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West Indian kitchen gardens: A historical perspective with current insights from Grenada

John S. Brierley, Department of Geography, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada


The islands of the West Indies have long been noted for their small farm subsistence agriculture. However, one important aspect of this production system, the kitchen garden, has received little attention in terms of both basic research and programmes aimed at its improvement.

Caribbean kitchen gardens date back to slave plantation days. They have challenged the descriptive talents of early travellers like Beckford [1], Edwards [5], Kingsley [11], and Trollope [18] . Kitchen gardens sustained slave workers on sugar plantations and provided the basis for future farming enterprises for slave families upon emancipation. Today these gardens continue to be a ubiquitous feature of the agricultural landscape in the Caribbean.

The major point of this article is to highlight the crucial economic and nutritional importance of kitchen gardens for the small farm enterprise. These small units of production surrounding the Caribbean homestead are a microcosm of the farming system: the crop production knowledge and the skills of successive generations are acquired and passed on via the kitchen garden, which can be either a principal component of subsistence farming or the embryo from which a commercial agricultural or horticultural enterprise may develop. Its roles range from that of a farm family's major source of subsistence to that of a minor source of income.


The economic and political crises in Grenada during the 1970s resulted in the coup of 1979 and the formation of the People's Revolutionary Government (PRG). This change of government had direct implications for Grenadian kitchen gardens as the PRO's development strategies aimed at promoting national self-reliance. For the first time in their history Grenadians were given the goal of feeding themselves, an ambitious one at a time when food imports still accounted for one-third of total imports [14] .

In this regard, If ill [7] notes that in 1974 the estimated daily calorie intake per capita was 1 958 4 of which 1,535.9 were supplied by imported food and 422.5 by locally grown food. With respect to protein per capita, daily intake was 46.03 9, of which imported food supplied 31.72 9 and local sources 14.31 9. In 1978 the situation would have been much the same.

"Dooryard gardening" was encouraged as part of the campaign geared to produce more food locally [4]. In addition, the Government initiated campaigns to raise Grenadians' awareness and knowledge of farming and nutrition in the hopes of using the nation's human and natural resources more effectively. Grenada's PRO was among the first governments in Caribbean history to identify the potential role of food production in kitchen gardens in improving the domestic fruit and vegetable supply and in reducing the massive imports of basic foodstuffs.


In Grenada, two major forms of rural small-scale food production can be distinguished: kitchen gardens and provision grounds. Kitchen gardens are fragments of land surrounding the homestead with space for livestock, trees, and vegetable beds. Provision grounds consist of larger, separate parcels, often some distance from the homestead, where the same tree and vegetable crops are found. Although serving similar purposes, kitchen gardens and provision grounds each possess a character of their own.

Historically, kitchen gardens were cultivated plots behind slave cabins, close to the sugar mills where water was available [5]. They could be tended and protected better than the more distant provision grounds, and therefore had a greater variety of plant species and, in many cases, goats, pigs, and poultry. The kitchen garden was usually smaller than 500 mē and featured plantain, banana, coconut, shaddock, orange, mango, and avocado pear as dominant species. Tropical root crops, such as yams and eddoes, as well as leaf vegetables and peppers are also reported [2, 5]. Provision grounds, however, were more significant in supplying slaves with subsistence needs: they were larger in size, averaging 2,000 mē [13], and located up to 16 kilometres from slave cabins on land unsuited for cane production. The size of the provision grounds depended on the location and size of plantations, on the topography, and on market and political considerations The time allocated to slaves for working provision grounds and kitchen gardens also varied, the norm being Saturday afternoons, Sundays and holidays, with generally less time allowed during peak labour periods in sugar production. Edwards estimated an average of 16 hours labour input per month for Jamaican provision grounds [5].

FIG. 1. Grenada

FIG. 2. Grenada: Agricultural Regions

FIG. 3. Grenada: Annual Rainfall (after Soil and Land use Survey No. 9, Grenada, 1959)

Following emancipation in 1834, the West Indian peasantry became firmly established. The traditions and practices of both kitchen gardens and provision grounds were incorporated into post-emancipation small-scale food production systems [6]. Some slaves left the plantation and settled on their provision grounds, which then, by definition, became "kitchen gardens" and nuclei for future farming enterprises. Others migrated from the plantations and became squatters on Crown land in the rugged interior of the island or remained on the plantation until such time as they could acquire their own piece of land [16] . Since independence cost the ex-slaves food supplies previously provided by the plantation owner, they were forced to rely solely on their own food production. As a result, the former provision ground took on a new and greater significance.

In spite of the economic and nutritional importance of kitchen gardens following emancipation, few detailed descriptions of their nature and management exist. Early writers were impressed by cropping density and variety, the dominance of food trees over vegetable crops, and the fact that a small plot could support a "numerous family" [ 11 ] . None the less, provision grounds and kitchen gardens were contrasted with gardens in England and Ireland, with a view to recommending European "scientific" gardening and farming practices [1, 18]. Today, over a century later, the character of the West Indian kitchen garden remains, however, intrinsically the same.


A land-use survey was conducted in 1982 of 210 farms randomly selected in the four agricultural administrative regions comprising the main island of Grenada (fig. 2). To be included in the sample, a farmer had to occupy at least 4,000 mē of land and could not represent a government-operated state farm. While not all surveyed homesteads had kitchen gardens, all had planted additional parcels - provision grounds - usually within one kilometre of the homestead. Previous research [3] has been primarily oriented toward Grenadian small farming and invariably underlines the role played by these small production units within farming systems.

TABLE 1. Distribution and Characteristics of Kitchen Gardens

Kitchen Gardens Sampled Farmers
with a House Spot
(no kitchen garden)
Mean Size of
Garden (ares)
Number of Kitchen Gardens with
< 20 Ares
No Percentage
of total
No Percentage
of total
Northern 37 79 10 21 80 13
Eastern 50 86 8 14 43 25
Southern 47 94 3 6 42 18
Western 38 76 12 24 51 22
Grenada 172 84 33 16 54 78

Although a small island with an area of only 308 kmē, Grenada possesses considerable topographical variations owing to its volcanic origins (fig. 1). These variations, in turn, affect distribution of rainfall (fig. 3) and, hence, the kinds of crops planted in kitchen gardens and provision grounds. Variations in kitchen garden crops are also related to factors such as the age, health, and economic status of the farmers.

Forty-five per cent of the gardens in the sample measured between 1,000 mē and 2,000 mē, Regional differences in size were considerable (table 1). Generally, garden size was affected by the ribbon-like settlement pattern along roads and dirt paths following the coastline or contours of valleys. Where settlement patterns became denser, gardens tended to be smaller, and the combined effects of population pressure and poverty could result in the occupation of a mere "house spot," a fragment of land with the farmer's house and some space for cultivation. This situation was encountered in 16 per cent of the sample. Gardens smaller than 2,000 mē in size could not provide all the fruits and vegetables required by a family of five. To be self-sufficient, these households needed to augment their food supply from the provision grounds.

Table 2 shows the nutritional content of a selection of fruits and vegetables commonly found in Grenadian kitchen gardens. An examination of these data reveals that a fairly comprehensive range of household dietary needs are supplied from this source. This nutritional balance of crops must be attributed not to coincidence, but rather to traditional knowledge and a process of selection governed by the dietary needs and ecological potential of the region. Purchased ingredients rounding out the list of consumption items included imported rice and milk (canned or powdered) and fish and meat, which may have been of either local or foreign origin.

Farmers owning over 20 ha showed a tendency to omit the cultivation of vegetables, but maintained fruit trees in conjunction with a flower garden and a lawn. Large holders, engaged in growing bananas, cocoa, and nutmeg for export, considered it uneconomical or below their social status to grow vegetables.


Kitchen gardens in Grenada today still appear "crowded, confused, and haphazard," traits which Kingsley [11] ascribed in 1871 to Trinidadian provision grounds. Innis [8-10], on the other hand, has recognized the virtues of traditional cropping practices, including mixed cropping, intercropping, and inter-culture of trees and vegetables.

In the traditional pattern crops were arranged in natural "storeys": root crops occupied the subterranean level, followed by surface plants (notably beans, melons, and pumpkins), then by taller crops (such as cassava, maize, and peppers), with trees at the highest level, providing a comprehensive cover against soil erosion during heavy downpours and preventing or retarding the spread of disease and pests.

TABLE 2. Nutritional Contents of Some Tree and Vegetable Crops Found in Grenadian Kitchen Gardens

  Basic Contents (per 100 g) Minerals (mg/100 g) Vitamins (mg/100 g)
Water (%) Energy (kcal) Protein (g) Fat (g) Ca P Fe Na K A
B1 B2 Niacin C
Tree crops
Avocado 74 167b 2.1 16.4 10 42 0.6 4 604 290 0.11 0.20 1.6 14
Banana 76 85 1.1 0.2 8 26 0.7 1 370 190 0.05 0.06 0.7 10
Breadfruit 71 103 1.7 0.3 33 32 1.2 15 439 40 0.11 0.03 0.9 29
Cocoa (powder) 3 299 16.8 23.7 133 648 10.7 6 1,522 30 0.11 0.46 2.4 -
Coconut (fresh) 51 346 3.5 35.3 13 95 1.7 23 256 - 0.05 0.02 0.5 3
Lime 89 28 0.7 0.2 33 18 0.6 2 102 10 0.03 0.02 0.2 37
Mango 82 66 0.7 0.4 10 13 0.4 7 189 4,800 0.05 0.05 1.1 35
Sapodilla 76 89 0.5 1.1 21 12 0.8 12 193 60 - 0.02 0.2 14
Soursop 82 65 1.0 0.3 14 27 0.6 14 265 10 0.07 0.05 0.9 20
Star apple 74 94 1.3 0.4 23 40 0.5 - - 10 0.10 0.11 1.3 9
Vegetable crops
Cabbage 92 24 1.3 0.2 49 29 0.4 20 233 130 0.05 0.05 0.3 47
Carrot 88 42 1.1 0.2 37 36 0.7 47 341 11,000 0.06 0.05 0.6 8
Cassava 63 146 1.2 0.3 33 - 0.7 - - - 0.06 0.03 0.6 36
Corn (ground) 12 368 7.8 2.6 6 164 1.8 1 - 340 0.20 0.06 1.4 -
Dasheen 73 98 1.9 0.2 28 61 1.0 7 514 20 0.13 0.04 1.1 4
French bean 90 32 1.9 0.2 56 44 0.8 7 243 600 0.08 0.11 0.5 19
Lettuce 94 18 1.3 0.3 68 25 1.4 9 264 1,900 0.05 0.08 0.4 18
Pepper (hot) 89 37 1.3 0.2 10 25 0.7 - - 770 0.09 0.06 1.7 235
Sweet potato 71 114 1.7 0.4 20 32 0.7 10 243 8,800 0.10 0.06 0.6 21
Yam 74 101 2.1 0.2 20 69 0.6 - 600 - 0.10 0.04 0.5 9

a. IU = International units.
b. Values in italics denote major sources.
Source: United States Department of Agriculture, Handbook of the Nutritional Contents of Foods, Agriculture
Handbook No. 8 (Whashington, D. C., 1963).

In spite of the limited garden space, sloping terrain, and poor soil of Grenada, only a minimal labour input is needed to produce a year-round supply of crops; it is therefore evident that efficient methods of cultivation were developed and suitable species selected [17]. Acknowledging their African roots, Innis [18] points out that Jamaican gardens "evolved from thousands of years of . . . empirical experimentation" with cropping lists including bananas, plantains, and yams from Africa, New World crops such as cassava, maize, and sweet potatoes, and salad vegetables and crops of temperate origin introduced from Europe. Thus a distinctive crop repertory was created [12] .

The frequent presence of the island's three main export crops (banana, cocoa, and nutmeg) in kitchen gardens and provision grounds confirms the hypothesis that kitchen gardens represent an embryonic stage for future farm development. In their kitchen gardens potential export-crop producers can learn the cultivation techniques for these crops, which they may then use when they acquire additional land. It is noteworthy that cocoa beans are not exclusively cultivated for making into powder but are often cooked and eaten as a vegetable.

Cropping traditions in Grenada are highly localized. Each valley community can be considered a unique sub-region with its own features with respect to crops and cultivation practices.

In general, Grenadian kitchen gardens are dominated by trees, many with evergreen characteristics. Besides bearing fruit, these trees perform other functions: shading houses and vegetable plots, and, in the case of taller species, delimiting property boundaries. Members of the Musa family are the most common tree in kitchen gardens, and are found in over 80 per cent of them. Several types of banana clusters are invariably present, each bearing fruit at different times throughout the year, which eliminates Iong-term shortages of this essential dietary item. Over half the sample gardens also feature avocado pear, breadfruit, cocoa, coconut, citrus fruit, mango, and nutmeg. Regional variation in the distribution of trees is apparent from their indices of occurrence (the actual number of occurrences as a ratio of the total possible number) (table 3). This variation is the result of ecological as well as cultural factors, such as the preference for oranges over mangoes in the western region of the island.

TABLE 3. Tree Crops: Percentage Distributiona and Indices of Occurrenceb

Tree Crops

Agricultural Regions Grenada

Northern Eastern Southern Western Percentage
Annonaceous fruitsc 46 40 74 5 43
Avocado pear 68 44 60 34 51
Banana (export varieties) 27 34 2 39 25
Banana (domestic use) 89 72 94 39 74
Breadfruit/breadnut 81 72 74 34 66
Cashew 5 10 14 5 9
Cinnamon 3 6 15 5 8
Clove 3 2 11 3 5
Cocoa 86 74 74 42 70
Coconut 81 68 81 55 72
Golden appled 19 30 32 8 23
Lime 8 18 26 13 17
Orange 54 42 38 79 47
Other citruse 16 28 30 21 23
Mango 86 62 68 37 63
Nutmeg 59 56 53 47 54
Papaya - 12 11 5 8
Sapodilla 27 22 21 11 20
Other fruitsf 11 12 4 3 8
Index of occurrence 0.39 0.35 0.41 0.24 0.34

a. Percentage distribution refers to the percentage of gardens with a given crop as compared to the total number of gardens.
b. Index of occurrence I = a where a = individual occurrence of a crop, P = maximum potential occurrence.
c. Includes mainly soursop, but also sugar apple and custard apple.
d. Also referred to as Jew Plum and June Plum.
e. Includes grapefruit, citron, and tangerine.
f. Includes guava, pineapple, star apple, pimento, and tamarind.

An outstanding feature of Grenadian kitchen gardens is the size of the area given to root and tuber production for home consumption. Dasheen (Colocasia esculenta), tannias (Xanthosoma sagittifolium), and yams often occupied over two-thirds of the tilled garden space in the sample. Of secondary importance was the inter-cropping of maize and pigeon peas (Cajanus cajan). Found in over 30 per cent of the sample gardens, but occupying relatively less space, were French beans, peppers, and tomatoes. Beds of cabbage and lettuce were sometimes found in larger gardens. Overall, vegetables varied less across the four agricultural regions than trees (tables 3 and 4). However, the humid tropical gardens in the western region showed the lowest species diversity both in tree and vegetable crops, with indices of 0.24 and 0.20. This ecological selection affected particularly maize and pigeon peas, both crops requiring dry conditions to mature. Dasheen, on the other hand, favours a moist climate and was more common in the western region.

Besides their ecological benefits, irregular planting arrangements in the gardens establish visual barriers, which conceal more valuable crops, such as pumpkin and papaya, and make theft less likely. Pigeon pea bushes often serve as a hedge shielding an area of root crops and bananas, followed in turn by a network of tall stakes or maize supporting yam vines. Behind these "barricades," the most valued crops are found - cabbage, tomatoes, papaya, and eggplant. This pattern of planting originated when plantation slaves had to protect their provision grounds against praedial larceny. Today some farmers believe that this cropping arrangement promotes better plant growth.

High species intensity is a functional characteristic of Grenadian gardens. As a result of varied cropping practices, in our sample as many as 18 vegetable varieties and 13 distinct types of food trees coexisted in a kitchen garden of less than 2,000 mē, with an average of six for each category. Many variations existed in regard to the crop combinations used in both mixed cropping and intercropping. One common practice was to plant two or three different vegetables in the same hole. Traditional groupings of species were observed, one of which combined French beans, maize, and tannias. The advantages of this particular grouping method are:

- the leguminous bean increases the nitrogen in the soil, which benefits maize and tannins;
- the soil has a protective cover during much of the wet season; and
- the farmer makes maximum use of the land by cultivating crops which produce in the ground, on the ground, and above the ground.

TABLE 4. Vegetable Crops; Percentage Distribution and Indices of Occurrence

Classes of Vegetables

Agricultural Regions

Northern Eastern Southern Western Grenada
Tropical roots and tubers
Cassava 22 14 26 11 18
Dasheen 43 50 57 61 53
Eddoes - 2 4 5 3
Tannias 59 62 68 45 59
Sweet potatoes 22 32 34 26 29
Yams 62 40 51 26 45
Temperate roots
Beetroot 3 2 6 - 3
Carrots 16 12 15 16 15
Onions - 4 2 - 2
Radishes 5 2 4 - 3
Green leaf          
Cabbage 24 28 26 21 25
Celery - 4 - - 1
Lettuce 27 24 23 21 24
Fruit and pods
Corn 41 42 51 24 40
Cow peas - 2 9 - 3
Cucumber 22 24 19 13 20
French beans 24 34 32 34 31
Melongene 8 20 9 11 12
Okra 14 20 21 29 21
Peppers 41 44 34 46 41
Pigeon peas 65 56 57 29 54
Pumpkins, melons - 18 6 3 8
Tomatoes 35 46 36 37 39
Chive and thyme 19 8 13 32 17
Sugar cane 5 4 9 8 6
Index of occurrence 0.22 0.24 0.25 0.20 0.23

More commonly, inter-cropping with pairs of crops was found, such as cassava and sweet potatoes, maize and pigeon peas, maize and sweet potato, and yams and tannias. In fact, it was the rule rather than the exception for most tropical roots and tubers, along with maize and pigeon peas, to be inter-cropped.

Monoculture was practiced specifically with vegetables associated with temperate regions, including cabbage, carrots, lettuce, and tomatoes. If present, these least adapted vegetables were generally propagated in seed boxes and transplanted. Occupying a mere fraction of the total area, temperate vegetables were regarded as luxuries which supplied variety to the predominantly starchy diet.

Less than one-fifth of all the gardeners in the sample engaged systematically in fallow rotation. Soil fertility was maintained by the addition of manure or compost, both of which were scarce, at the time of planting. If possible, the gardeners pursued some system of annual crop rotation in their various vegetable beds to help preserve soil fertility and retard a build-up of pests and disease. Farmers who followed a system of following had larger-than-average gardens and/or poor soil. All gardeners, however, periodically followed about one-quarter of the land devoted to vegetables for one year. During this time, the surface was protected from erosion by the remnants of the last crop, which also added organic matter to the soil.

Interspersed with the vegetable gardens in the sample were numerous trees whose generally irregular spacing suggested accidental propagation. Where there were a large number of cocoa and nutmeg trees grown as cash crops, however, the trees were spaced uniformly. Young stands of cocoa were often shaded by members of the Musa family. Intentional selection and planting of trees was also found close to the house and along property lines. Coconut and breadfruit often demarcated boundary lines while a variety of evergreens provided the house and the kitchen-shed with shade all year round.

Animal husbandry was a minor aspect of these kitchen gardens, but some mammals and birds were kept by the majority of the households sampled. They provided a source of meat on festive occasions or ready cash in times of financial hardship. Poultry was most common with around twelve animals per flock in over 80 per cent of the sample gardens. Most birds were common fowl, running loose and primarily fending for themselves. Hence, seed boxes and some vegetable beds needed to be protected. Less than 15 per cent of the sample had enclosed pens for keeping better quality birds and collecting eggs. Pigs, goats, sheep, and cattle (in order of importance) were found in less than 23 per cent of the gardens studied. Pigs were usually tethered or penned in the shade of trees; ruminants were grazed along roadways, on common grassland, or on vacant land during the day and were returned to the security of the garden at night

FIG. 4 Plan of Kitchen Garden. Eastern Region

Many of the basic features of Grenadian kitchen gardens are indicated in figure 4. The garden represented in the figure, which covered 4,000 mē and was located in the eastern region, was not typical, however, for it had a greater variety of vegetables and trees than the norm, was situated on relatively flat land, and had a cash-crop component. Although not typical, it illustrates the wide variety of species and the extensive utilization of a relatively small plot of land on the island.


Despite considerable social and economic developments that have affected the Caribbean region during this century, kitchen gardens have undergone no fundamental changes. As shown in the Grenadian case, they still possess the hallmarks noted by nineteenth-century travellers. Early writers, like the majority of agricultural extension programme planners today, failed to appreciate that the adoption of different practices would require additional labour and capital expenditures which many West Indians could not - and cannot to date - afford.

The immutability of kitchen gardens is testimony to the reliability of the cropping practices used. The gardens supply satisfactory returns, given human and capital inputs and environmental constraints. It is only within the last 20 years that the agronomic merits of inter-cropping have been recognized as a means of maintaining soil fertility and limiting erosion, while reducing the need to use chemical fertilizers and chemical methods of pest control. During the 1970s, the cost of these chemicals increased dramatically as a result of the energy crisis and became priced out of the reach of small farmers. Thus, the traditional farming practices of the West Indies may continue as a well-adapted, important production strategy.

Also, on these plots of land, children assimilate knowledge about plants and cultivation techniques as they assist parents and grandparents in growing basic food crops. This traditional wisdom has not been altered either by schooling, which historically has omitted agriculture from its syllabus, or by extension officers, who have invariably directed their attention to larger land units and commercial farming.

This official neglect of kitchen gardens and provision grounds has both positive and negative aspects: many traditional cultivation practices have been preserved in the kitchen garden. On the other hand, there is no doubt room for well-informed integrated improvement of present management, in regard to both cash-crop production and family nutrition.

During its brief tenure, the PRG followed development strategies aimed less at transforming local farming practices than at putting idle land into production. Where better to start this process than with popularizing kitchen gardens! It is impossible to quantify the PRO's success in this endeavour. In 1982, there was evidence of renewed interest and activity in kitchen-garden cultivation, with an increasing number of households becoming more self. sufficient in their food needs. As the nation's economic problems continue to worsen, one obviously hopes that this trend will persist. Grenada's new administration must recognize the agricultural significance of kitchen gardens, which is far greater than their small size would suggest.


1. W. Becktord, A Descriptive Account of the Island of Jamaica (T. and J. Egertson, London, 1790).

2. E. Braithwaite, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1971).

3. J. S. Brierley, Small Farming in Grenada, West Indies, Manitoba Geographical Studies, No. 4 (Winnipeg, 1974).

4. B. Coard, "Presentation of 1982 National Plan and National Budget," in C. Searle and D. Rojas, eds., "To Construct from Morning, "Making the People's Budget in Grenada (Fedon Publisher, St. Georgians, Grenada, 1982).

5. B. Edwards, The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies of the West Indies, vol. II (Dublin, 1793).

6. D. Hall, Free Jamaica 1838 - 1865 (Caribbean Universities Press, London, 1969).

7. M. B. If ill, Report on a Farm Survey Conducted in Grenada (Uhf Economic Commission for Latin America, Pt. of Spain, Trinidad, 1979).

8. D. Q. Innis, "The Efficiency of Jamaican Peasant Land Use," Can. Geogr., 5: 19 - 23 (1961).

9. D. Q. Innis, "The Effects of Peasant Farming on Soil Fertility: A Jamaican Example," paper presented at the Calgary, Alberta, meeting of the Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers (1973).

10. D. Q. Innis, "Aspects of Jamaican Post-industrial Agriculture, "J. Geogr., 82 15): 222 - 226 (1983).

11. C. Kingsley, At Last A Christmas in the West Indies (Macmillan, London, 1872).

12. S. W. Mintz, Caribbean Transformations (Aldine, Chicago, 1974).

13. O. Patterson, The Sociology of Slavery (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, Rutherford, N.J).

14. A. Payne, "Revolutionary Politics in Grenada," Found Table, 280: 381 - 388 (1980).

15. H. Ruthenberg, Farming Systems in the Tropics (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1971).

16. C. Y. Shepherd, "Peasant Agriculture in the Leeward and Windward Islands," Trop. Agric., 24: 61 - 71 (1947).

17. R. B. Sheridan, Sugar and Slavery (John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1972).

18. A. Trollope, The West Indies and the Spanish Main (Chapman & Hall, London, 1860).


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