Category Archives: Cook Islands

Cook Islands: manager of world’s biggest marine park says she lost job for backing sea mining moratorium

Jacqueline Evans says she was dismissed from managing the Marae Moana.

Environmentalist Jacqueline Evans says she was dismissed from the Marae Moana for urging caution on deep-sea mining

Ben Doherty | The Guardian | 19 October 2019

The public champion of the world’s largest marine reserve – the Cook Islands’ Marae Moana – has said she lost her job managing it because she supported a moratorium on seabed mining in the Pacific.

Six months ago, Jacqueline Evans won the Goldman Environmental prize – the world’s foremost environmental award – for her work establishing Marae Moana (meaning “sacred ocean”), which covers the Cook Islands’ entire exclusive economic zone of more than 1.9m sq km.

Evans alleges she lost her job as director of Marae Moana because she argued in favour of a 10-year-moratorium on seabed mining to allow for research on its environmental impact.

The Cook Islands government is proceeding with mining exploration, saying it wants to be at “the frontier of the new gold rush” and could be ready to start seabed mining within five years. It says mining the seafloor for metallic nodules could provide financial security for the islands and help them mitigate climate change.

“The catalyst was my policy advice to my colleagues within government that we support Vanuatu, Fiji and PNG on their support for a 10-year moratorium on seabed mining … so that baseline scientific data can be collected,” Evans told Guardian Australia.

She said she was “gravely concerned that government officials don’t want to take the time” to collect data from the reserve, including on the little-understood species that live in the deepest parts of the ocean.

“Our ocean is important to us, for our survival. If we destroy the ocean, we destroy our food supply, our livelihoods and our economy. Marae Moana represents how Pacific Islanders feel about their Pacific Ocean. It’s important that this viewpoint is upheld.”

The proponents of seabed mining argue it can provide minerals critical to renewable energy industries with little waste. But environmentalists arguing for caution say precious little is known about the deep ocean, and even less about the potential environmental impacts of mining it.

Evans was one of six winners of the Goldman prize in 2019 for her “five-year grassroots campaign” to better protect the Cooks’ marine biodiversity.

In addition to mandating sustainable use of its waters, Marae Moana established a 50-nautical mile fishing exclusion zone around each of the Cooks’ 15 islands, leaving those waters exclusively for the use of island communities.

The Cook Islands’ prime minister, Henry Puna, has been crucial in directing government support for the reserve, and the former rugby league player Kevin Iro, now ambassador for Marae Manoa, first proposed the idea and led the campaign for the marine park.

But Evans was responsible for developing government policy and the Marae Moana Act, which parliament passed in 2017. Until last month, she was the sole employee of the Marae Moana Coordination Office.

In a statement reported by the Cook Islands News, the prime minister’s chief of staff, Ben Ponia, thanked Evans for bringing “passion, expertise, and energy into this role”.

Several sources have told the Guardian that Evans lost her job, which was within the office of the prime minister, because of her support for the moratorium. This has been reported in the Cooks, and has not been denied by the government.

The prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Evans’s dismissal.

Evans said a moratorium should be acceptable to both supporters and opponents of mining.

“Advocates for manganese nodule mining … say that the only life at 4.5km to 6km deep, where the manganese nodules lie on the seabed, are small ‘head lice’,” she said. “We know so little about the ecosystem at that depth. We need to collect more information before such statements can be made.”

The Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority said ocean survey work over four decades had identified as much as 12bn square tonnes of mineral-rich manganese nodules spread over the Cook Islands’ continental shelf.

“This seabed mineral resource offers a significant opportunity for the long-term sustainable economic and social development of the Cook Islands,” it said.

In a statement last week, the minerals authority said: “Despite calls for a 10-year moratorium on seabed mining in the Pacific to allow time to conduct more environmental research, the Cooks are set to be the frontier of the new gold rush”.

Deputy prime minister Mark Brown said seabed mining could prove vital to the country’s financial security and contribute revenue towards climate change resilience.

“We can’t just sit back and expect good things to happen for the country, and I see us as taking the lead,” Brown said.

Deep-sea – or seabed – mining has proved contentious wherever it has been proposed.

Proponents argue it could yield ore far superior to land mining in silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt and zinc, with little, if any, waste product. The industry is potentially worth billions of dollars and could assist the transition to a renewable energy economy, supplying raw materials for key technologies such as batteries, computers and phones.

Environmental and legal groups have urged extreme caution, arguing there are potentially massive ramifications for the environment and for nearby communities.

Scientists argue deep sea biodiversity and ecosystems remain poorly understood, making it impossible to properly assess the potential impacts of mining – including disturbance of seafloor ecosystems, sediment displacement and noise, vibration and light pollution.

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Cooks opposition appalled at dumping of marine conservationist

Jacqui Evans Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

Radio New Zealand | 25 September 2019

The Cook Islands Opposition Democratic Party says the dumping of Jacqui Evans from the Marae Moana is appalling.

The party leader, Tina Browne, said by removing the world-renowned environmentalist the government has a reached an all-time low.

She said it is completely unacceptable for the government to do this to a highly qualified, passionate Cook Islander who has dedicated most of her life to the protection of the ocean.

Ms Brown said she is aware that Ms Evans didn’t back the government on its plans to ignore the regional call for a 10-year moratorium on seabed mining.

She said the government instead wants to fast pace mining within the Cook Islands EEZ.

The Cook Islands Government has not yet explained why it took the action it did.

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Seabed mining to offer economic hope for Cook Islands

Researchers waved to family on shore, as the Grinna II left the Avatiu Harbour yesterday.

Papua New Guinea recently lost K375 million gambling on experimental seabed mining, but Cook Islands isn’t deterred

Anneka Brown | Cook Island News | September 12, 2019 

Government has rejected international calls for a 10-year moratorium on undersea mining.

Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown describes a proposed moratorium as “confusing”, saying Cook Islands are among only a small number of Pacific islands that have the chance to mine their seabeds.

There has been gathering momentum in support of a moratorium: it was proposed by Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama at last month’s Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, and has now been backed by Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.

But Brown was sceptical, saying Fiji wasn’t much involved in seabed minerals.

He spoke to Cook Islands News after farewelling research vessel MC Grinna II yesterday morning.

The ship left the Avatiu harbour carrying officials from Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority, in the first Cooks-crewed expedition since the 1980s to collect samples from the seabed of the exclusive economic zone.

Brown indicated the Cooks were preparing to go it alone: The undersea minerals exploration could provide the resource the country needed to fight climate change, when other countries’ aid funding dries up.

The mining of seabed minerals would help diversify the economy, after the Cooks become a developed country and lose development aid assistance, as well as facing greater difficulty accessing climate funding.

Brown said donor countries were withdrawing their contributions to the Green Climate Fund.

“We have to take responsibility for our own resilience funding to protect our country against the impacts of climate change and this resource provides us with the means to do that,” he said.

“We see our research and exploration on seabed minerals as something that is positive for our country and contributing to reducing global emissions.”

It is important to look at how the Cooks would fill funding gaps after becoming a developed country, he said, and to look particularly at the wealth that exists in the ocean.

Although the way government revenues will be calculated was unclear, he said, it was estimated that with a three per cent royalty, the industry could generate an annual revenue of US$45m (NZ$70m) – about three times the revenue from fisheries or nearly a third of tourism’s earnings.

The Cook Islands was the first Pacific nation to develop a law for managing seabed mining and also had some of the most progressive marine legislation in the region, known as the Marae Moana Act 2017, which makes conservation the focus of all ocean-based activity.

Brown said: “It’s inevitable that we will turn to our ocean for our wellbeing.”

Fiji had little involvement in seabed minerals activity, Brown said, so for them to propose a regional moratorium on something that was not really a regional asset was “confusing” and wasn’t accepted at them Pacific Islands Leader’s Forum.

“It’s different from fisheries that is a regional asset, but mineral stocks are static and there are not many Pacific island countries that have mineral resources like the Cook Islands.”

In fact, the Cook Islands were unique in being the only country in the Pacific where polymetallic nodules existed in our waters.

In the Cook Islands the nodules are mainly in the South Penrhyn Basin 5,000 meters deep which contain valuable minerals such as Manganese, Cobalt, Nickel, Copper and even rare amounts of Titanium.

Some environmentalists are concerned that mining the seafloor could destroy fragile marine habitats and further accelerate the destruction of ocean ecosystems.

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Cook Islands PM: ‘Conservation is in our blood’

Prime Minister Henry Puna arriving at 11th Conference of the Pacific Community in Noumea, New Caledonia. 19062018

Losirene Lacanivalu | Cook Island News | June 21, 2019

Cook Islands’ declaration of two million square kilometres of ocean as “sacred” captured the imagination of delegates at a major oceans conference in New Caledonia this week.

Prime Minister Henry Puna explained to the 11th Conference of the Pacific Community that the Cook Islands had declared their entire exclusive economic zone as Marae Moana.

At the local scale as a veteran pearl farmer, and at the national scale as prime minister, he relied on scientific and technical data to make evidence-based decisions for the good of the community and the oceans far into the future, Puna said.

This protected area was just one example of how the Cook Islands were putting the Blue Pacific narrative into action.

Puna’s words coincided with another regional resolution, across the ocean at Pohnpei in Micronesia, seeking to preserve the Pacific’s tuna fisheries and affirming that climate change was the single greatest threat to regional security.

Puna said the Sustainable Development Goals aimed to conserve at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas by 2020. “With Marae Moana, we have exceeded the expectations of the goals.”

Puna said the Marae Moana law provided a framework to make resourcing decisions on integrated management through adopting a precautionary approach to the marine environment, in sustaining fishery stocks, and environmental impact assessments for seabed mining.

Forty years of ocean survey work suggested that as many as 10 billion tonnes of mineral rich manganese nodules were spread over the Cook Islands Continental Shelf.

These seabed mineral resources offered a significant opportunity for the long-term sustainable economic and social development of the Cook Islands, he said.

But he said any decisions on whether the recovery of seabed minerals will take place must start by gathering technical data, and using scientific analysis.

The Pacific Community’s work with the Cook Islands had proven invaluable in availing, over many years, scientific and technical data to all members, to ensure evidence-based decisions.

The Cook Islands should not be viewed as a small island, but as a large ocean state. “The Blue Pacific may be a new phrase for the region, but we have been practicing this approach as stewards of the Pacific Ocean Continent for generations.

“The people of the Cook Islands, like Pacific people throughout our region, are born conservationists. Conservation is in our blood. By protecting our ecosystems, we conserve our cultural heritage and ensure that we can pass that heritage to future generations,” Puna added.

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Cooks govt uses final hours of Parliament to pass seabed bill

Cook Islands Democratic Party leader, Tina Browne Photo: Cook Islands Democratic Party

Radio New Zealand | 18 June 2019

A bid by the opposition in the Cook Islands to have a controversial seabed mining bill face further scrutiny has been quashed.

The Cook Islands News reports that, instead, the government forced it through parliament before adjourning indefinitely.

Opposition leader Tina Browne said her party did not oppose the bill, but she was not satisfied with the consultation process.

She wanted the bill put before a select committee.

Ms Browne said a major concern was how the bill gives the minister responsible for seabed minerals full authority to grant an exploration licence.

She raised concerns about fairness, given the government would also be one of the applicants – as well as the fear of officials being “tempted to do wrong things” with such power.

The government said the bill underwent an extensive consultation process.

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Transparency needed in seabed mining process

The Patania II, a scaled down prototype of a manganese nodule collector to be tested in 2019 in the Clarion Clipperton Zone.

Cook Island News | June 01, 2019

Local non-government organisations Te Ipukarea Society and Kōrero O Te ‘Ōrau recently sourced funding for an independent legal opinion on the draft Seabed Minerals Bill 2019. This is the fourth in a series of articles outlining key points raised in the 51-page opinion.

According to a reputable environmental lawyer, the Seabed Minerals Bill 2019 in its current draft form does not encourage transparency and a free flow of information.

There “appears to be no overriding duty or principle of the presumption of open information, nor a presumption that all information submitted in an application is available to the community to assess as part of the public consultation process”, writes CJ Iorns Magallanes, a reader in law at Victoria University who was contracted by local nonprofit organisations to provide a legal opinion on the Bill.

In other words, the draft Seabed Minerals Bill 2019 does not require politicians and the Seabed Minerals Authority to disclose information about applications from mining companies and their operations.

This point reflects concerns raised in letters to the editor of this newspaper and voiced at public meetings. Seabed mining is an untested and unproven endeavour; going forward, information about possible impacts on the environment will be crucial for guiding responsible decisions. So far very little information has been made public; it was said that submissions and feedback on the draft bill would be shared, but since the deadline for submissions passed in February, members of the public are still waiting for news.

Not only does the proposed Seabed Minerals Bill 2019 not require government to share information, it actually imposes heavy consequences on anyone who leaks information that government considers sensitive. Magallanes calls the punishment — a five-year prison sentence — “particularly onerous”. She notes the consequences for sharing such information seems overly harsh – “(‘a sledgehammer to crack a nut’ is the phrase that comes to mind)”.

While sharing information is vital for democratic, participatory decision-making about shared resources, it is also already part of our law.

The Seabed Minerals Bill 2019 must comply with the provisions of the Marae Moana Act 2017, a piece of legislation that coordinates management of the marine environment.

The Marae Moana Act lists transparency in decision-making as one of its overriding principles. Bodies which advise the Marae Moana Coordination Office are required to make information publicly available unless there are good grounds for withholding it.

Magallanes’ legal opinion suggests that reports about seabed mining, as well as recommendations put forward by any potential advisors, should be shared with the public.

Her analysis discusses a recent case in New Zealand, which illustrates what can happen when information about a public resource is not made publicly available. A company’s application for a licence was shared but with large sections redacted (blacked out); the company claimed these sections were commercially sensitive. A complaint was filed. The case ended up in court and the complainants won, with the court ordering the disclosure of the information.

“Thought should therefore be given to the inclusion of an assumption of disclosure even for material that an applicant might claim is commercially sensitive, if it is necessary in order to assess the likely environmental effects,” Magallanes writes. “The public should have the right to this information and not have to take a judicial review case against the Authority in order to understand the activities applied for.”

There have been a number of issues raised that have been highlighted in this and the previous articles on the Magallenes review. 

With transparency in mind, the public awaits the release of other submissions in order to see what other issues may have been identified.  We have also just received news that a revised “final” Seabed Mining Bill has been released on Thursday this week. We note that this is to be considered the version to go to Cabinet and then on to Parliament when it sits in June.

Te Ipukarea Society and Korero O Te ‘Orau would welcome sufficient time to review this revised Bill, and be given an opportunity to see how our feedback, and that of other stakeholders, has been incorporated into this revised “final” Bill, before it finds its way to Cabinet and then into Parliament.

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Call for Cooks’ seabed mining licences to require risk research

Kelvin Passfield of Te Ipukarea Society. Photo: RNZ/ Sally Round

Radio New Zealand | 21 November 2018 

The Cook Islands government must focus as much on the potential environmental risks of seabed mining as it does on the economic benefits, an environmental organisation says.

In recent weeks, the government has been holding public meetings to hear feedback on its plan to open tenders for five-year, deep sea mining exploration licences at the beginning of next year.

Kelvin Passfield of the Te Ipukarea Society said little was known about the biodiversity in the exploration area.

Environmental research should be included in exploration operations, Mr Passmore said.

“We would like to see at least an equal emphasis on the biodiversity and the potential environmental impacts on that biodiversity,” he said.

“So we would like to see any exploration licence having a condition that there must be a partner in that exploration programme of a research institution.”

The Cook Islands News reported that Deputy Pm Mark Brown as saying the government was only concerned with exploration at this point.

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Deep sea mining: Riches or ruin?

The OK Tedi gold mine, which caused huge environmental problems in New Guinea, is an example of how mining can go horribly wrong, a letter-writer says.

Letter to the Editor | Cook Island News | November 19, 2018

The government is in raptures as they prepare for a bonanza of riches that they hope will flow from deep sea mining in our exclusive economic zone (EEZ).fish

Before matters proceed to the point of no return, we the Iti Tangata need to ask whether mining will lead to riches or to our ruin.

Should we allow our Government to jeopardise the main industry of our country that is the backbone of our national economy? Does anyone really think that paying guests will come to a destination that has been polluted from the byproduct of mining, if it were to go ahead?

Word is that government is so keen, that they are in the process of trying to water down the Marae Moana Act in order to take away some of the protections in relation to environment impact assessments. Being so secretive about the proposed changes, which the public are not allowed to view until the Amendments have had a first reading in Parliament, does little to dispel that impression.

Right now, our visitors pay good money to come to our tiny Ipukarea to experience the beauty of the environment on land, lagoon and ocean and to enjoy the holiday of their dreams before heading back to their own homes. They came here for the clean air, the green hills and flowers and immaculate gardens and the beautiful lagoons and friendly people to host them and while doing so, they generate more than $200 million annually to our local economy.

Does anyone really think that paying guests will come to a destination that has been polluted from the byproduct of mining – if it were to go ahead? Of course not, they will go elsewhere.

Actually, I am not necessarily a fan of tourism. That seems to have gone into overdrive in the past couple of years and seems to have created a certain level of environment and infrastructure issues of its own. These include periodic shortages of water supply in parts of the island, an inadequate septic system – and of course, our roads could do with a bit of an upgrade.

However, those issues are being addressed albeit with mixed results thus far, but will fade into the background in comparison to the irreparable damage to our ocean environment and leisure industry that a high-risk industry such as mining would cause.

Honestly, can the advocates of mining point to a place anywhere in the world where mining has not polluted the surrounding environment?

Nope?

But there are plenty of instances about the adverse effects of mining. Papua New Guinea, one of our Pacific neighbours, has had its fair share of horror stories in relation to mining.

There was, for instance, the notorious case of the OK-Tedi gold mine in PNG where the toxic by-product of the process of extracting the gold were released into the OK Tedi and Fly rivers and poisoned the water and killed all the fish. (By the way, the by-product is arsenic for those who are wondering).

After a media campaign in Australia to expose the malpractice of the mining company and a court case against them for their misdeeds, the mining giant negotiated to pay a tiny fraction of the costs to remediate the environmental damage and eventually walked away from the mine. PNG was left to deal with the mess the mining company left behind.

There are other case, but the point is that mining companies have very deep pockets to retain the highest paid legal minds from anywhere in the world to defend their position, while our Government has the services of the Commissioner and Crown Law. In a battle between global giants vs idealistic local lawyers, it is not going to end well for us.

One last point: even if the nodules are worth zillions of dollars – which is uncertain – the Government will only receive a tiny percentage of the value via royalty payments.

It is rather like our tuna fishing industry, where tuna is sold at $20-30 per kilo, but that Marine Resources have signed away for a few cents per kilo. Enough said.

The byproduct from deep sea mining of our nodules will be  the huge amount of “plume” of the muck that constitutes the seafloor.

Apparently the nodules will be either scooped up or vacuumed upward and then the seawater will be released back to the ocean.

How to return vast quantities of dirty water to the ocean without causing an environmental disaster sounds like mission impossible to me.

The upside is that the byproduct will not be arsenic, as with the OK Tedi case.

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Cooks govt looking at seabed mining interest in Norway

Cook Islands Finance Minister Mark Brown Photo: Phillipa Webb / Cook Islands News

Radio New Zealand | 14 September 2018

The Cook Islands Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown is currently in Norway discussing the possible exploration of seabed minerals in the Cook Islands waters.

The Cook Islands News reports that manganese nodules found in the Cook Islands, lie on the seabed, at depths of more than 5000 metres.

According to initial scientific studies, the nodules were of a very high quality and there is a large quantity on the seabed which could make the nation billions of dollars.

Mr Brown said they would re-advertise the tenders as there had been some new interest in exploring the seabed.

He added that all practices, including exploration and the extraction of the minerals, would have to be done in a manner which was environmentally friendly and did not impact negatively on the Cook Islands.

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Strong opinions on deep-sea mining in Cook Islands

OML repesentatives check out a potential exploration vessel

Liam Ratana | Cook Island News | April 06, 2018

Cook Islanders have been quick to air their opinions about deep-sea mining, following the recent visit to this country of Ocean Minerals Ltd. (OML)

Two weeks ago, the Cook Islands took a step towards becoming the first in the world to mine deep-sea nodules, with six representatives from OML visiting the islands of Aitutaki and Rarotonga to explore the viability of harvesting nodules.

CINews shared the story last Wednesday and have been inundated with comments since. Most of those who commented had concerns regarding the environmental impacts that deep-sea mining may have in the Cook Islands.

One comment read “…all mining causes destruction”, while another said, “they (OML) will get their riches and leave us with the crumbs, the mess, and no fish for future Cook Islanders”.

Yet another commenter said, “our entire ecosystem will be destroyed…no matter how many thousands of miles the seabed mining will be away from us, it will destroy us”.

Many people also made mention of the Republic of Nauru, which is a tiny island nation that was once considered to be the wealthiest in the world.

Nauru once had rich deposits of phosphate which were mined until there were no more commercially viable deposits left. The Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust was initially established to ensure the ongoing prosperity of Nauru and its people after phosphate mining had ceased. However, due to mismanagement, the great wealth of the tiny pacific nation was squandered away.

Even though there was strong opposition on social media to the idea of deep-sea mining in the Cook Islands, there were also some who enthusiastically supported it.

Said one commentator: “People are being hypothetical about the risk to this exploratory initiative, based on historical experiences that have happened in other mining sites.

“If our legislation and regulations are based on New Zealand’s and Norway’s experiences…then there is hope that proper procedures will be followed to minimise risk and environmental impacts…take the right steps to reduce, eliminate, and/or minimise any impact to the environment”.

Paul Lynch, who has led the Cook Islands Seabed Minerals Authority since 2012, claims that deep-sea mining will not impact islands, villages, and lifestyles here. He says it could help to diversify the Cook Islands’ small economy.

Lynch says that “minerals could help to provide new revenue streams and jobs” and that people “appreciate the Cook Islands steady approach”.

“A crucial part of deep-sea mining is sensible exploration and research”.

Lynch says that this involves “gathering good baseline deep-sea environmental data and managing it well…facts and data that can help our Cook Islands communities and decision-makers make informed decisions.

“Then we can decide whether or not to, or how we want to develop our own natural resources, based on our own facts and thinking…”

Lynch says that laws are being drafted now, “decades before revenue is anticipated so if there are no more seabed minerals left in the future, a well-managed national sovereign wealth savings fund” will ensure that the people of the Cook Islands will be cared for.

“We need to protect all national revenue from deep-sea mining” he says.

One commenter said that they would “welcome the day when we can bring up the first load of nodules from the depths (of the ocean) without negatively impacting our environment and finally start our journey to true financial independence. The focus then will be on managing our wealth”.

Another commenter said, “…that’s why the seabed (minerals) authority was established. They have legislation, policies, guidelines, and regulations in place to safeguard the country from any potential risks…I’m sure the seabed (minerals) authority is also mindful of the challenges and risks involved”.

There is little known about the deep-sea environment, especially at a depth of 5000 metres, where the Cook Islands nodules are located. Even less is known about the potential environmental impacts of mining those nodules.

Some reports state that the impacts of deep-sea exploitation will “last forever” and many others say that environmental risks and impacts of deep sea mining would be “enormous and unavoidable”.

According to one report, the effects could include seabed habitat degradation over vast areas, the extinction of species not yet discovered, reduced habitat complexity, and much more.

However, these are all just educated guesses. The reality is that no one knows what the impacts will be. Research is ongoing and the exploitation of Cook Islands nodules is “at least eight years away from beginning”, according to OML director David Huber. The potential benefits will have to be considered in-light of the potential environmental effects. 

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