allows garimpeiros to mine gold if the operations are formalized. This means that necessary documentation in the form of permit is required. All the extracted minerals are supervised by the National Department for Mineral Production (DNPM). Through this institution garimpeiros can acquire their concessions and permits.
The most important mining region in Brazil is the Tapajos. It’s one of the rivers in Brazil which runs through the Amazon . Followed by Rondonia, Amapa, Amazonas and Roraima. Approximately 20,000 miners work in the Tapajos retrieving 20 to 30 kilograms of gold daily. Government regulation of 2006 has placed some limitations on the use of land, which was announced protected for nature conservation. The Brazilian Forest code protects the fragile ecosystems of the region by conserving environmentally sensitive areas and lands of Indigenous peoples. All illegal activities on those territories are prosecuted by law. But the mining still takes place in the illegal sector because permits would never be granted for someone willing to work in such zones. Brazilian government is aware of the informal mining in those areas and has implemented stricter control on small scale mining by expelling the minors from the natural reserve areas, fining and imprisoning them.
Small-Scale Mining regulations in French Guiana
French Law is predominant in French Guiana and all of the government institutions are administered according to it. Local politicians are not taking part in the process of law making, since everything is regulated overseas. But just like in Brazil, all of the exploited minerals and ore belong to the state and not the owner. Office National de Foret (ONF) is an institution responsible for controlling all the processes and operations in the forest. In order to formalize mining activity workers must abide by the strict environmental and budgetary regulations imposed by ONF. The use of mercury to retrieve the ore is strictly prohibited. Regeneration of all mining sites is obligatory. Investment funds should constitute up to $280.000. All of the claims above have created circumstances for the minors, which are hard to overcome. French regulations created an unfavorable situation where most minors can’t afford such costly requirements and turn to the illegal sector. Legal operations have diminished over the last few years substantially, since a lot of workers have lost their permits. In order to control the illegal sector, French government has organized military raids to destroy the equipment and to seize the workers without permits. One of the largest raids, was operation Harpy which called in the Armed Forces of French Guiana together with 850 gendarmes. They eliminated 70 kilograms of gold together with 350 kilograms of mercury.
Small-Scale Mining in Suriname
Suriname is situated between Guyana and French Guiana to the North of Brazil. In Suriname the small-scale mining sector operates almost entirely on the illegal grounds. The government policy of Suriname mostly favors large-scale mining and tolerates the informal small-scale mining operations because they bring revenue to the government and keep the poorest and uneducated population of the country employed. It is not easy to get the mining permit for reasons like corruption on the higher levels of the government institutions. Most of the land concessions are in the hands of influential politicians. They do not bother themselves with submitting proper documents to extend concessions, they rent their concession rights to whoever will bring the most profit in the long run.
Historically, Suriname has experienced a civil unrest from 1986 to 1992 between the local rebels of ethnic Maroon population and the military government. The situation did not favor the maroon communities on the job market and many of them were forced to turn to mining practices. The maroon population moved further into the forest interior and isolated itself from the populations on the coastal zones and the Paramaribo area. They took over the entire mining sector and have hired some Brazilian immigrant to help with the work, since they were using modern technology: “The garimpeiros that came from Brazil in the 1980s were acquainted with the manual method, but they had been working with much more sophisticated hydraulic equipment. They also were familiar with excavators, bulldozers, and tractors in the mines. Moreover, they were running their small-scale mining operations as a professional business, working in teams with specialized workers, during fixed working hours, and with an established hierarchy. The Maroons, particularly young entrepreneurial men, were quick to catch on. They bought machines and hired Brazilians to be their foreman, and started mining ‘the modern way’, too” (Theije and Heemskerk, 2009).
Porous Borders in the Amazon
An issue of immigrants from Brazil to Guyana and Suriname is also left unregulated. The border control of both countries is not very strict and many Brazilians are illegally coming in and seeking employment opportunities in the small-scale mining sectors. Suriname government has not been very affective in regulating the small-scale mining sector just like the Guyanese officials. There seems to be no borders between the nation states, as the government of Suriname allows almost anyone from Brazil to enter and with an intention to stay and mine. A term garimpeiro is used in order to categorize Brazilian migrants minors from the regional minors. They are careless of their exacerbating practices, which bring long term environmental degradation, but rather interested in the short term economic gain. They are known for their plundering and ravaging behavior. Even during an interview with the president of the Garimpeiro Union of the Legal Amazon there was an open admittance: “Wherever we [the garimpeiros] go, a track of destruction is left behind. Mercury stays in the rivers, and the soil is degraded. We corrupt the culture, the location, 8 and the conduct of the areas where we arrive. We destroy everything.” (Dan Biller, 1994) Garimpeiros have no initiatives or inclinations to conserve the environment all for reasons of their interim status in the country: “A major cause of environmental degradation is the presence of external environmental costs and the lack of well-defined property rights. Open access to many environmental resources free of charge means that producers lack incentives to take full cost of environmental degradation into account.” (Dan Biller, 1994) Suriname and Guyana are both a part of Amazonia just like Brazil, so the natural environment with predominantly rainforest is very familiar to the garimpeiros and they do not have any difficulties surviving in the Jungle.
In Suriname, the Maroons are the ones who promoted the inflow of Brazilian immigrants. Garimpeiros use more complicated equipment to mine and are more knowledgeable on how to use hydraulic equipment. Unlike the Maroons, who have been working manually: “ Today there are approximately twenty thousand Brazilians (although the exact number is unverifiable) are working almost exclusively in Suriname in small scale gold mining industry and accompanying service economy. Our estimates is that another ten thousand Maroons are also engaged in the gold mining business…the Suriname government has failed to control the small-scale mining sector and much of Suriname society sees small-scale miners as a problem, a barrier to large scale mine development and the culprits of the country’s environmental problems.” (Theije and Heemskerk, 2009)
Life of Garimpeiro
With little formal obstacles in the way, garimpeiros cross the borders and move around the Guiana Shield relatively easy. Garimpeiro minors are mobile, do not require housing and make camp in lash-up tents. Most of the time the conditions are unfavorable and severe, with the ever increasing chances of becoming infected with malaria. Serious injuries from amalgam burning and toxic mercury vapor inhalation are the most common health threats of the small scale minors. Most of the small-scale minors in Brazil, French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana do not obtain health insurance, especially those who work in the illegal mining sector. Employers do not guarantee any medical benefits for such worker, even though accidents in the workplace are very common. Medical benefits depending on the local regulations and even if the government does provide medical assistance it can be very costly to get to the hospital, since the mining regions are so deep in the forest interior.
But their lifestyle in the forest resembles the “Wild West” and still attracts more and more minors from Brazil into the business: “The garimpeiros incursions have also had a significant sociological impact. A virtual sub-culture has been created in the interior, resembling the lifestyle of the American “wild west”. Alcoholism, prostitution, disease, and crime are rife in mining sections of the interior. Many young Ameridians, coastal Guyanese and Brazilians have found jobs in mines and are subsequently drawn to “wild west” lifestyle in the jungle” (Roopnarine, 2004). Those mining sites in the forest are so mobile and move around very often, that there is a complete lack of sanitation and proper waste disposal. Pollution in the form of plastic bottles, cans, food packaging and other not-biodegradable waste is left in the forests or buried in the ground.
Another drawback of the illegal mining sector is smuggling of the ore. Since most gold is recovered illegally, cross border smuggling is common in those regions, therefore is hard to estimate the exact amounts of recovered ore and the revenue from it: “Illicit marketing is primarily the result of inadequate government policies. In countries, where commercialization is not based on free market mechanisms and where sales are not transparent, smuggling is usually the first choice for miners and/or merchants, and much of the benefits to the government are lost. Nevertheless it has to be pointed out, that smuggling or illegal trading usually happens with some adjacent country where market conditions are more favorable; but, as developing countries are usually surrounded by developing countries, the regional positive effect of artisanal small-scale mining will not be lost – just a different developing country with a more open policy is able to take advantage from it’s neighbors” (Hentschel, etc, 2002 )
Malaria hand in hand with small-scale mining in Suriname
After mining takes place and the desired ore is not found or completely extracted, the pits are often abandoned without any recovery of the land. A lot those pits contain water, which provide perfect breeding sites for malaria- infected mosquitos. Due to the mobility of the small scale minors, malaria is a very common disease that is transmitted from one place to another. There is a constant inflow of immigrants from the neighboring countries, who may come to the site infected with parasites and contribute to the outburst of malaria. Poor living conditions and extremely long working hours pose a great risk for the workers, who are constantly exposed and unprotected from the mosquito bites. There was a burst of malaria infection in 1990 in Surinamese population. It was the time of civil unrest (1986-1992) and most of the medical institutions in the interior were burned down and destroyed. In 2000 Suriname became malaria free, due to an efficient campaign supported by the Global Fund. But the remote regions in the Jungle interior where small mining took place constituted an exception. In 2008 the Health Ministry of Suriname launched a project “Searching for gold, finding malaria” to uproot malaria in those remote places. This campaign provided free testing and anti malaria medications, supplied the workers with Insecticide Treated Bed Nets and spread awareness on the disease to promote recognition on the early stages and get treatment (Active Case Detection campaign). According to the results of the Knowledge, Attitudes and Practice social survey: “Three quarters of the respondents from the selected mining areas had been ill with malaria at least once in their lives (75.2%). Malaria testing is one of the prime activities of the “Looking for Gold, Finding Malaria” program. The grand majority of respondents who had suspected to be ill with malaria had taken the malaria test and indeed tested positive (83.9%). Almost two-thirds of respondents (63.0%) had obtained services at a malaria clinic at least once. The largest groups of both Suriname nationals (45.6%) and foreigners (34.2%) in the gold mining areas had been treated in a government health center in Paramaribo. Three quarters of the respondents who had obtained malaria treatment at least once, had been treated for free the last time they had done so (75.4%)”. (Heemskerk, Duijves, 2012) This is an example of a successful social program. If other governments were to imply a similar methodology there is some guarantee of a positive outcome.
Mercury pollution and health hazards
The first time when humans have recognized the toxic effect of mercury was in Japan, the Minamata city. The Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory has been discharging wastewater lined with methylmercury for 36 years (1932-1968). It is a highly toxic compound that accumulated in fish in the Minamata bay, the Shiranui Sea and traveled upwards in the food chain through the process of bioaccumulation. As fish has been consumed by the local population, many people suffered from severe mercury poisoning. Methylmercury is known to disrupt the regular function of the neurological system, and results in the numbness of the limbs, muscle exhaustion, paralysis, coma and death. Since that case mercury poisoning is known as Minamata disease. This case set the ground for the international convention with participation of 140 countries.
Most minors use mercury to extract gold since it’s the least expensive way. It’s also an easy and quick process that does not require a special skill. Once the gold and mercury bond to one another, the compound is burned in order to vaporize mercury and leave the gold behind. It is estimated that for one kilogram of gold, one kilogram of mercury is used. During the process of amalgam burning minors inhale the toxic vapor of mercury. Since most of them obstruct from safety precautions such as wearing proper clothing and facemasks, they place themselves at a high risk of getting respiratory illnesses, neuromuscular deficits, kidney failure and even can be a cause of death. The reason for avoiding the safety measures is lack of knowledge about the detrimental effects of exposure to mercury. This is the only metal that stays in liquid form at room temperature and when workers are handling it with bare hands, it can seep into their skin through minor cuts. Even those workers who are aware of the toxic nature of this metal, still stay in the work field for reasons of not being able to afford a more secure and sustainable alternative.
Mercury escapes into the environment during the process of amalgam burning in the form of vapor or as a mining byproduct known as tailings, which may have irreversible effects on the aquatic systems. When elemental mercury is decomposed by the anaerobic microorganisms it is transformed into methylmercury, which is an organic compound. It gets consumed by small fish, which are eaten by larger fish and accumulates in its tissue. It enters the food chain by the process of bioaccumulation. Most of the indigenous peoples live close to the rivers because it is their only source of water, food and transportation. For example, the Wayana people live by the Maroni river, the Palikur are situated at the bank of Oyapock river, the Emerillion population lives near Camopi and Tampok rivers. Almost all indigenous peoples highly depend on fish as their primary protein source, which gets consumed in large quantities and exposure to methylmercury becomes imminent. Mercury exposure during the early stages of life can be particularly dangerous, since the developing brain is affected and the entire neurological system can be harmed. According to the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency): “For fetuses, infants, and children, the primary health effect of methylmercury is impaired neurological development. Methylmercury exposure in the womb, which can result from a mother’s consumption of fish and shellfish that contain methylmercury, can adversely affect a baby’s growing brain and nervous system. Impacts on cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills have been seen in children exposed to methylmercury in the womb”. (http://www.epa.gov/mercury/about.htm). Such indigenous peoples organizations as: “The Guyana Organization of Indigenous Peoples”, “Amerindian People’s Association”, “The National Amerindian Council” and ” Amerindian Movement of Guyana” are resisting to the small-scale gold mining operations, but so far they have not experienced a successful outcome. Most of the indigenous peoples live deep in the interior of Guiana, French Guiana, Suriname and Brazil and the main population lives closer to the coastal regions. The majority of the population is not cognizant of the environmental degradation of the forest area because they are not experiencing the land and water degradation directly. The only way they may come across those impacts is by consuming the fish, which could potentially contain some mercury.
Mercury regulations in Guyana, French Guiana, Suriname and Brazil
The use of mercury in Brazil in artisanal small-scale mining is still high, but is controlled. According to the most recent regulation, minors are required to obtain a permit in order to legally utilize the metal.
In French Guiana, mercury use in mining operations is illegal in concordance with the new regulation of 2006. Nevertheless, illegal mining has been blooming. Since French Guiana is controlled and regulated by the French government, which is so remote geographically, it has not been very successful in the implementation of this new law. Local authorities are failing in managing the mining operations. Indigenous peoples are the main victims of the illegal mining. Recent studies have shown that mercury levels in the land and water of the Wayana and Emerillion peoples are troubling, because they are higher than the WHO safe standards: “A 1997 study on mercury exposure in four Wayana indigenous villages along the Maroni River (named Lawa in Suriname) in French Guiana found that some local fish contained mercury levels up to 1,62 mg/kg (In VS 1997). More than 50 percent of the tested Wayana indigenous population had mercury levels in hair that surpassed the WHO safe standard of 10 µg/g (Mean = 11,4 µg/g, as compared to reference values of 2 µg/g). Moreover, more than 90 percent of the mercury was present in its organic or most toxic form; methyl mercury”. (United Nations Development Program, 2011)
In Suriname mercury usage is not controlled and there are no regulations. It’s considered to be a dangerous substance and it is necessary to obtain a special permit in order to be able to use it. Most of the time it gets smuggled into the country illegally. There have been some attempts to prohibit the usage of mercury by the Commission Regulation Gold Sector, but they haven’t proved to be effective yet.
Guyana is attempting to eliminate mercury utilization completely. The Minomata Convention was held on January 19,2013 in Japan with participation of 140 countries. The government of Guyana has signed the Minamata Convention on mercury, a treaty to control mercury emissions and eventually eliminating its usage in small scale mining.
Japan is willing to sponsor Guyana by providing a US $2.3 billion, while Guyanese government will promote implementation of strict regulations on supply and trade of mercury, mercury containing products and mercury compounds.
Small-scale mining in Guyana
Guyanese officials are cognizant about the unlicensed and illicit practices, but are unwilling to discipline the industry for reasons of economic gains, employment opportunities for the poor population and the poverty level decrease. The practices though are not environmentally intact. Environmental contamination in the region is avertable, but there is not enough initiative to adequately guide and regulate the activities of workers in this field. Guyanese EPA was organized in 1996, but since it’s opening it didn’t prove to be successful in dealing with the existing environmental crisis. Gold mining is administered not only by the EPA, but also by Guyana Geology and Mines Commission. Low wages plus lack of initiative and skill are the key factors in ineffective services of those organizations: “ Small- and medium-sized gold mining may prove to evasive for Guyana’s environmental policy capacity unless there are stronger commitments to monitor the interior more effectively. Environmental regulatory bodies are running years behind deadlines, mandated or not. Many monitoring facilities are old and deteriorating and present more problems than solutions. The GGMC and the EPA operate under a complex mix of laws, regulations, orders, directives, and so on. The result is intense frustration and serious overlaps and gaps in regulatory requirements and failure to address mining problems according to their relative risks to the environment and people. Consequently, administrative bodies are structurally weak and inefficient and therefore are in a disadvantaged position to ensure and enforce preventative actions against careless mining practices”. (Roopnarine, 2006)
Existing Guyanese laws are overlooked by most of the small-scale minors since there are no strict penalties or fines implied. Minors also avert declaring the gold to the Guyana Gold Board most of the times and it escapes as contraband to Brazil, Suriname and Venezuela. EPA and GGMC are not capable of controlling and monitoring the practices not only a for lack of properly trained and educated staff, but also for a criminal character of those mining camps with heavy arms (AK-47) and high levels of crime.
Global Mercury Project
U.N. came up with a general guideline for governments, where small-scale mining constitutes a problem. U.N. International Guidelines on Mercury Management in Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining is a final result of a legal assessment of social, environmental, financial, technical and health related issues in small-scale mining industry all over the world. Principal technical measures suggest ways of working with mercury and gold amalgams. For example burning of an amalgam is recommended to perform with the utilization of a retort. Retorts would help to capture the mercury vapor and can be used in mercury recycling. There are also some guidelines on the storage and disposal of mercury. An accent is made on protection of the water bodies, specifically a distance of at least 100 meters should be kept. Same goes for the residential areas. keeping the distance is important. As far as the management requirements go, it should hold the license for any operation, which includes the amalgam burning and : “(a) institute reasonable safety measures to prevent the exposure of employees or other persons to mercury fumes; (b) provide retorts and instruction on how to use retorts; and (c) ensure that no employee or other person handles mercury unless they are wearing suitable protective clothing, including gloves; and should provide such protective clothing free of charge” (U.N. Global Mercury Project,2007 ). Also since mercury is especially toxic for the developing fetuses and young children, the person performing the amalgamation should not include pregnant women or young children. This program only outlines the minimal requirements necessary to decrease the environmental degradation and health related issues.
The best solution of course would be encouraging mercury-free practices.
Most of the pollution comes from toxic mercury and if the development planners take the initiative to implement proper regulations regarding the methods of extraction and recovering of the ore, environmental degradation would be partially eliminated. There are some advancements in technological methods of gold extraction, which are promising a cleaner production. But the loopholes, corruption and instability of the administration are amongst the top reasons why so little has been done for sustainable mining practices. Finally the local administrations should try to take on way to promote communication, cooperation and coordination with formal and informal minors aiming at a better way to manage the activities.
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