Episode 969: The Island No One Owns : Planet Money In Barbuda, land isn't a thing you buy. It's something you just... have. Put up a fence and it's yours. But all that might change. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.
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Episode 969: The Island No One Owns

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Episode 969: The Island No One Owns

Episode 969: The Island No One Owns

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SARAH GONZALEZ, HOST:

There are two ways to get to Barbuda - on a seven-seater unreliable plane or a rocky ferry.

Oh, my God.

SCOTT GURIAN, HOST:

Really rocky.

GONZALEZ: Oh.

GURIAN: The ferry leaves once a day from Antigua. Antigua and Barbuda are two islands that make up one country. And the trip takes about two hours.

GONZALEZ: Antigua is mountainous and touristy with about 98,000 residents. That's where the government is. Barbuda is flat - like, flat-flat. Like, it looks flat like a penny. Wow, I've never seen an island that flat before.

GURIAN: Yeah. You could jog across Barbuda in about 30 minutes. It's rural, just about a thousand homes, 1,500 residents.

GONZALEZ: Goats.

GURIAN: Probably more animals here than people.

GONZALEZ: Goats and sheep. It's the kind of island where wild donkeys just walk into your home. The houses are all, like, pastel turquoise with grey, mint green with peach, peach with orange - and where no one wants lobster anymore.

ATKINSON BEAZER: We have lobster for breakfast. We have it for lunch. We have it for dinner. We eat lobster three times a day. So a piece of chicken in between is not bad (laughter).

GURIAN: There are fruit trees everywhere.

BEAZER: They're loaded with lots of vitamin C. And this is how we live. This is our plot (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

GURIAN: And it has the most powdery untouched pink sand beaches.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVE CRASHING)

GONZALEZ: It's a tough job, but a job.

GURIAN: Someone's got to do it.

NATALIA JOHN: The land of sun and sea, beautiful Barbuda.

GONZALEZ: This is Natalia John, but everyone calls her...

JOHN: Hey Gal.

GONZALEZ: Why is that your nickname?

JOHN: Long story.

GONZALEZ: Tell me the story.

JOHN: (Laughter) My brother couldn't say Natalia, so he would just say, hey, gal. Hey, gal.

GURIAN: Hey Gal was born in Barbuda. Her mom and her grandma were, too. She actually lives in her grandma's house. She has her own plot of land, too, but she hasn't built anything on it yet.

JOHN: No, not of yet, but I have my sand and my stone on it so nobody can go and take it.

GONZALEZ: What does that mean - your sand and your stone?

JOHN: Just to show that something is going to happen on that land soon.

GONZALEZ: You put some sand and some stone down just to show that something's going to happen on that land soon, so don't take it, because in Barbuda, land isn't something you buy and sell; it's something you just have.

JOHN: People just go cut what they want, clear it and start building. You get your stake or, you know, whatever, and you build.

GONZALEZ: Just take a piece of land and be like, OK, there's my fence. This is my land.

JOHN: That's how we usually do it.

GONZALEZ: For free - no money.

JOHN: For free - no money. So that's how I grew up.

GONZALEZ: Not even taxes?

JOHN: Not even taxes.

GONZALEZ: Not even, like, a permit fee - nothing? Like, really $0?

JOHN: No, $0.

GONZALEZ: Free-free - no paperwork, no lease, no rental agreement, no title - just a whole 62 square mile tropical island shared communally and informally.

GURIAN: This is why we came to Barbuda.

GONZALEZ: Barbudans say they don't just own the plot of land they put a fence on. They own and share the whole island collectively - all its resources, all the land. They use it in common. That's what it's called.

JOHN: Most of us know where the land is available - you know, what is available. Sometimes somebody's land, but, hey, you didn't see anything to show, so they just get the next piece. That's it.

GONZALEZ: Oops. You didn't put a fence up fast enough, so get the next chunk.

JOHN: Right, right.

GONZALEZ: Only Barbudans have this right. People on the neighboring island, Antigua - they can't claim land in Barbuda, even though it is the same country. You have to be born in Barbuda and have a grandparent born in Barbuda, or a parent. That's the only rule.

GURIAN: And that's basically how it's worked since the 1800s. But now all that might change.

GONZALEZ: Can you say, hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY?

FRANZ DEFREITAS: Yeah. Well, I say (ph) welcome to PLANET MONEY, to the islands Antigua and Barbuda right here.

GONZALEZ: I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

GURIAN: And I'm Scott Gurian.

GONZALEZ: Scott's with us from his podcast, "Far From Home."

GURIAN: Owning land individually with a title is one of the basics of old-school capitalism.

GONZALEZ: But getting a little piece of paper that says, yes, you own this lot - not everyone does that. Today on the show, the island nobody owns...

GURIAN: Or everyone owns, depending on who you ask.

GONZALEZ: ...And what happens when someone finally decides to start selling it.

ALBERT PADDY SIMON: Barbuda has the greatest land deal on Earth.

GURIAN: This is Albert Paddy Simon.

SIMON: They call me the griot.

GONZALEZ: The griot?

SIMON: Oh, you don't know that. For those who are not familiar with the term, it simply means a verbal historian. Call me the griot - not historian.

GONZALEZ: And don't say he speaks English either.

SIMON: I'm an Antiguan. And when I speak, me talk Antiguan - yeah, me talk Antiguan. Antiguan I come from (ph). Antiguan I come from (ph).

GURIAN: Again, Antigua and Barbuda is one country.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, we have Antigua and Barbuda (ph).

GURIAN: Paddy keeps hundreds of years of historical documents and books and newspapers about both islands in his lawn mower repair shop in Antigua in these dusty stacks on the floor.

SIMON: This is a chronicle of Barbuda.

GONZALEZ: And Paddy says the great thing about Barbuda is that if you're rich and powerful and you have a lot of money and you want 2 acres of land to build on, you get it for free. But also...

SIMON: If that little boy, that fisher boy, that man who can't write his name want the same amount of land to do a project, he gets it. You can't go better than that, can't go better than that (ph).

GURIAN: We wanted to talk to Paddy because he knows how Barbuda got this special land arrangement.

SIMON: Brother and sister, believe you me, yeah?

GONZALEZ: All right. Once upon a time, no one lived on Barbuda. Even when the Caribbean was all Indigenous populations, they would just come to Barbuda to hunt and fish and then go back to the other islands they lived on. Barbuda was never inhabited.

GURIAN: And then during the 1600s, colonization times, this English guy, Christopher Codrington, comes along and says, I have a plan for that island.

SIMON: Oh, yeah. Codrington was a slave master.

GURIAN: He leases the whole island from the king of England.

SIMON: And his payment was a fat sheep.

GURIAN: One fat sheep.

GONZALEZ: It was 1685.

SIMON: He had his slaves over there, and it was like a supply.

GONZALEZ: Like a supply island, because Codrington had all these sugar plantations in Antigua, but the soil in Barbuda was too shallow and too thin to grow sugar. So Codrington sent enslaved people to Barbuda to grow food and raise livestock to supply people in Antigua - workers in Antigua.

SIMON: He used to supply Antigua, his estate, with Barbuda products, like meat, fish, cocoplum.

GONZALEZ: Cocoplum - what is that?

SIMON: It's like a marshmallow - soft like a marshmallow. Nice, nice stuff. And melon and pumpkin and things like that.

GONZALEZ: All using slave labor?

SIMON: Yes, yes, slave labor. But he only had, like, 500 slaves over there.

GURIAN: And Antigua and Barbuda are, like, two hours away from each other by ferry today, so pretty far away from each other back then.

SIMON: So right away, the manager realized he couldn't swim from Barbuda to Antigua, so he had to live with them.

GONZALEZ: The whole island was made up of 500 enslaved people at its peak and one white manager and his family, sometimes maybe no more than a handful of other white workers, too. So schools and churches and all the other things that Antigua had, they didn't really get built in Barbuda because there were no white people.

GURIAN: And for almost two centuries, a bunch of different Codringtons run Barbuda this way. Slavery is abolished in 1834, but that doesn't actually change anything for several more decades.

GONZALEZ: Eventually, the Codringtons leave. Their lease expires. And when they leave, there are no white people left - just formerly enslaved people. So they stayed.

SIMON: They become their living (ph). They don't know anything else. It's all right, no problem. You left. There they are. They just keep living. So the people are left alone, so they live happy. So they live.

GONZALEZ: And as they're there living, no one ever came up and said, wait; but you need a property title. Technically, the king of England had claimed the land and considered the people of Barbuda tenants, but there's no evidence that anyone, like, paid rent or anything like that. So for more than a hundred years, people on this island were pretty much left alone to use the land however they wanted. And they never took on a formal property rights system.

GURIAN: And people didn't really fight over land either - like, who gets what - because there was plenty of it - 62 square miles, most of it undeveloped, and not that many people. In 1981, Antigua and Barbuda gain their independence and become one country with one prime minister. Around that time, they set up a Barbuda Council kind of like a city council. When Barbudans want to build something, they check with them.

GONZALEZ: And at some point, the council does start leasing land to developers. There are a few beachfront hotels and resorts on the island. Princess Diana used to vacation here. But Barbudans never sold the land; they just rented it out to whoever they wanted. And then in 2007, Barbudans get this special informal land system formalized into law. Parliament passes the Barbuda Land Act, which says, yes, Barbudans, you now officially own the land in common. And it stays this way until 2017, when a hurricane hits - Hurricane Irma.

GURIAN: It's September 6, 2 a.m., dark out.

JOHN: The wind started to pick up.

GURIAN: This is Hey Gal again - Natalia.

JOHN: So the water started to come in - like, rush in.

GONZALEZ: Not so much rain, but water from the sea.

JOHN: Seawater, yes. It was a lot of water.

GONZALEZ: And, remember; Barbuda - flat as a penny.

JOHN: A lot of wind (imitating wind sound). And then you just see the window started to burst, the doors - bash, you know? And it just started to burst windows. It just started to break lampposts. We could see things flying. So we were all in one room just praying for it to - until the eye passed.

GONZALEZ: Eye of the hurricane.

JOHN: Hurricane, yes. That is the calm, they say.

GONZALEZ: Almost all the buildings on Barbuda were damaged, including Natalia's house.

GURIAN: Just one room was left standing - a bedroom.

JOHN: Everything fell in - everything inside - the beds, the chairs just smashed in.

GONZALEZ: All over the island, just shells of buildings were left - no doors, no roofs, open to the sky. Barbudans were totally exposed. And then they heard another hurricane was coming in three days - Hurricane Jose.

GURIAN: And the prime minister, who, remember, lives in Antigua - he doesn't really come to Barbuda. Antiguans rarely do. He does this kind of dramatic thing. He gets a private helicopter, takes himself and a cameraman to Barbuda, lands, jumps on the bed of a pickup truck and makes a big announcement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER GASTON BROWNE: The entire country has been decimated. I have never seen anything like this before.

GONZALEZ: He orders a mandatory evacuation of the island. The military shows up.

JOHN: They were going around knocking. If they see you on the road, they tell you. They were driving in a vehicle and just stop you and tell you, you know, hey, you got to go - you know, issuing a mandatory evacuation because of the other storm that's coming, and it's not safe.

GONZALEZ: And people on Barbuda are like, wait; everyone? The entire island is being evacuated,

JOHN: Yeah, yeah. That's what I'm saying. It feels a little weird, you know, leaving everybody off of Barbuda. Really?

GONZALEZ: Really?

GURIAN: But also, people were scared. Natalia packs a bag.

JOHN: I was expecting to come back maybe two days after if it was safe, so I had one bag with maybe about two clothes - two pair of clothes. And we came off the boat. Everybody was just holding us and all crying and hugging and asking about their family, you know, who we left over there, what's going on.

GURIAN: Barbudans were sent to shelters. Some went with family in Antigua. But actually, the second hurricane never hit. It ended up turning out to sea.

GONZALEZ: So everyone is like, OK, we're going to go back now. The prime minister calls all Barbudans to a meeting at some university in Antigua. Like, every Barbudan come to this meeting - a little weird.

JOHN: Actually, yeah, I was happy because I thought that, you know, it was something to tell us, hey, you're going back home, you know, tomorrow (laughter).

GURIAN: So you were there, all of you from Barbuda, in this room. And the prime minister is there in the room with you.

JOHN: Just there waiting to hear, you can go back home.

GONZALEZ: And what did you hear instead?

JOHN: Instead, we heard, Barbuda is not safe. Barbuda is stink. Barbuda is infested with dead animal - you know, dead animals, mosquitoes - different from how we left it, but - sorry.

GURIAN: That's OK.

JOHN: Sorry. It was scary. I would say it was scary. I just wanted to come back home.

GURIAN: The prime minister had issued a state of emergency, says no one can go back. It's not safe. They could take day trips to, like, clean out the water and mold from their homes, take the now-rotten food out of the fridge - things like that. But they couldn't stay there overnight.

GONZALEZ: And that's when the prime minister starts talking about this whole communal land thing.

BROWNE: The truth is the Barbudans have always carried this myth for perhaps maybe a couple hundred years that they own the land on Barbuda. So this myth of collective ownership is not true.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARL HARMS' "A PUZZLING CASE")

GONZALEZ: After the break, capitalism creeps into Barbuda - you know, while no one's there.

GURIAN: Eventually, Barbudans are allowed to move back to the island, but most of it has been destroyed.

GONZALEZ: The prime minister - the guy who flew in on a helicopter - he's still the prime minister today, Gaston Browne. We met him at his office in Antigua. And he said that when the storm hit in 2017, he started thinking about how Barbuda was going to rebuild, where the money was going to come from.

GURIAN: And he focuses on Barbuda's most obvious asset - the land.

BROWNE: It is not the responsibility of the government of Antigua and Barbuda or any foreign government or agency to rebuild the individual's home. The individual has to take responsibility.

GONZALEZ: He tells Barbudans, you know that lot you've already been living on for free all these years? New plan - we're going to sell it to you for $1 Eastern Caribbean - about 37 cents U.S. And now - now you'll have a title. And titles open up all these opportunities. You can take a title to a bank.

BROWNE: If the individual is going to take responsibility and would want to get a mortgage or a short-term loan to rebuild or to repair his or her home, he would require ownership. So it was a sensible thing to do to help them to unlock capital so that they could rebuild.

GONZALEZ: Meaning that they could go to the bank with their title in their hands and say, use my property value as collateral to give me a loan for...

BROWNE: One dollar.

GONZALEZ: ...For one dollar.

GURIAN: Which sounds a little strange to many Barbudans. They're like, hold on; your rebuilding plan is to sell us the land we already own for $1 each?

GONZALEZ: And he's like, yeah, because this whole communal land thing, I think it's just a big misunderstanding, a myth.

BROWNE: In the 1700s, 1800s, Barbudans carrying that type of myth - one could empathize with them as individuals who were illiterate. Today, in the 21st century, it is unconscionable, inconceivable that any educated person could believe in that myth today. It is a form of ignorance that has to be broken.

GONZALEZ: You say that Barbudans have been thinking that they own the land and that it is a myth that they own the land. But there is a law that Parliament - the Antiguan and Barbudan government passed that says Barbudans own the land. Don't you have the communal land act (ph)?

BROWNE: That is exactly what I'm coming to now.

GONZALEZ: OK. So I just want to - like, I just want to read the...

BROWNE: I'm familiar, yeah.

GONZALEZ: The first sentence says, the Barbuda Land Act 2007, an act to confirm that all land in Barbuda is owned in common by the people of Barbuda. So it is a law passed by Parliament, right?

BROWNE: Right. So it was a dangling piece of legislation that had no legal effect.

GONZALEZ: It was enough of a law that he amended it several times. And - right? - you can't amend a law if it's not technically a law, but OK. He says it's an unconstitutional law. So months after the hurricane, he repeals it.

BROWNE: It was a law that violated the constitution of the country and a law that had sought to give credence to a long-standing myth.

GONZALEZ: But this is your opinion, right? Because the courts haven't decided - determined that it was unconstitutional.

BROWNE: That's right.

GONZALEZ: OK, yeah. That's all I'm talking about.

BROWNE: What I'm saying to you - the probability of success is zilch, nil, zero.

GURIAN: Barbudans are challenging this whole thing in court. It'll likely go to their version of the Supreme Court. But for now, under the prime minister's new plan, communal land is out, property titles are in. He says now Barbudans can have actual legally binding titles to whatever plot of land they had been living on.

GONZALEZ: But just that plot, though. The rest of the island, which is about 90% of the island, that'd be open to foreign investment and development. The prime minister wants Barbuda to become a big vacation spot. And remember that council - the Barbuda Council that has approved or rejected all the development projects in the past? They lose the power to do that.

BROWNE: That type of property rights system is quintessential to the advancement of a country and the advancement of a people.

GURIAN: Obviously, property rights are basically the foundation of a capitalist economy. Owning things - like, legally proving you own something - that's really important. The logic is it gives people an incentive to invest in their future without worrying someone else is going to take their stuff away. It helps build wealth.

GONZALEZ: And we've talked about the power of property rights before on PLANET MONEY. We did a whole episode on this famous economist named Hernando de Soto. He wrote about an invisible law that traps people in poverty. And he wrote that giving people property titles, ownership to their homes and land, would help lift people out of poverty - that now they could go to the bank and take out loans against their property.

LIZ ALDEN WILY: Classical property economics suggests that this will open everything up. You'll be able to get bank loans, and your life will be better, et cetera.

GURIAN: Liz Alden Wily is a political economist specializing in land rights at the Leiden Law School in the Netherlands. She studies different property rights systems around the world. And she says having a property title - it gives you some protection. But she also says economists have found one big thing missing from de Soto's theory, which is that just having a title probably is not going to persuade a bank to give you a loan.

WILY: They would want to see, first and foremost, proof, evidence that you will be able to repay that loan.

GONZALEZ: A salary - steady income. That's what banks want to see. And Liz says that in a place like Barbuda where people don't have reliable incomes, titles alone won't make much of a difference.

She also says titles don't necessarily need to be owned by one person, like the prime minister wants in Barbuda. In fact, she's studied the land laws in a hundred countries and found that 73 of them have legally recognized communal land systems. And some of them have these special titles called collective titles that say, each one of you doesn't need an individual piece of paper with your name on it. This whole community, this whole village can share one.

GURIAN: Liz says individual property titles are kind of a city thing. But most of the world's land is not cities. Worldwide, Liz says about 3 billion people own land in common.

WILY: Spain, Portugal, Australia, Canada, Fiji, Vanuatu, Nicaragua, Mexico.

GONZALEZ: And when you say all of these countries that you just listed, it's parts of these countries that have communal land ownership.

WILY: Yes, absolutely. It is primarily or almost exclusively at this point a rural construct - collective property.

GONZALEZ: So it's mainly rural areas - forests, the mountains, deserts. And lately, Liz says, more and more countries are saying, we can't just deny people have rights to this land that they've been living on.

WILY: The big change now is to say, hang on a minute. This land - millions of people were already there. Millions of Africans were in Africa. Millions of Asians were in Asia. Are you saying they didn't own their land?

GONZALEZ: She says there's a global trend. In the past few years, a lot of countries have been adding laws to their books that formalize communal ownership. Meanwhile, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda is moving in the opposite direction. And, at least in Barbuda, his plan is not super popular.

JOHN MUSSINGTON: Barbudans are not stupid.

GURIAN: This is John Mussington. He lives in Barbuda.

MUSSINGTON: And let me tell you why. As a Barbudan, I own 62 square miles.

GURIAN: Remember; the prime minister is only offering Barbudans ownership over the little piece of Barbuda where their homes are built.

GONZALEZ: And John - John does not live on some prime beachfront property. No one in Barbuda does. They're like, why would we build a house on a beach? Beaches are dangerous. They all live on one strip in the middle of the island. So it's not like hotel developers are going to be super interested in their plots of land.

GURIAN: So John says it feels like the prime minister is stealing the island.

MUSSINGTON: Sixty-two square miles is not just the physical land. It is the resources which are sustained by that 62 square miles - the farming resources, the animal resources, the real estate value, which increases over time, the food security, the clean air, all right? If every single Barbudan accepted that offer, in one stroke of the pen, we would have converted our ownership of 62 square miles to one little, itsy-bitsy piece of that.

GONZALEZ: There are Barbudans who want Barbuda to become more developed. And they say that if property titles will help, why not?

HASKETH DANIEL: We didn't know which way we're going to go to for rebuilding. And I thought that was an idea, too.

GONZALEZ: Like, we met this one guy, Hasketh Daniel. He owns a bar, but there's nothing on paper that says he owns the bar.

DANIEL: Reality is you can use it, but we don't really - they don't give us something to show that we really own it.

GONZALEZ: There's nothing that says Hasketh Daniel owns this little chunk of Barbuda.

DANIEL: Nope. You just say it's yours. That's it.

GONZALEZ: And do you want that?

DANIEL: I don't care if I buy it or lease it or whatever. Give me something to show it's mine. That's all I'm interested in. Just give me proof it's mine.

GONZALEZ: It's been over two years now since Hurricane Irma hit. And a lot of Barbudans, like Natalia - Hey Gal - they haven't had the money to rebuild.

JOHN: OK. Well, you're in my kitchen - my used-to-be kitchen, which was destroyed by Irma.

GONZALEZ: And there's no walls.

JOHN: No walls. No walls, no floor. There's no roof over our heads, so we're in the sun, doing everything in the sun.

GURIAN: Her brothers are still living in tents in the yard next to the turtles and rabbits. Natalia says living like this has been hard for all of them. But she doesn't think the prime minister's plan - titles - will fix the problem.

JOHN: It was a trick. That is what I thought. It was just a trick.

GURIAN: Natalia sees two futures for Barbuda, one where everything just stays the same, and another where their island starts to get valued like most other Caribbean islands

GONZALEZ: Ringed with hotels and hotel jobs and businesses, so probably a more vibrant economy, but an island where her kids won't be able to just put up a fence and say, this is my land.

GURIAN: For now, the prime minister says he'll only sell to Barbudans and that everyone else will have to lease land. But we spoke to several lawyers who said the law doesn't actually lay that out. It's more like a promise he's making. And the leases - they're for really long periods, like 99 years, which is longer than I'll own anything.

GONZALEZ: By the way, Robert De Niro, the American actor, and an Australian billionaire have already leased a huge corner of Barbuda for a $250 million resort called Paradise Found - like, we found paradise.

GURIAN: And Natalia - she says she actually would like to see Barbuda develop more, but she thinks people on the island should have a say over what projects get approved - the way it's always been.

JOHN: We just want it to be just like what it is.

GONZALEZ: Just pink and peach and mint green houses and mango trees and pomegranate trees and watermelon and flowers.

JOHN: Yes.

GONZALEZ: OK, I can see why you would want that.

JOHN: Just us.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

GONZALEZ: You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org. We're also on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. We have a bunch of videos and pictures up there of Barbuda. We are @planetmoney.

We're officially in paradise.

GURIAN: Here we go.

Today's show was produced by Liza Yeager and Nick Fountain. James Sneed (ph) helped us fact-check. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. And Bryant Urstadt edits the show.

It's windy out here.

GONZALEZ: Oh, the wind feels so good.

And you should check out Scott's podcast, "Far From Home." When you listen to it, you feel like you're visiting places that are really far from home, like Mongolia and Chernobyl.

GURIAN: We want to thank Beverly George (ph).

GONZALEZ: The guy you heard in the beginning of the episode, the one who doesn't want lobster anymore - that's Atkinson Beazer.

GURIAN: Franz DeFreitas (ph) welcomed you to PLANET MONEY. He helped us get around Barbuda.

GONZALEZ: Prettiest water I've ever seen. And we can't get in. We can't get in because we have to work.

GURIAN: We're here for work.

GONZALEZ: Because we're being great little reporters - totally responsible.

I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

GURIAN: And I'm Scott Gurian.

We're still in Barbuda in the middle of the winter, so we can't complain.

GONZALEZ: And it's snowing in New York.

GURIAN: It is snowing in New York.

GONZALEZ: And it's not here. It's so nice.

DEFREITAS: This is NPR. I'm glad you come.

GONZALEZ: OK.

GURIAN: OK.

GONZALEZ: Great.

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