Vietnam’s mangrove resources have decreased rapidly in area and quality during the on-going period of Doi Moi (renovation reforms), which started in 1986. Uncontrolled wood extraction, paddy area expansion, mining activities, construction of dikes, dams and roads, and—most importantly—commercial shrimp farming have all been factors in the rapid loss of mangrove. Due to the high profitability of shrimp exports, both central and local governments provided incentives to shrimp farmers, despite knowing that shrimp farm productivity usually declines dramatically within three to four years of pond construction.
In designing my research on local management of mangrove resources, I assumed that Doi Moi reforms, including the elimination of the cooperative’s monopoly on agriculture and forestry, the introduction of short-term land use rights (up to fifteen years for agriculture), privatization, and market liberalization, had affected local community access to and degradation of mangrove resources. My aim was to ask how mangrove degradation could be reversed and sustainable mangrove management emerge in the Red River Delta of Vietnam.
My further assumption was that rapid changes in local land use systems, ownership, management practices, and institutional arrangements in response to national renovation reforms have deprived many poor households of their livelihoods, while opening up economic opportunities for others. One may ask further why renovation reforms have not solved the problem of resource degradation and over-exploitation and why uncertainty affects people in an unequal manner.
My partial answer is that communities are not homogenous, autonomous isolates, waiting to adapt to a shifting set of exogenous environments (Durham 1995). On the contrary, communities are complex, conflict-ridden institutions composed of individual households that fiercely prize their economic independence (Sheridan 1988). Differential relationships of power within and among communities mediate the exploitation, distribution, and control of natural resources. In other words, gender, age, wealth, and class all influence how local people manage mangrove resources in Vietnam.
In this paper I will briefly review the evolution of different resource management systems and the concept of community-based resource management as an alternative to either centralized management or privatization. My case study of Giao Lac, a village affected by the Doi Moi reforms, will then illustrate problems of access to and degradation of mangrove resources. Finally, I will suggest a new approach for Giao Lac village—a pragmatic melding of nationalization, privatization, and community-based management.
Common pool resources
As Vietnam’s “transitional economy” moves toward a more market-oriented approach, the state finds it increasingly difficult to finance the “social safety nets” for which the socialist economy was well known. At the same time, sustainability of natural resources is under greater pressure in some areas. Without a holistic theoretical model, state and local policies remain in a state of flux.
According to Garrett Hardin’s model of the “tragedy of the commons” (cited in Hardin and Baden 1977), common-property resources are really open access and not owned by anyone. This leads to over-exploitation and resource depletion. But Hardin misused the term “commons” and was really referring to an open access, common pool resource (Ruttan 1998). He ignored the geographical and historical prevalence of local institutions that communally managed common property, especially those designed to prevent “free-riding.” He concluded that natural resources should be either privatized or controlled by central government authority to ensure sustainable use (Berkes 1989). However, the promotion of nationalization and privatization of natural resources has not solved the problem of resource degradation and over-exploitation, and further, has often deprived populations of their livelihood (Pomeroy 1992).
According to John Baden (cited in Hardin and Baden 1977), in a situation where no agency has the power to coordinate or ration resource use, action which is individually rational can be collectively disastrous. It is this which results in the “tragedy of the commons,” which I argue will continue to arise in Vietnam in situations of both free access and government regulation. Though government may wish to implement state property regimes and officially regulate resource use, it unfortunately lacks the necessary organizational capacity and political will to do so (Scott 1998).
Centralized control and regulation of natural resources unintentionally creates an unsustainable open access resource where limited-access common-property resources had previously existed and operated in a functional manner (Ostrom 1990). McCay and Acheson (1987) conclude that governments should leave this role to individuals and the private sector by encouraging privatization.
Is privatization the only way?
Robert J. Smith (cited in Ostrom 1990: 12) suggests that the only way to avoid the tragedy of the commons in natural resources and wildlife is to replace the common property system with a system of private property rights. Welch (ibid.) asserts that privatization of the commons is the optimal solution for all common-pool problems. McCay and Acheson (1987) contribute to this discussion by pointing out that privatization internalizes costs and benefits, reduces uncertainty, and thereby increases individual responsibility for the environment and the rational use of resources. In contrast, I will argue that individuals who become private owners of natural resources try to maximize their net return by developing the resource’s potential, thereby ignoring sustainable practices that would bring them long-term benefits.
Ostrom (1990) demonstrates that privatization can also mean the assignment of exclusive rights to harvest a resource system to a single individual or firm. She argues that the imposition of private property does not stipulate how that bundle of rights will be defined, who will bear the cost of excluding non-owners from access, how conflict over rights will be adjudicated, and how residual interests of right-holders in the resource system itself will be organized. Thus, far from being the solution to the tragedy of the commons, privatization has made the situation worse.
Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM)
Fortunately, there are alternatives. According to Gibson and Koontz (1998), community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) is increasingly viewed as the most appropriate arrangement for promoting sustainable development of naturaresources. CBNRM is based on the premise that local populations have a greater interest in the sustainable use of resources than do the state or distant corporate managers; that local communities are more cognizant of the intricacies of local ecological processes and practices; and that they are more able to effectively manage those resources through local or “traditional” forms of access (Tsing et al. 1999). CBNRM involves self-management: the community takes responsibility for surveillance and enforcement; the community establishes a property rights regime and rules of behavior for resource use. CBNRM allows each community to develop a management strategy which meets its own particular needs and conditions. Thus, it allows for a significant degree of flexibility and greater participation by local individuals. Since the community is involved in the formulation and implementation of management measures, a higher degree of acceptability and compliance can be expected. CBNRM strives to make maximum use of local knowledge and expertise in developing management strategies (Pomeroy 1992).
Institutional arrangements, resource regimes, and property rights are at the core of community-based resource management. Accepting approaches which are participatory and decentralized would involve a major shift for national bureaucracies which are unaccustomed to sharing power. Governments should recognize that smaller organizational units, such as villages, may be better equipped and motivated to manage their own resources than higher-level authorities (Pomeroy 1992). This shift may be necessary if mangrove resources are to be managed in a sustainable manner.
Mangrove management in Giao Lac village: The colonial period through the war of resistance
Giao Lac village is a largely Catholic coastal community in Giao Thuy district, Nam Dinh province. Village land covers about 744 ha, of which 535 ha are agricultural. Giao Lac’s population during the period of this study, 2000-2001, was roughly 9000. It is an agricultural rice-farming community that also engages in animal husbandry and the collection of mangrove or mangrove-related products. The village is bordered on the east by Giao An and Giao Thanh villages, on the west by Giao Xuan village, and on the north by Hong Thuan and Binh Hoa villages. It is bordered on the south by the central dike, an intertidal area, and the South China Sea. The dike is almost 3 km long. The intertidal area is more than 600 ha, of which 400 ha has been planted with the mangrove species Kandelia candel, Sonneratia caseolaris, and Rhizophora apiculata. There are also five shrimp ponds in this area. Four of the five ponds and all of the intertidal area belong to the district, which in turn mandates the village to manage the ponds and the mudflats.
Giao Lac village is a community with a long and rich history. Elderly villagers have experienced life under three regimes: the French colonial government, the Japanese occupation, and independent Vietnam. They have experienced the great famine of 1945, the war of liberation, post-independence land reforms, the struggle in the South to unify the country and American bombing of the North, the post-1975 period of intensive collectivization and, more recently, the Doi Moi reforms. Through these periods, mangrove management and rights of access have been shaped by both informal institutions and forest management practices.
From 1884 until 1945, the French colonial administration had authority over mangrove forests, but no one was assigned to guard them until 1940. In 1939, the colonial administration supervised the construction of the central dike in Nam Dinh province. There were mangrove forests along the dike. Giao Lac is thought to have had about 100 ha of mangrove at that time with trees of 3 m or taller. There were many kinds of water birds, such as egret, gray heron, pelican, and wild duck. There was a profusion of bees, fish, crabs, shrimp, snails, and bivalves in the mangrove forest. Due to high soil acidity, people could not grow enough rice and many had only one meal per day. In order to survive, everyone went to the forest to collect bird eggs, crabs, fish, and shrimp, as well as honey to either eat or sell at the Dai Dong market. Because everyone collected shrimp, crab, and bivalves and transport was poor, there was no effective demand for these products.
Local people also went to the forests to collect fuelwood—only the dry branches—to sell at the market for very low prices to people who made rice cakes and pancakes. The money earned from 20 kg of fuelwood bought less than 1 kg of rice. Although there had been no law against forest exploitation, no official management practice, and no guard to protect the forests for 56 years, Giao Lac villagers did not cut down mangrove trees for fuelwood or shoot birds for food. This practice continued for the period the forests were guarded until 1945. Local practice therefore amounted to effective resource conservation.
After the August 1945 revolution, most landlords ran away, and new organizations, such as the Farmers’ Association, were formed. In 1949, the French returned and supported a Catholic-led insurrection against the Vietnamese government. Houses of Buddhist families were burned, and many families relied on timber from mangrove forests to rebuild their houses when they returned. The French administration promoted the harvesting of mangrove trees for firewood, and village heads began to grant timber concessions to outsiders who hired local people to cut the forests.
In November 1953, the Viet Minh evicted the French from Giao Lac and in 1954, the entire area was liberated. Many Catholics then went to the South.
The cooperative period: 1956-1975
Mutual aid groups were established in 1956. Early in 1959, the first low-level cooperative was experimentally established in Giao Lac and called Lac Hong. Later cooperatives included Lac Thanh, Lac Hung, Lac Long, Lac Tien, Lac Tien, Lac Thang, and Lac Cuong. The Giao Lac high-level cooperative was not formed until 1972-73. During this roughly twenty-year period, the village managed the forests on behalf of the district, which was responsible for mangrove tree management to protect the central dike. The local people were not allowed to go to the forests as they had before. The village’s militia unit was assigned to guard the forests, and part of their job was to stop those who went illegally to the mangroves and to confiscate the “violators’” firewood. From this point, everyone tried his or her best to poach in the forests. They even cut down large mangrove trees for fuelwood, something that had never occurred before. Of course, they could not bring the fresh trees home right away lest members of the militia unit confiscate them and impose a fine. The survival strategy was to leave the trees to dry in the forests for several days, or wait for nightfall to secretly bring the trees home. Fuelwood confiscated by the members of the militia unit was taken to the Village’s People’s Committee. This is how “the tragedy of the commons” arose.
In the 1960s, in response to ocean encroachment and the reclamation policy of the district, Giao Lac created the 54 ha Bien Hoa pond by mobilizing the entire village to clear the forest. By then, there were still mangroves outside the pond, but very few. Sea grasses were planted in former mangrove habitats which provided the material for weaving mats and carpets for export. By 1986-87, however, this estuary margin habitat had become too saline, and the village more or less abandoned mat and carpet production for the more lucrative enterprise of shrimp farming.
The impact of economic reforms: shrimp and clam management
During the 1980s, a household-based economy increasingly displaced the cooperative-based economy (Le and Rambo 1999). Generally speaking, rural living conditions have improved greatly (Ngo 1993). It has been argued, however, that the positive results of the reforms are not guaranteed to continue, because private land ownership, thought to be key to further development, may lead to land fragmentation and increased rural social differentiation.
In accordance with the move to a household-based economy, the government of Vietnam shifted responsibility for natural resource management from village cooperatives to individual farm households (Nguyen 1995). At the same time, government policy has explicitly encouraged aquacultural production and export of aquatic products up to 2005 (Government Decision 1998). During the Doi Moi period, a large market for Vietnam’s marine products has developed in China, and a further four shrimp ponds have been constructed by the district. Households (usually five or ten in cooperation) or entrepreneurs bid publicly for a lease to manage a shrimp pond. Typically, each pond generates profits of at least USD10,000 per year. Although the bidding process is open to everyone, only the rich, who have sufficient capital, labor, management skills, and access to political power, are able to participate in the process. This leaves only the older pond, Bien Hoa pond, to be managed locally by the Giao Lac Cooperative.
[It has been established that shrimp pond mono-cropping typically leads to a catastrophic accumulation of toxins and disease organisms that necessitate the long-term abandonment of the pond by the fourth or fifth year. The abandoned ponds are exceedingly difficult to convert to rice, mangrove, or other productive uses. For this reason, the Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies (CRES) of Vietnam National University, Hanoi, has begun research to develop a more sustainable shrimp pond which, by retaining some mangrove trees, can attract roosting marine birds whose guano would provide a source of shrimp food.]
In the 1990s, clam farming became another lucrative way to exploit the inter-tidal area. In Giao Lac most of the mollusks in the mudflats were collected by hand, but some burrowing species had to be dug up. Giao Lac’s people, mainly women and girls, use a light plank or a small hoe to dig these species on the mudflats at neap tide. The mudflats were common property that everyone had access to prior to 1990. In that year, when people acquired the right to set up their own clam nets and claim the mudflats as their own, the people of neighboring Giao Xuan village began clam farming with a system of nets in the inter-tidal area. They were the first to enter this business through their connections with Chinese traders who sold to the bivalve markets in China. Where clams had once been so cheap that people substituted them for rice, they have now become a valuable commodity, rising about five times in price. One kilogram of clams presently fetches VND 5,000-6,000 (USD .35-.43 in 2000). Both the central and local governments have encouraged clam farming through National Decree 773-TTg, for example, which stipulates that open coastal areas and water fronts can be used for shrimp and crab farming. Local districts have applied this policy to clam farming.
Owners of clam farming areas have become rich very quickly by farming and trading in marine produce. The collectors, on the other hand, have suffered the impact of price fluctuations. In the early 1990s, people from Giao Xuan came to Giao Lac and farmed clams in the intertidal area before anyone in Giao Lac knew what clam farming was. The village officials measured the areas that people claimed as their farming sites, and the farmers paid rent to the Village’s People’s Committee. However, they used only part of the area they claimed for clam farming; the remainder was used to collect natural clams and they did not pay any tax for this “extra area.” In fact, in 1999, only five of ninety-four owners paid one third to one half of the tax they owed. The mudflats, while generating significant income for their owners, were poorly managed, not fully taxed, and eventually sold off. The rice paddies, on the other hand, which generated less income, were tightly managed and fully taxed. As a result, those who own nets on the mudflats became rich enough to buy color televisions and motorbikes. Many poor rice-growing households, although working very hard, produced only enough rice for eight months of the year.
This process of land claim excluded poor and female-headed households, who no longer had a place to dig clams and became increasingly marginalized. The poorest, especially women and girls, ended up working on resources owned by someone else, while the rich reaped the benefits of those resources. For example, some poor workers watched shrimp ponds for rich owners for no more than USD10 a month, while others were hired to collect clams with someone else’s net for USD .70 per day—clams which used to be theirs for the taking. Conflict between those who owned nets and those who lost access to resources increased to the point of physical fighting. A few months ago, a clam farm owner in Giao Xuan beat a pregnant woman unconscious while she was collecting clams in an open area that he claimed to own. The beating reflects certain rights. The rich have the right to appropriate common resources, disenfranchising the poor of those resources, while the poor don’t even have the right to protect themselves when violently harassed. Charges were not filed against the man who beat the pregnant woman.
Why can people from Giao Xuan farm bivalves on Giao Lac’s mudflats? The answer was given that all land beyond the dike, including the mudflats, belongs to the district, so Giao Lac doesn’t have the right to exclude outsiders. After a year or two, people in Giao Lac learned how to farm clams from the Giao Xuan people. The intertidal area of 350 ha, to which access had been open to everybody, then became the property of those who had enough capital to invest in clam farming. The whole area became covered with nets and clam watch-houses.
Again, the poor were excluded from the nearby resources. Now they had to go to the ocean, not within walking distance, to collect bivalves. So ten or fifteen people collectively hired a motorboat to get there, getting up earlier and working longer. They had to spend part of the money earned to pay for the boat. Those who could not afford to contribute toward the cost of a boat had to abandon bivalve collection and now depend fully on wet rice production, which only produces enough for seven to eight months’ food per year.
The Danish Red Cross mangrove plantation project
In 1997, the Danish Red Cross assisted Giao Lac in planting mangroves for the protection of sea dikes and other assets of coastal dwellers. The district cleared the clam farming site on Trong Island and enclosed an area of more than 300 ha for the mangrove plantation. As planned, one main household and three supplemental households were chosen to each plant 5 ha of mangroves. The main household was to be a poor one with sufficient labor. The other three households were selected by the Giao Lac Red Cross and local leaders. For each ha planted, each group was paid about USD26. That was the project design. In reality, very few poor households were selected to participate. The majority were middle or upper middle income households, typically the relatives and friends of the hamlet heads.
After the mangroves were planted and grown, the quantity of marine creatures caught in the area increased, especially baby shrimp and crabs. These travel from the ocean to the mangroves for food, thus supplying seeds and larvae for shrimp and crab rearing households. As there are many shrimp, crabs, and clams among the mangroves, local people try to poach in the mangrove plantation, although they know it is not permitted. They were explicitly told by the guards that they might kill the mangroves by walking around looking for crabs and by digging up clams. In 1999, when the mangroves were two years old, the village guards, who are paid more than USD 25 per month, decided to sell tickets to local people who wanted to collect marine creatures in the mangroves. The entrance fee was USD .70 per person and the guards kept the money for themselves. This created resentment between villagers and guards, to whom protection of the mangrove forests had been transferred and who used that control to exploit the resources. The result was also highly inequitable as poorer villagers could not afford a ticket to enter the mangrove forests. Thus, a project funded by an international NGO intending to be both pro-environment and pro-poor did provide some community-wide environmental benefits, but the income-generating benefits were largely captured by the middle and upper-middle income households.
Uncertainty and local people’s coping strategies
According to Mehta (2000: 3), uncertainty is not the same as risk. Risk is a situation in which probabilities or alternative outcomes can be calculated. Uncertainty is defined as a situation characterized by indeterminacies which cannot be calculated. Such uncertainties can be ecological and environmental hazards, political or policy changes, market behavior, social problems, or inadequacy of knowledge. How do Giao Lac’s people cope with their uncertain environment, which has featured fundamental, sudden, and unpredictable changes in government policy, fundamental changes in resource ownership and access due to the enclosure of protected mangrove forests, and a sudden integration into the world market? To help cope with change and uncertainty at various levels, local people rely on the village’s informal institutions—mass organizations and voluntary associations (Mehta et al. 1999).
Each hamlet often has six mass organizations: unions representing women, veterans, the elderly, and youth, as well as the Young Pioneers and the Farmers’ Association. All mass organizations were created during the cooperative period and are under the control of the Party. As the cooperative’s role has been downgraded over time and replaced by the household economy, the budgets of these organizations have dropped significantly. Organization membership is voluntary and each organization is now self-financing rather than relying on funding from cooperatives.
Different organizations have different contribution policies. The Young Pioneers, small children between seven and thirteen years old, each contribute 3 kg of paddy. Members of the Women’s Union contribute 10 kg of paddy. These associations lend rice to poor families at 4 percent annual interest. Profits are spent on the associations’ activities. The Women’s Union, for instance, gets together once a year on International Women’s Day, March 8. They have a party so they can talk and sing songs together or they organize a tour to visit famous temples or places of scenic beauty. Everybody can choose an organization of his or her own to join and the poor are not excluded from these mass organizations.
There are also so-called voluntary organizations with more specific functions. Rotating credit associations include the gold association, the soldiers’ association (consisting of those who joined the army on the same day), the cement, the brick, the rice, and the funeral association, among others. Each association has its own head and its own regulations. The voluntary associations are based on mutual trust—those who know and trust each other form them. Like other voluntary associations, both Catholics and Buddhists can participate in the credit associations. One person can be a member of many associations, each of which has, on average, twelve to fifteen members.
Credit associations are more spontaneous than mass organizations and can include people from different villages. Like the mass organizations, the regulations of credit associations vary and may be for-profit or non-profit. The cement and funeral associations are non-profit organizations. Each member of the cement association, for example, contributes a sack of cement when a member builds a house. This association is based on mutual aid, a way of saving money to construct a home—an enterprise too costly if undertaken alone. The gold association, in contrast, is a profit-making organization that requires regular contributions from its members, the equivalent of USD 36 twice a year.
People have different strategies to raise money for their contributions. Some have village salaries, but the most common strategy is to raise pigs and collect clams and crabs, which are sold to traders to raise money for contributions. Joining these voluntary associations is a way to save money so that when people construct a house, organize a wedding ceremony, or sustain crop damage through natural disasters, they can avoid borrowing from local lenders at high interest rates or from the bank, whose procedures are long and complicated and which requires monthly interest payments.
Community-based mangrove forest management
The mangroves are presently five years old and the Danish Red Cross project will end in 2005. No one wants to lose these forests again. Everyone remembers 1983 and 1986, when Giao Lac was hit by big hurricanes. The central dike was not broken, but it was severely damaged. In the 1983 hurricane, houses were blown away or collapsed and shrimp ponds were destroyed. All of this happened because there was no forest beyond the dike. But it is unclear who will manage the forests after 2005. According to village officials, the mangrove forests will be under the district’s management when the project comes to an end, a system of management that disenfranchises Giao Lac’s poor inhabitants. They are afraid that the district will privatize the forests by granting concessions to individuals who have capital to convert them into industrial shrimp farming areas.
According to the head of the Giao Lac Red Cross, the village should draft its own rules and institutionalize the sale of tickets to those who want to collect marine creatures in the forests. The money collected from ticket sales would pay salaries for guards, who would be nominated and publicly selected by each hamlet. This idea was rejected by all residents, as they said that the community is highly heterogeneous. Moreover, collectors do not all engage in the same activity when they go to the forests or the mudflats and would not end up earning the same amount of money. Therefore, it would be impossible to sell tickets to everyone at the same price.
All residents of the village want to draft their own rules to manage their mangroves. According to the heads of the thirty-two households interviewed, they would like to retain three guards. There are presently five guards hired to protect the forest, whose salaries are paid by the Danish Red Cross. The salaries for the new guards would be lower than at present, as they would be based on the People’s Committee’s standard of USD10.70 per month. This would total USD 385.20 per year. They all said the forest itself could generate more than enough to pay these salaries. For example, the rules would allow twenty people to put grape and gill nets at the edge of the forest, for which each owner would pay between USD 35.70 and USD 71.40 per year in rent. After paying the guards’ salaries, the remaining proceeds would go to the People’s Committee to be spent on roads or schools for the village. The guards would be nominated and publicly selected by each hamlet, and their terms would rotate each year. The rules would also allow the immediate replacement of an unsatisfactory guard. In order to draft and implement these rules, a committee of mangrove protection should be created. The Giao Lac People’s Committee and the Giao Lac Red Cross should be represented on the committee, be included in the drafting process, and play a central role in implementing the rules.
In this way, the forests could be protected while bringing benefits to the local people, who would in turn help manage the resources in a sustainable manner. Poor, female-headed households and marginalized groups could be included in the process and have a voice in management decision making as well. In other words, this mechanism would ensure social equity, productivity, and sustainability. Nevertheless, local people face a long process of negotiation before such an approach is accepted by the provincial and national governments.
Although community-based natural resource management attracts international attention, it has not yet been widely implemented in Vietnam. The most pressing issue facing CBNRM is that of tenure rights. A 1999 government circular guides the implementation of the convention on protecting and developing forests in populated communities in the plains and mountain areas. The principle of “majority consensus” is promoted, but how such a concept is operationalized through an appropriate legal framework will determine whether Giao Lac village gains the means to effectively manage its tenure and access its resources in a sustainable manner.
Like national policy, local practices and conventions are not static, but evolve over time. In order to make good rules, the government should understand local conventions and work to adapt them rather than impose new rules from above. For example, one strategy to secure the community’s enduring interest in the protection of its mangrove resources would be to enlist the active involvement of existing social and rotating credit associations.
The institutional framework for resource use in Giao Lac remains highly complex. Neither state control nor private sector control alone can provide a viable solution to mangrove resource degradation. Likewise, it doesn’t make sense to propose purely “community-based resource management,” as the local community itself is highly heterogeneous and outsiders also access the resources. A combination of national control, private ownership, and community-based management therefore appears the most suitable strategy in the context of Giao Lac. A central government agency would continue to manage the dike because a breach in the dike system would cause far-reaching damage to many communities. Households would manage individual shrimp ponds according to private sector principals. And the whole community (probably a cluster of villages) would oversee the management of the mangrove forests. Communities should be empowered with the right to require shrimp pond farmers to post “environmental bonds” or otherwise pay into a local fund to offset the cost of mangrove habitat destruction and to rehabilitate abandoned shrimp farms into mangrove or some other productive and communally-owned habitat.
Le Thi Van Hue
Le Thi Van Hue is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Social Studies, the Hague, the Netherlands. She wishes to thank Dr. Oscar Salemink, Dr. Terry Rambo, and Dr. John Dennis for their advice on the organization of the paper and subsequent review of the manuscript.
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