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TABLE 4.3. Murray Mallee Field Sites Land Systems

Land Systems S.A. Name (Rowan and
Downes 1963)
(terrain, vegetation, and land use)
River Murray
4.11 Renmark Li Lindsay Head
NC Ned's Corner
Alluvial plain, levees, oxbows, terraces rising
away from river. Gallery forest (E. camaldu
with shrubs on terraces including
some saltbush remnants. Pasture in Vic.,
irrigated vines and orchards in S.A.
Border Plains 4.10 Pata
4.9 Holder
M Millewa
Bg Boigbeat
R Raak
Undulating plains broken by east-west dunes
and hummocks and occasional calcrete depres
signs. Cropland and pasture with mallee
remnants on dunes.
Sunset Country 3.5 Billiatt Bk Berrook Undulating to hilly and jumbled dunes in mal
lee scrub. Coarse sandy soils. Conservation
parks or vacant Crown land.
Corridor Plains 3.4 Pinnaroo CM Central Mallee Gently undulating sandy plain with east-west
low parallel and narrow dunes. Cropland
and pasture with isolated mallee remnants in
road reserves.
Big Desert
3.3 Big Desert BD Big Desert Undulating to hilly jumbled sand dunes
with occasional sand plains. Uncleared mallee
and mallee heath. Vacant Crown land.

Source: Laut 1977b; Rowan and Downes 1963; and field observation.

Of the ownership of land being vested in the states not the Commonwealth. Thus there has been no federal land policy in Australia, except in the Commonwealth territories (A.C.T. and until 1978 the Northern Territory), but rather a series of separate state policies varying significantly in detail (Heathcote 1969; Roberts 1968). Therefore any study of resource management policies as they relate to the desertification problem must begin with state government policies and their implementation, particularly through the various departments of lands and agriculture.

As in the United States chapter 3), the role of the state governments seems to have been three-fold, initially as real estate agent for the orderly disposal of lands to the citizenry, subsequently as a welfare agent to provide relief against natural disasters, and most recently as steward of the national resources. These roles were played and supported by a growing body of bureaucrats administering the policies of the state parliaments.

The Researchers

The practical problems of land settlement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries forced governments to look for expert advice, and the result was the initiation of official research by personnel in separate departments with specific environmental problems (Powell 1976). In addition, from 1927 onwards the Commonwealth government subsidized the Commonwealth Scientific and industrial Research Organisation (C.S.I.R.O.) in applied research into pastoral, agricultural, and other industrial problems. This two-fold official research was paralleled by the university researchers and a few commercially sponsored research activities. From the published annual reports and specific research publications a further body of ideas and opinions can be accumulated.

The Farmers

Despite their obvious "front-rank" role in resource management, studies of Australian farmers are relatively few There are no studies which provide a full background history of the settlers in any one area Of the expertise and motivations of the early settlers only the occasional autobiographies and, by inference, their evidence to the various government inquiries into rural problems remain as testimony. On the contemporary farmers there is more, but still patchy, evidence. Thus the pioneer work of Oeser and Emery (1958) has only been followed up intermittently and knowledge of the general expertise and motivations of the agricultural population in the 1970s is not as obvious as perhaps might be expected. There is no doubt, however, that their ranks are being thinned continuously and this attrition may have relevance to the character and aspirations of the remainder.

The Promoters

While the role of private real estate agents was not as significant in large-scale land settlement in Austraiia as in the United States, mainly because only a small area was granted to railway companies in Australia, there were periods of-land promotion and speculation which affected private resource appraisals (Cannon 1972). Given the status of private land ownership and the commercial context of land development it is not surprising that the promoters were anxious to defend the quality of their property, whether as real estate agents, as individual farmers with land to sell, or as local community leaders with the status and reputation of their community at stake. The process of desertification with the implied run-down of local resources might be seen as a threat to such interests.

The General Public

Finally, at the national or state level, it may be hypothesized that the general public, through the information it receives via the media of literature, particularly newspapers, and radio and television, has an image of the resources of the nation and their possible management. To the extent that such an image may exist and may influence political beliefs and policies through the ballot box, it is worth consideration here.

Perception of Desertification in the Murray Mallee

Despite the recent concern for the impact of the increasing!, saline waters of the River Murray on the irrigated areas noted in the introduction to this report the main evidence of desertification in the Murray Mallee has been in the form of soil erosion, and discussion here is limited to this surrogate phenomenon.

The Official View

Unlike the United States government, the Australian Commonwealth government has not yet taken a major role in soil conservation. Indeed, not until the creation of the Commonwealth and State Governments Collaborative Soil Conservation Study 1975-77 and its report (D.E.H.C.D. 1978) was there any suggestion of a national policy on soil erosion. Concern for soil conservation originated at the state-government level after a proposal from the Commonwealth Agricultural Council in 1936 that each state should set up its own soil conservation committee. That proposal was influenced by the US Dust Bowl and apparently parallel disasters in southeastern Australia (including the Murray Mallee) (Campbell 1948; Mitchell 1978). In detail, however, there had been earlier concern in both South Australia and Victoria.


Official concern for soil erosion in Victoria arose from sand drift in the Murray Mallee in the 1870s, at a time when only limited use, and that only for livestock grazing, was being made of the region. Interest and local agitation was again evident in the Murray Mallee in the early 1930s, when the agricultural settlement initiated in the first two decades of the twentieth century had begun to make a significant impact. Indeed it was his experiences with the buried fences, blocked roads, and sanded irrigation channels in and around the Murray Mallee area which gave Harold Hanslow, a member of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, the stimulus to play "a significant role in precipitating investigation and action by the Government on the 11938 Report of the Committee appointed to investigate erosion in Victoria] Committee's recommendations" (Mitchell 1978,118-119). The result was the Soil Conservation Act of 1940 which set up a Soil Conservation Board as an advisory body without any police powers

Not until further evidence of soil erosion, however, this time in the state's forested areas in the 1940s, was the state government given effective power to control soil erosion. The earlier Soil Conservation Board had assisted with the reclamation of 6,000 ha in the Murray Mallee but "probably its main achievement was the awakening of community interest in the need for soil conservation, through its publicity and extension activities" (Mitchell 1978,119). In 1949,however,theSoil Conservation and Land Utilization Act set up both a Land Utilization Advisory Council and a Soil Conservation Authority, the latter with power to control erosion through legal control on land use, if necessary.

Currently the Minister of Conservation has ultimate responsibility for the Soil Conservation Authority (the hierarchy of organization is outlined in Table 4. 4). At the lowest (local) level, the District Advisory Committee consists of four farmers (nominated by local landholders), two officials from "interested government departments," and the chairman -the District Conservation Officer. Their function is:

a) the consideration of and reporting to the Authority upon any matter relating to land utilization or soil erosion or conservation within its district.

b) the consideration of and reporting to the Authority upon any matter relating to land utilization or soil erosion or conservation referred to it by the Authority.
[McCord and Wood 1978, 3]


The South Australian experience reflects a broader stimulus for concern than in Victoria. The earliest specific concern seems to have been in the 1890s {Williams 1974, 308) although the effects of the 1865 drought in the northern pastoral areas included significant soil erosion. The first legislation, the 1923 Sand Drift Act, was intended to protect public transport routes by controls on land use and required soil stabilization practices on adjacent properties if they were the source of soil movement.

The response to the 1936 Agricultural Council suggestion was the setting up of a Soil Conservation Committee in 1937, whose report in 1938 led to the 1939 Soil Conservation Act which set up an Advisory Committee on Soil Conservation to advise the Minister of Agriculture in 1940.

There has never been a separate statutory authority in South Australia, and the post of Soil Conservator, created in 1941, has always been within the Department of Agriculture, as head of the Soil Conservation Branch of that Department. Early activity was concerned with protection of urban areas against soil drift as well as attempting to stabilize farm erosion in the Murray Mallee. A recent report suggested that several stages in the increasing official activity could be distinguished. The initially limited objectives were widened in the post-1945 decade and research concentrated upon soil drift control. This interest has continued but has been subsequently supplemented so that it now forms only one of several lines of enquiry (Fig. 4.6).


It is a measure of the official recognition of the soil erosion problem that both states set up regional research stations in the Murray Mallee. The first was the Mallee Research Station established at Walpeup, Victoria, in 1932 to investigate methods of controlling soil erosion, the most suitable crops and pastures, and general farm management.

The South Australian station, despite a short-lived experimental farm to study wheat-cultivation techniques at Veitch in the 1920s, came in 1953, when a further experimental farm, later the Wanbi Research Centre, was created out of a reserve of land which had been badly eroded. The aim was to demonstrate sand-drift stabilization techniques and to disseminate them to the surrounding farmers.

FIG. 4.6. Major Developments in Soil Conservation in South Australia,1941-76

Source: Matheson 1978, 97.

The success of such activities has been generally acclaimed. In their report on the land system of the Victorian Mallee, Rowan and Downes noted that the Walpeup Station had built up "a large body of scientific and applied data concerning the most suitable types of cereals, pastures and sheep, fertilizer requirements and many facets of farm management, including erosion-control techniques" (Rowan and Downes 1963, 107). At the South Australian Wanbi Research Centre techniques for soil erosion control and the improvement of soil fertility through legumes were developed:

The big break-through came in 1958-60 when it was established that Medicago littoralis (Harbinger Strand medic) grew well on the sandhills and sandy rises. Once seed of this legume became available commercially it was rapidly established throughout the sandy areas. [ Potter et al. 1973,104]

There seems to be no doubt that the work of these research stations and activities in other research institutions have provided the techniques by which the threat of soil erosion by wind could be contained. The fact that erosion exists in the Murray Mallee in the 1970s is therefore not the result of a lack of expert knowledge of how to control it.

The existence of expert knowledge, however, does not automatically imply that the knowledge will be universal or accepted and used. The farmers' attitudes to that knowledge and their ability to implement the necessary techniques are obvious variables which will be discussed below, but the value and impact of the expert knowledge are also apparently affected by constraints on the effective diffusion of the innovations at the source- namely the researchers and the research station.


Two constraints appear to have worked to reduce somewhat the success of the agricultural extension services based upon these regional research stations. First is their essential character as regional/ research stations and the problem of the scale of their activities. Second is the problem that the techniques which give optimal soil conservation may not be those which give optimal profits to the farmer.

The research station syndrome

A problem facing official research into rural problems, not least of which is research into the mitigation of desertification, is the fact that research stations are usually remote and their staffs may suffer psychological stresses which affect their efficiency as researchers. Where the station staff, both researchers and supporting personnel, is small and living on site, considerable tensions-arising from personality clashes-seem inevitable. What effect such tensions have had on the research done can only be speculated, but such tensions do seem to have been evident in the Murray Mallee.

Both the official research stations are relatively small in size. At Walpeup there were 13 staff in 1974, living on site, with a housekeeper in charge of the staff hostel, and at Wanbi there were 5 staff, 4 of whom had their families resident on site. The manager at Walpeup commented on the isolation of the station and that the staff "got tired of talking to each other" and tended to retreat to TV in their leisure time (Telford 1974). The impression, as a visitor, to the lunch hour in the staff hostel, was of a rather "tense" atmosphere with conversation limited to basic communication. At Wanbi a personality clash between the officer in charge (who had just resigned to return to Adelaide) and his main assistant was evident. The claim was made (by the assistant) that the officer's personal beliefs clashed with those held by the local farmers and this together with a reluctance to mix socially with the locals had discouraged the effective use of the station's expertise by the clientele-the local farmers {Wayne 1974). Disregarding the question of the merits of such accusations, that they were made may be some measure of the stress of working in such locations. The stress had been noted earlier, for the resignation of the first station manager after eight years of service brought a comment from his successor that his beautification of the residential area and approaches in the form of tree plantings etc., and the addition of new farm buildings all help to make Wanbi a more pleasant place for people to live, in an area not noted for beauty and where one is always conscious of isolation. [Wanbi 1967, 1]

In 1978 the future of the research station was in doubt and a proposal has been made to shift the main responsibility for the South Australian Mallee research to a research station at Loxton (a town of 2,600 population) which was already serving the horticultural irrigation areas along the Murray River. The Wanbi Research Centre was to be retained up to 1980/81 but thereafter only "if it will be actively used in the research programme" ((Fawcett 1978, xi).

Conservation or profits ?

Despite the parallel state research into the soil erosion problem in the Murray Mallee there seem to be differences in detail in the farm management policies officially advocated in the two states, and these are reflected in farm land use and economic returns on either side of the state border.

The differences concern the attitude to fallowing land prior to the sowing of the wheat crop. Traditionally the function of the winter fallow period has been to enable weeds to be controlled and precipitation to be accumulated for the subsequent crop. In Victoria bare fallow has been shown experimentally to give the highest yields but is most vulnerable to soil erosion, particularly if the "opening rains" of the new season are delayed-thus delaying sowing and leaving especially the lighter textured soils unprotected. In the north of the study area 87 per cent of the years will have such a delay and 18 per cent will have no rainfalls sufficient to germinate any crop throughout the "growing season" (Fig. 4.7).

FIG. 4.7. Probability of Rainfall Sequences in the Growing Season in the Northern Murray Mallee

Source: Data are for Loxton from Potter et al.. 1973, 88-91.

Alternative fallow systems have been tried at the Walpeup Station but these have shown that "the yield of wheat after these various types of fallows is reduced to a greater or lesser extent depending on the length of the fallow period and the amount of weed or plant growth that is permitted" /V.D.A. 1973, 300. All of these alternatives offered better soil protection against erosion than did bare fallow but at a higher cost to the farmer in reduced crop yields.

Significantly, the South Australian soil conservation policy is opposed to fallowing and a recent study tour by two South Australian soils officers provided a separate "official" evaluation of the Victorian policy on erosion control. The South Australians commented:"The general impression is that fallowing has given a greater stability to the cereal enterprise without major erosion problems except for the current drift apparent in the Millewa" (McCord and Wood 1978,7-8). For the Victorians: "Long fallowing is an accepted method of land use even by the S.C.A. [Soil Conservation Authority] because it is obviously profitable if at times hazardous" (McCord and Wood 1978, 16). The contrast with South Australian official policy and farmers' management practices (noted above) was obvious.

Despite their calculations that the lack of a grazing income from bare fallow (which would support no livestock) partly offset the higher income from the higher wheat yields in Victoria, both officers were impressed by the general lack of soil erosion and the economic advantages of the Victorian management policy. They commented: "The prediction of severe erosion if long fallowing were adopted in the S. A. Mallee seems belied by our observation that the system works well in Victoria" (McCord and Wood 1978, 20). There was no suggestion, however, that South Australia should change its policy since it was felt that the Victorian Mallee appeared to have a more reliable rainfall and the economic advantages were debatable.. As a result the dichotomy in official policies remains, the one state emphasizing crop rotations and crop-livestock management systems and the other condoning on economic grounds techniques which are usually associated with the disaster years of the 1930s and 1940s!

This dichotomy, however, should not obscure the general change in official policies towards land settlement which has taken place since those disaster years. Two case studies illustrate both these changed policies and the kinds of pressures on resource management which arise in a developed, commercially oriented society. In both cases pressure from potential farmers on the governments to open up new land for settlement - land which had high soil erosion risks-was resisted, but to what extent the resistance was based on the environmental risks or the contemporary downturn in the profitability of the agricultural industry was not clear. Indeed, a study of a similar area in Victoria showed that the decision not to develop the land resulted from a complex process in which bureaucratic rivalries played no small part (Powell 1974).


Since 1945, pressure to open up new lands for agricultural settlement in the Murray Mallee has peaked at times of profitable agricultural activity and ebbed away with renewed droughts or economic depression. A case study from each state illustrates the sequences and the various perceptions of resource management involved.

FIG. 4.8. Wheat and Wool Prices, 1925-77

Note: Data for 1925-75 are for South Australian prices; 1976-77 for Australian prices.
Source: S.A.I.D.C. 1976 and official records.

County Chandos, South Australia

The deep coarse sands of the southern quarter of County Chandos (Fig. 4.2) were not opened for settlement in the main period of development of the Pinnaroo site, apparently because of the texture of the soil and lack of water, and the area remained unused as Crown lands. Official surveys in the 1950s discovered underground water, however, and the record wool prices in the mid-1950s associated with the Korean War seem to have encouraged further official soil investigations. Pressure from local landholders in 1959-60 that the land should be opened for agriculture "because of the fire hazard" led to further official reconnaissance inspections, and a full report on the area (c. 300,000 ha) appeared in 1966. The report suggested that grazing on improved pastures was possible so long as the higher and steeper sandhills would be preserved in natural vegetation to reduce the erosion risk.

Grain farming, however, was not to be permitted because of the erosion potential, and the point was made that "these sandy soils provide little margin for mistakes due to inadequate resources and slipshod methods" (Woodroffe 1977, 3).

The report appeared at the beginning of a two-year drought in the Murray-Mallee (1966-67) and this combined with the declining prices of wool in the latter half of the 1960s (Fig. 4.8) seems to have reduced the pressure on the government, which in 1970 deferred any action "on the grounds that such development is not economically justifiable" (Woodroffe 1977, ii).

In 1974, however, a request from the Department of the Environment that the area should be made a wildlife reserve was also refused by the Department of Lands. By implication the agricultural potential of the land, which would be removed if the land was so reserved, had not yet been completely discounted.

County Millewe, Victoria

The relatively late agricultural settlement of this area (as noted above) did not save it from the disasters of the 1930s and 1940s. The lack of expertise of the farmers, some having come direct from Britain, together with the extreme conditions in this climatically the most hazardous of the four main study sites, meant that here the boom and bust process was merely speeded up. Agricultural settlement began in 1923 but by 1929 bankruptcies had begun and by 1945 shifting sands moved across deserted paddocks.

As a result of a governmental inquiry in 1946, legislation in 1948 classified the resource potential of the lands into three types, with varying size of farms offered for each. Official controls on soil erosion were built into the new leases. The good seasons and prices of the 1950s and early 1960s restored farmers' confidence and brought pressure to convert the leaseholds to freeholds ( which would effectively remove any official controls on land use or soil conservation). This was achieved by amending legislation in 1961. Further pressure to open up cat 220,000 ha of the adjacent grazing lands to the south for agriculture resulted in an official enquiry, which refused to allow the land use change but did suggest replacing the open-channel domestic and stockwater supply by a pipeline system (completed in 1974). The official argument was that the prosperity of the agricultural area in the 1950s and early 1960s was based upon abnormally good rainfalls, and the soils of the new area were physically unsuitable for cropping and had a high erosion hazard. The droughts of the next two years and the economic depression of the early 1970s were to support the decision.

However, the recent study of general land use in the Victorian Mallee, as in South Australia, resisted conservationists' pressure to place all the remaining Crown lands in reserves, claiming that "the available knowledge concerning the biological, geological, and recreational resources of this area forms an inadequate base for decisions to reserve large areas" (V.L.C.C. 1976, 6). The report further noted that some of the Crown lands did have a potential for agriculture although they should be kept in reserve for future demand.

Here, as in South Australia, the end of land clearance for agriculture, and the risk of desertification which that implies in the Murray Mallee, is not yet in sight.

The Researchers' View

While acknowledging the difficulty of separating the views of scientists employed by the various government departments and agencies from those of non-governmental agencies and institutions such as universities, the impression from the published literature and from interviews with scientists in Adelaide and in the study area is that there is a consensus of opinion on the soil erosion problem in the Murray Mallee. The opinion seems to be that the problem is continuing but that its scope has been considerably reduced, the mechanisms of erosion are now understood, and the methods of control are known, if not always applied.

This consensus view has evolved over the last 15-20 years since the development of soil conservation practices and the economic recovery in the Murray Mallee of the 1960s. The reduction of concern for soil erosion is reflected in both detailed and general surveys of the area. Thus a survey of the Victorian Mallee in the early 1960s commented on the widespread occurrence of soil erosion, the eroded character of the cleared and cropped sand dunes, and even questioned whether "a stable form of land use has been developed" in the Millewa area (Rowan and Downes 1963,100). In contrast a general report on land use management in the Victorian Mallee in the mid-1970s showed little concern for actual erosion and only noted the need for some minor adjustment of existing land use practices to reduce the erosion hazard:

In some areas where the erosion hazard is greater than average, the intensity of grazing and cropping must be carefully related to the ability of the soils to withstand these uses. Other areas with a severe erosion hazard should not be used for agriculture under present systems of management, and in a few places cleared and developed public land is required for non-agricultural uses. [V.L.C.C.1976, 25]

Similarly, a survey of the South Australian Mallee in the mid-1970s suggested only "slight" to "moderate" wind erosion affecting the cultivated lands, and the limitations on land use would appear to be relatively slight (Table 4.5). Although there is some recognition of a salinization problem in parts of the Victorian Mallee, most scientific concern is with wind derived soil erosion in times of drought. The mechanisms are understood and threshold wind speeds for soil movement are known, as are the worst risk periods of theyear, the role of rabbit infestation, and the chances of sufficient rainfall to provide a ground cover from the sown crops (Fig. 4.7). Although there is some debate as to the chance of forecasting droughts as most researchers acknowledge, the problem is no longer how to tackle erosion but how to get the farmers to tackle it. As a recent review of the history of soil conservation in South Austraiia noted, "there are still some problem farms in the Murray Mallee, but these are considered to be a 'people' problem rather than a technical problem" (Matheson 1978, 100). To examine the validity of this claim, we need to establish the farmers' view of soil erosion and their appraisal of the needs and means for soil conservation.

TABLE 4.5. Soil Erosion Hazard in the Murray Mallee, 1970s

Land System Soil Erosion Hazardb
Wind Erosion Water Erosion
River Murray Plain (4.11 Renmark) Slight drift Minor gully erosion
Border Plains (4.10 Pata) Moderate drift  
(4.9 Holder) Slight to moderate drift  
Sunset Country (3.5 Billiatt) Slight to moderate drift  
Corridor Plains (3.4 Pinnaroo) Slight to moderate drift  
Big Desert Country (3.3 Big Desert) None in present natural  
  vegetation state  

a. Source: Laut et al. 1977b and Table 4.3 above.
b. Description of existing erosion (LANDSAT imagery 1975-77) as a limitation to land use. For water erosion, "minor gully erosion" is "removal of soil by concentrated runoff to form relatively large channels which are V-shaped and sparse." For wind erosion, "slight drift" is removal of "sufficient of the A horizon for cultivation to mix A and B horizons. Rarely uniform throughout the unit." "Moderate drift" is removal of "all A horizon and part of B or lower horizons. Accumulation of coarse particles along fences" (Laut et al. 1977a, 37).

The Farmers' View

Prior research into attitudes and adjustments to drought stress and the commercial content of Murray Mallee farming suggested a series of hypotheses about farmers' perceptions of the soil erosion problem. Insofar as the general hypotheses of the global studies into human adjustments to natural hazards suggest that one major range is that of the industrialized nations-which reflects adjustments based upon the belief in a capacity to control nature by means of technology-we might expect attitudes to the hazard of soil erosion in the Murray Mallee to be of this type. Thus we might hypothesize:

1) The hazard of soil erosion is recognized.

2) The hazard is regarded, however, as either not significant or significant but controllable, i.e., tolerable.

3) The control of the hazard is possible by technological means, and because the technologies provide the individual with control of massive sources of energy and tools, that control may be achieved by the individual separate from the need for any group or community activity.

4) The control made possible by technology would remove the need for any resort to alternative control strategies, e.g., religious beliefs or fatalistic acceptance of events. The solution to the problems should be sought rather in scientific and technological research.

5) Given the commercial context of farming, the significance, if any, of soil erosion and the importance
or need for its control would be measured in economic terms alone.

To examine these hypotheses we should look first at the extent to which farmers have recognized soil erosion as a problem and then at their attempts to mitigate that problem.


Recognition by farmers of the general significance of soil erosion has usually been later than official concern. In South Australia the reluctance to recognize the rapidly developing crisis in the late 1930s was "not difficult to understand, for such an acceptance needed two confessions: that a problem existed, and that it existed because of exploitive mismanagement of the soil in the past" (Williams 1974, 310). Acceptance of the remedies required a new attitude to farm management and significant capital to achieve the necessary diversification of activities-and this at a time of general economic depression (Williams 1974, 311). However, the necessary changes were made and acceptance of the problem was implicit in the farmers' activities over the 1950s and early 1960s. The histories of the "control" of soil erosion over this period imply a general adjustment by the majority of farmers.

In detail, however, both in the 1960s and 1970s there is published evidence that not all farmers accepted the significance of soil erosion. In the Victorian Mallee in the 1960s, there are still many farmers who have not yet adopted the pattern of conservation farming which has evolved. For this reason, if a drought of a similar intensity to that in the mid-1940s were to recur, the extent of erosion would undoubtedly increase greatly. [Rowan and Downes 1963, 67]


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