You Can’t Forget What You Don’t Know

Why we need to talk about the links between colonialism and climate change in the context of Highland land reform.

I visited Timespan in Helmsdale recently. The gallery is exhibiting a display called ‘No Colour Bar: Highland Remix: Clearances to Colonialism’ which aims to reconcile the local history of the Clearances with the colonial framework of Empire. This includes recreating a radical bookshop – an invitation to ‘to learn from the histories of resistance to colonialism and to connect to and clarify the present political crises we face.’

Many would argue that the biggest crisis faced by us all is climate breakdown, and with it, the ultimate destruction of the biosphere that supports all life on this planet. Climate change is a direct consequence of global capitalism, a system that was borne out of and continues to thrive on colonialism. Climate change contains within it histories of exploitation of people and natural resources as well as colonial systems of politics and power that continue to perpetuate oppression, inequality and injustice across the world today.Land is the most valuable and contested commodity in this global system; power has always been linked to the ability to ‘own’ land. George Monbiot writes,

“There is a vast and scarcely examined assumption at the very heart of capitalism: you are entitled to as great a share of the world’s resources as your money can buy. You can purchase as much land, as much atmospheric space, as many minerals, as much meat and fish as you can afford, regardless of who might be deprived. But why? What just principle equates the numbers in your bank account with a right to own the fabric of the Earth?”

Land grabs

Capitalism was built on land grabs. The ‘enclosures’ of the 16th and 17th centuries privatised common land and local resources into commodities to be bought and sold on the market. Modernity saw the start of resource extraction for a new global market, and with that, the emergence of an economy of plantation (sugar, tobacco, cotton) that fuelled the slave trade and the commodification of wage labour, filling the banks of the colonial masters. Scholars such as Walter Miglo have argued that modernity is inherently colonial; it is inextricable from the oppressive practices used to dominate and exploit indigenous and marginalised people across the globe. By the end of the 18 century, enclosure had catalysed the capitalist relations of dispossession, displacement, the commodification of land and the concentration of land ownership.

Here in the Highlands, this historical process took place comparatively recently. In this new economic system, everything (everyone and everywhere) is seen as a commodity to be bought and sold, ready for exploitation, for profit. Following the destruction of the clan system in the 18th century, a new breed of commercially-minded landowners came in to claim the land. People were not profitable. The Clearances emptied vast swathes of northern Scotland and replaced its settled communities first, with large-scale sheep farming, and later with deer. This violent displacement perpetuated coloniality elsewhere: many who emigrated to the ‘New World’ reproduced this violence that was meted out to them under the protection of the British Empire. This speaks to the psychology of colonialism: the coloniser is internally colonised, and this damage to the fullness of their humanity is what enables the reproduction of oppression on others.

Timespan’s exhibition states that Scotland suffers from ‘colonial amnesia’ that has allowed its popular history to be mythologised in terms of victimhood. This is a bold move on the part of Timespan, particularly in a village that was planned in 1814 to resettle communities that had been removed from the surrounding straths as part of the Clearances. While Scotland as a nation was complicit in and profited hugely from the British Empire, the Highlands suffered the same violence that was later inflicted on the colonies, and this violence is writ large on the landscape. This is not to make false equivalences with other colonised groups; we can speak of the Highlands as being colonised, but this does not mean that the process happened in the same way with the same results.

Highland history has been further complicated by the commercial success of invented traditions that have distorted and obscured Gaelic culture into the present day. Throughout the centuries, Romantic representations of the Highland landscape – empty glens and lone stags – have provided not only psychological escape from contemporary reality –  from the march of modernity – but also from the history of the Highlands itself. There are parts of Scotland that may suffer from colonial amnesia, but you can’t forget what you don’t know. As the poet Sorley MacLean reflects on his own experience of navigating what he did and did not know:


“Ever since I was a boy in Raasay, and became aware of the difference between the history I read in books and the oral accounts I heard around me, I have been very sceptical of what might be called received history… Famine, overpopulation, improvement, the industrial revolution, expansion overseas. You see, not many of these people understood such words, they knew only Gaelic. But we know now another set of words; clearance, empire, profit, exploitation. Our way of life is besieged by the forces of international big business, our country’s beggared by bad communication, the iniquities of land ownership, the failures and unconcern of central government. Our culture is vitiated by the sentimentality of those who have gone away. We have, I think, a deep sense of generation and community. But this has in so many ways been broken. We have a history of resistance, but now mainly in the songs we sing” (Sorley Maclean’s Island, 1974).


Landed power

The historical injustices of the Clearances are still felt. According to the academic and land reformer Jim Hunter, the Highlands suffer ‘the most concentrated pattern of land ownership in the developed world,’ giving rise to issues of depopulation, a rural housing crisis, ecological degradation, deforestation and cultural loss. Just last month, the Scottish Land Commission published a major report that argues that the governance of Scottish land ownership must be radically reformed to reverse the concentration of wealth and influence, which it describes as ‘socially corrosive.’ This raises questions over ownership and land management. Reform and taxation based on land, such as an annual ground rent (AGR) or land value tax (LVT) would start the process of breaking up this monopoly of landed power.

More than half of Scotland is owned by fewer than 500 people, many of whom are absentee landowners profiting from ‘tax efficient’ monoculture forestry blocks, a death to biodiversity. Almost a fifth of Scotland’s land mass is given over to grouse moors. These heather moorlands – often regarded as an iconic part of the ‘wild’ Scottish landscape – are, in reality, highly modified habitats. Burning the moors damages delicate ecosystems and degrades the carbon-rich peat, releasing carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change. Everything is connected in a cascade of causalities.

The movement for land reform is, therefore, a vital part of global efforts to tackle climate change, on several fronts. The natural world is our greatest ally in locking away carbon and protecting our climate. Rewilding can help nature recover on a huge scale. In Scotland, we have peat bogs, temperate rainforests and wetlands, all of which are carbon sinks that can sequester vast amounts of Co2. Rewilding and repeopling are not mutually exclusive, however. Community land ownership, through devolving power to communities, embraces the kinds of relationships between people, resources and power that foster community resilience, ecological stewardship and democratised decision making. While common ownership of land does not necessarily mean it will be managed well, it is a vital step towards breaking up systems of power and re-engaging people with collective local responsibility for land resource and development needs. Each community story is a microcosm of change, transformation and self-determination, opening up channels for others to follow.

Dig where we stand

The climate crisis cannot be addressed until we come to terms with the history that climate change, coloniality and capital share. The campaign for land reform in the Highlands must be seen as part of a global struggle to overthrow the system – the colonial matrix of power and capital – that is destroying our world.

We can’t move forward without understanding our past. Our ability to enact any kind of political change, collectively or as individuals, is intimately tied to our ability to make sense of the world around us. We must dig where we stand. By learning about our own history and the place where we are living, we can regain some control over the understanding of our lives and our interconnectedness. In a Guardian article earlier this week on Scotland’s involvement in slavery in the Caribbean, Yvonne Singh writes, ‘however unpalatable this history is, it is a shared one, and contributes to our understanding of race and how the movements of people from long ago fits with our story now.’

This is the work that needs to be done: unearthing, reclaiming, coming to terms with our role in global oppression, joining the dots, finding our blind spots and bringing this all to bear on the huge questions of our time.

We must reconnect with the history of resistance and radical roots of Highland land activism and we must build bridges of empathy and solidarity with resistance movements across the globe.






Comments (24)

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  1. John Fullerton says:

    Well argued, perfectly true and succinct. Thank you.

  2. richard W. burcik says:

    I read Ms. McFadyen’s op-ed and I wish to present a contrary view.
    Prof. Raghuram Rajan, economist at the University of Chicago, in his
    latest book, “The Third Pillar” (Feb. 26, 2019) reports in his opening
    sentences that “We are surrounded by plenty. Humanity has never been
    richer as technologies of production have improved steadily over the
    last two hundred fifty years. It is not just developed countries that
    have grown wealthier; billions across the developing world have moved
    from stressful poverty to a comfortable middle-class existence in the
    span of a generation. Income is more evenly spread across the world
    than at any other time in our lives. For the first time in history, we
    have it in our power to eradicate hunger and starvation everywhere.”
    So which is it — “… exploitation of people and natural resources as well
    as colonial systems of politics and power that conontinue to perpetuate
    oppression, inequality and injustice across the world today” or only
    dramatic improvement?

    Richard W. Burcik

    1. Alexk says:

      I do not consider the two views, yours and that of the article, to me mutually exclusive.

      While the lot of the people at the bottom HAS improved in many ways, often despite the resistance of the people at the top, inequality has risen dramatically, no matter how you define it.

      The exploitation of labour seems to me to be a consequence of the ethos of capitalism, the notion that profit trumps everything and that workers deserve no stake in their employing corporation.

      We have abandoned the “Moral economy” in which everyone is entitled to earn enough to survive and feed and house a family, for a “Market Economy” in which everyone is entitled only to what they can take, steal from, or swindle out of others ( in extremis selling a fair product at a fair price is grudgingly accepted: despite the lip service paid to this concept many in to days coproprate world see it as weakness)

    2. Russell says:

      Why does it have to be one or the other? Surely it’s obvious that there can be both winners and losers in any given situation. I would imagine (have not read his book) the economist you cite might choose to measure human progress based on GDP. Assessments based on other tools such as the HDI or indeed qualitative measures tell a different story. For someone who seems quick to use the label neo-marxist (seemingly as an insult) you yourself might benefit from reading Marx where he makes clear that it is indeed possible for there to be wealth and poverty simultaneously.

      On another note, as many economists do which I again assume this economist you cite does is to take a single measure of progress as a sign that all is well, without considering the negative externalities. I.e. economic modelling fails to consider the physical basis of life on earth so a growth in middle class income might mean a reduction in environmental quality due to increased consumption.

      Again returning to marx, we do not need further economic growth to pull people out of poverty but we need redistribution of existing resources to prevent people from being in poverty in the first place. Why is it that some own all the land, food and money and some don’t? They inherited it from ancestors who took it by force or bought it from such persons.

    3. Mairi says:

      “It is true that capitalism, and the economic growth it drives, has radically improved the prosperity of vast numbers of people, while simultaneously destroying the prosperity of many others: those whose land, labour and resources were seized to fuel growth elsewhere. Much of the wealth of the rich nations was – and is – built on slavery and colonial expropriation…
      Our choice comes down to this. Do we stop life to allow capitalism to continue, or stop capitalism to allow life to continue?” – George Monbiot

  3. GraemeMcCormick says:

    I agree too! That’s why whatever SustainableGrowth Commission is proposed for Independence it must include the land as the source of our collective prosperity and use globotics so that we can all enjoy the fruits it’s benefits.

  4. richard W. burcik says:

    I read Ms. McFadyen’s op-ed and I wish to present a contrary view.
    Prof. Raghuram Rajan, economist at the University of Chicago, in his
    latest book, “The Third Pillar” (Feb. 26, 2019) reports in his opening
    sentences that “We are surrounded by plenty. Humanity has never been
    richer as technologies of production have improved steadily over the
    last two hundred fifty years. It is not just developed countries that
    have grown wealthier; billions across the developing world have moved
    from stressful poverty to a comfortable middle-class existence in the
    span of a generation. Income is more evenly spread across the world
    than at any other time in our lives. For the first time in history, we
    have it in our power to eradicate hunger and starvation everywhere.”
    Therefore, Ms. McFadyen must be incorrect when she asserted that
    “Climate change (in my opinion, this is simply a cudgel for her neo-Marxist
    views) contains within its histories of exploitation of people and natural
    resources as well as colonial systems of politics and power that continue
    to perpetuate oppression, inequality and injustice across the world today.”

    1. Zoe says:

      Your comment shows neither an understanding of the causes of climate change nor the sense to connect the quote you cite to those causes. Climate change is caused by increased Co2 which is produced largely by the ‘technologies of production’ and the ‘plenty’ i.e. ‘plenty of commodities to consume’ that are referred to by the economist. Not only are both statements therefore correct, but the economist you cite actually provides support for the thesis in this article. It may appear that his views oppose this article, but only because the economist quote is framed as only considering the positive benefits of people emerging out of poverty and into the consuming middle class, whilst ignoring what causes people to be in the situation of poverty in the first place and considering the historical analysis of inequality and capitalist accumulation that most other disciplines outside of economics are well aware of. It is well known that there has been sufficient food to feed the world’s population for a long time, and that the actual causes of hunger are related to lack of entitlement and inequality. Key texts recommended: or for lighter reading, with reference to IMF and World Bank data:

  5. Richard Easson says:


  6. Andrew says:

    Clearance happened all over scotland, not just the highlands

  7. James Mills says:

    Land Reform … this is the crux of the independence debate . Those who have it will do everything in their considerable power to avoid giving up what they have grabbed over the centuries . By hook or by crook or by Cambridge Analytica they will find a way to avert the ‘disaster’ of Scottish Independence .

    1. PETER CAMPBELL says:

      Well folks very interesting article but we have another clearance going on in Scotland just now and the people on the receiving end of it have no voice and really no recourse to justice.I purchased an ex council flat 12 yrs ago at full market value £45k due to crime in the area (most of it caused by tenants of a RSL) a housing association have decided to demolish our blocks.Most of the owners were scared into accepting very low offers due to the threat of them raising a CPO.Being forced to sell out for £20k leaving me £10k in debt and with nothing other owners are going to find themselves in similar positions in my area soon.I have been trying to figure it out and I have come to the conclusion that these RSLs are in bed with big business and the banks.They refuse to take care of their existing housing stock and are busy pulling homes down left right and center at the same time building new houses financed by the likes of RBS only this time to pesky owners to worry about all tenants paying the bank.So its all very well commenting on large landowners but the truth of the matter is the laws protecting property in this country stink.

  8. Walter McLean says:

    I live on Islay mostly owned by 3 people. The retired Economist Catherine Kirk now known as Gilchrist has been agitating for years for a land tax. She now lives on Islay but when we tried to put Land tax on the SNP’s agenda we got nowhere. The very man that retweeted your article, Mike Russell said to me oh no not another Land Tax proposal. “Republican “Rose came over here spent 20 mins with the farmers here & then went for lunch with Lord Astor, so if you think the SNP government is going to do anything about it not a hope. Voluntary Land Registry bollocks if they don’t Register the Land it should be confiscated that would move things. Good article but preaching to the converted here.

    1. Maureen Ferguson says:

      True ..

  9. Joyce says:

    Thank you for a very informative article we not only need to learn from the past but put good into our future too.

  10. John O'Dowd says:

    Excellent piece explaining the links between what Marx called Primitive Accumulation (and what Adam Smith termed ‘Previous Accumulation ), although the former’s view of it’s origins and consequences differed somewhat from Smith’s:

    “We have seen how money is changed into capital; how through capital surplus-value is
    made, and from surplus-value more capital. But the accumulation of capital pre-supposes
    surplus-value; surplus-value pre-supposes capitalistic production; capitalistic production
    presupposes the pre-existence of considerable masses of capital and of labor-power in the
    hands of producers of commodities. The whole movement, therefore, seems to turn in a
    vicious circle, out of which we can only get by supposing a primitive accumulation
    (previous accumulation of Adam Smith) preceding capitalistic accumulation; an
    accumulation not the result of the capitalistic mode of production, but its starting point.

    This primitive accumulation plays in Political Economy about the same part as original
    sin in theology. ………

    The process, therefore, that clears the way for the capitalist system, can be none
    other than the process which takes away from the laborer the possession of his means of
    production; a process that transforms, on the one hand, the social means of subsistence
    and of production into capital, on the other, the immediate producers into wage-laborers.

    The Highland (and Lowland) clearances were one form of Primitive Accumulation (another is taking place right now with intellectual property, e.g generated by our universities at public exepence – but that’s another matter.

    Marx was well aware of what was going on in Scotland, and wrote articles about it in US newspapers, as well as citing the clearances in Capital:

    “In the 18th century the
    hunted-out Gaels were forbidden to emigrate from the country, with a view to drivingthem by force to Glasgow and other manufacturing towns. As an example of the method obtaining in the 19th century, the “clearing” made by the Duchess ofSutherland will suffice here. This person, well instructed in economy, resolved, onentering upon her government, to effect a radical cure, and to turn the whole country,whose population had already been, by earlier processes of the like kind, reduced to15,000, into a sheep-walk. From 1814 to 1820 these 15,000 inhabitants, about 3,000families, were systematically hunted and rooted out. All their villages were destroyed andburnt, all their fields turned into pasturage. British soldiers enforced this eviction, and came to blows with the inhabitants. One old woman was burnt to death in the flames ofthe hut, which she refused to leave. Thus this fine lady appropriated 794,000 acres of land that had from time immemorial belonged to the clan. She assigned to the expelled inhabitants about 6,000 acres on the sea-shore 2 acres per family. The 6,000 acres haduntil this time lain waste, and brought in no income to their owners.”

    “The Duchess, in the nobility of her heart, actually went so far as to let these at an average rent of 2s. 6d. per acre to the clansmen, who for centuries had shed their blood for her family. The whole of the stolen clan land she divided into 29 great sheep farms, each inhabited by a single family, for the most part imported English farm-servants. In the year 1835 the 15,000Gaels were already replaced by 131,000 sheep. The remnant of the aborigines flung onthe sea-shore tried to live by catching fish. They became amphibious and lived, as an English author says, half on land and half on water, and withal only half on both.”

    Nor was the irony of the imperial use of slavery in the American colonies, and subsequently after independence, nor its origins and methods used in the English imperial adventure, beginning in its own back-yard lost on Marx:

    “When the present Duchess of Sutherland entertained Mrs. Beecher Stowe, authoress
    of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” with great magnificence in London to show her sympathy for
    the Negro slaves of the American republics, sympathy that she prudently forgot, with her
    fellow-aristocrats, during the civil war, in which every “noble” English heart beat for the
    slave-owner, I gave in the New York Tribune the facts about the Sutherland slaves.
    (Epitomised in part by Carey in “The Slave Trade.” Philadelphia, 1853, pp. 203, 204.)
    My article was reprinted in a Scotch (sic) newspaper, and led to a pretty and led to a pretty polemic between the
    latter and the sycophants of the Sutherlands.” – cited by Marx himself in , Karl. Das Kapital

    These are lessons worth the rediscovery – and the remedies are slowly emerging here in Scotland. Even more reason why we must eschew the pseudo- remedies produced by bankers in the so-called Sustainable Growth Commission report.

    Marx, Karl. Das Kapital – Capital Ch26.

  11. Andy Stuart says:

    It is worth saying that the clearances never stopped they only changed in nature. Forced repatriation gave way to limited work & limited investment, which while still true has had the scourge of Holiday/2nd homes and absentee/corporate landlords added to the equation, along with estate owners who refuse to rent out properties. This means that young people who want to stay can’t and young people who would like to settle there can’t afford to, so large swathes of Scotland are now little more than a rich people’s theme park. Some of these areas were relatively fertile and productive, but if you don’t farm an area for hundreds of years the fertility and soil structure will degrade. We can and must change this for future generations opening up all of Scotland.

  12. Gordon Peters says:

    Many thanks for this — a very timely ‘joining up of the dots’

  13. Tommy Lusk says:

    Very good article. Some excellent points : Why should you be able to buy as many resources as you want?

    The way it connects capitalism to colonialism reminds me of a documentary I watched recently on The City of London and how it adapted to the end of colonialism by creating offshore tax havens. : The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire (Documentary)
    At the demise of empire, City of London financial interests created a web of secrecy jurisdictions that captured wealth from across the globe and hid it…

    Sorley MacLean’s words on broken community resonates. It’s like we’re kept too busy, too fueled up to settle on the land below our feet…..possibly because “the law” says it’s someone else’s.

    the psychology of colonialism and colonial amnesia are useful ideas. Is that what I’m seeing as I watch nose to tail traffic on the A82 heading for Loch Lomond on a sunny Easter Weekend ?

    I bang on about housing associations a lot because they are a good example of a public service structured to suit private finance, while promoting the illusion of local ownership.

    I wonder if digging where we stand could include “Scotland’s People” becoming a resource for the education curriculum rather than the commodity it is the now. I have found it to be very useful in my own understanding of how I got here. I have offered it in a volunteer development programme to interesting effect.

    If it was available for everyone to explore, it may be one of the things we need, to make us less likely to follow an independence path that turns out to be not that independent at all.

  14. John McLeod says:

    “You can’t forget what you don’t know”. Most of us in Scotland live in urban areas. It is hard to imagine a life that is close to the land. But at the same time, most of us retain some of the threads of that life – walking, gardening, dogs. It is possible for us to re-member the land, once the permission and encouragement is there.

  15. MBC says:

    Did Scotland ‘as a nation’ exist after 1707 to be complicit in the evils of colonialism and capitalism? Certainly the ‘nation’ continued in a half life as a community of feeling, and as community bound by ties of history, custom, law and blood. But it was no longer able to act executively ‘as a nation’ and was barely able to protect its existing ancient rights. And that is still true, even today: witness the contempt with which Westminster now treats the Scottish Parliament.

    Those who sold the nation in 1707 did so in order to participate in the nascent British Empire. Only in those days they called it ‘foreign trade’ or commerce, traditionally restricted to the royal burghs and regulated by the king, but increasingly resented as a closed shop, and after 1707, a free-for-all. The great men of the country managed to smash the royal burghs’ medieval monopolies and join the highly successful robber band that was the British Empire, engaging freely in the commercial opportunities afforded by the Union. The Convention of Royal Burghs continued to meet; but, never a strong body, it gradually morphed into COSLA (Council of Scottish Local Authorities) in the local government reorganisation of 1975.

    So yes, individuals benefited from empire – that was what the parcel of rogues sold their country for – but during the colonial period the nation as a political community able to exercise its will, was in turpitude. Yes, it is time to examine the parcel of rogues’ complicity in the evils of colonialism, and how its toxic tentacles permeated the country, but it is a critique that must be levelled at individuals and in a broader sense Scottish society, rather than at a nation that was forcibly paralysed at the time.

  16. Iain MacKinnon says:

    It’s a rich and provocative piece – and laced liberally with hope. Well done! In the last few days, reading this piece, Murdo MacDonald’s on the context of the Monarch of the Glen, and then George Monbiot’s latest on capitalism and the environment is all sobering but heartening.

  17. peter campbell says:

    How many slaves?

    Prof. Davis points out that enormous research has gone into tracking down as accurately as possible the number of blacks taken across the Atlantic, but there has been nothing like the same effort to learn the extent of Mediterranean slavery. It is not easy to get a reliable count–the Arabs themselves kept essentially no records–but in the course of ten years of research Prof. Davis developed a method of estimation.

    For example, records suggest that from 1580 to 1680 there was an average of some 35,000 slaves in Barbary. There was a steady loss through death and redemption, so if the population stayed level, the rate at which raiders captured new slaves must have equaled the rate of attrition. There are good bases for estimating death rates. For example, it is known that of the nearly 400 Icelanders caught in 1627, there were only 70 survivors eight years later. In addition to malnutrition, overcrowding, overwork, and brutal punishment, slaves faced epidemics of plague, which usually wiped out 20 to 30 percent of the white slaves.

    From a number of sources, therefore, Prof. Davis estimates that the death rate was about 20 percent per year. Slaves had no access to women, so replacement was exclusively through capture. His conclusion: “[B]etween 1530 and 1780 there were almost certainly a million and quite possibly as many as a million and a quarter white, European Christians enslaved by the Muslims of the Barbary Coast.” This considerably exceeds the figure of 800,000 Africans generally accepted as having been transported to the North American colonies and, later, to the United States

  18. Allan Cameron says:

    I was with you right up until your description of grouse moors.
    Far from being depricative to the environment they are in fact a rich and biodiverse habitiat for dozens of species.
    Much of the reports we see about grouse moors are extremely skewed, as they come from opponents to grouse shooting.
    Far from simply destroying peat, controlled burning removes the dank old heather (which is extremely fire prone the older it gets) and allows new growth to come through.
    Yes this is benefits the grouse who need a variety of ages of heather to eat but it also benefits the land in providing breaks for wildfires. (20 square miles of Moray currently ablaze for example)
    You’ll find more examples of native wildlife on grouse moors than off them.

    If you want to talk about them as an artificial landscape you have to take into account that the entire north is practically just that. Almost every inch of the Highlands was a vast forest until humans came along.

    I recently read a nonsensical report about how unprofitable grouse moors were in relation to other land in Scotland.
    The author (doubtless some Edinburgh based academic that wouldn’t know a cleg from a helicopter) came up with ridiculous alternatives such as using the land for farming (on hill ground) wind farms etc.

    Far from being part of some imaginary evil empire grouse moors , like them or not, provide employment for local people and being new money into local economies.

    And grouse , something off overlooked , are as native and iconic as any eagle , red deer or wildcat.

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