Multi level governance in the Subak and Panglima Laot management systems

During our visit to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Dr. Andrew Wardell talked to the class about his work on multi-level governance. The main focus of his presentation was the regulation of forest resources, but the concepts he explored are useful for understanding any environmental issues involving multiple dimensions of power relations, including state and non-state actors. We have seen such governance issues already in this class when we examined the Subaks in Bali and the management system of the Panglima Laot in Pulau Weh, both of which are cases of local informal law serving to regulate environmental resources that also operate within a larger context of power relations.

The Subak system of water management exists across the island of Bali, involving both very small scale governance by participatory democracy within each Subak, and a higher level of governance by coordination between individual Subaks. Both of these levels are relatively small and lacking in power compared to higher levels of the state government and the influence of systemic economic factors. Furthermore, since the power of the Subaks is exercised within the system that relies on the land ownership of the farmers, the interactions with levels of state governance and formal policy are mainly related to the effects on economic factors on farmer income and land ownership.

Wardell posed the question of comparing the worth of development by participating in global markets to the alternative value of growth within more localized markets, which have the potential to create more stability, food security, and sustainability. This is exactly what the Subaks have done for rice production in Bali prior to their integration with global markets and the increased allocation of land to the tourist economy. Wardell questioned the assumption that small scale systems of governance were inherently better than larger scale management, but in the case of the Subaks there is demonstrable evidence that the community based system works better than any existing government efforts to regulate water resources. Since the green revolution and the introduction of new rice, rice farmers face different economic pressures to produce more rice for sale and export. While the Subaks developed as an adaptive system and have continued to develop adaptations to changing circumstances, these external changes are a serious threat to local autonomy.

The efforts of UNESCO to preserve the Subaks represent a higher level of power being exercised by an international non-state organization in the interests of preserving small-scale systems of governance and resource management. The creation of a land trust to protect Subak land from development and the commitment of UNESCO to involving the farmers in the process should allow for the expansion of the power of the involved Subaks when in conflict with more economically powerful actors. However, Wardell pointed out that in Indonesia, regardless of government regulations and the actions of NGOs to protect local land rights, major economic interests tend to be able to trump all other levels of governance when there is a lot of money to be made, so even protection by the United Nations cannot provide any assurance that local autonomy will not be completely disrupted or that the government will uphold the authority of a land trust.

In the case of the Panglima Laot, their autonomy is not threatened in the same way as the Subaks, but their power still intersects with other levels of governance. The Panglima Laot exercise power over fishing activities within their individual jurisdictions. Interactions between Panglima Laot are also to informal traditional law. There is interest by the provincial government in officially sanctioning the authority of the Panglima Laot through formal law, but the process has been slow. In the meantime, their authority over fishing activities remains largely uncontested, and in some cases supersedes property rights. The Panglima Laot have the authority to seize control of or destroy the property of fishers who are in violation of their rules and yet the intersection of this power with that of the formal legal system does not seem to be a source of conflict.

It is unclear exactly what explains the smoother functioning and integration with other levels of power seen in the case of the Panglima Laot in Pulau Weh compared to the Subaks in Bali, but it seems to be the product of external factors rather than the intrinsic nature of these local management systems. Bali has a much greater population density than Pulau Weh and there is a greater integration of the local economy with external actors, both through global markets and through tourism. This increased involvement of higher power actors is central to the increased complexity of governance and the associated problems faced by the Subaks in Bali.

-Nick Butler-Lapointe

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The Panglima Laot of Aceh

At a time of industry advancement, as demands and prices of fishery resources increase in the global market, fishermen in Aceh still use a low-tech fishing tradition inherited 500 years ago.

An over-night bus and a ferry brought us from the jungle to a seaside hotel on Weh Island of Aceh, which is to the northwest of Sumatra Island. It is a beautiful island with fabulous coral reefs, plenty of colorful fishes, golden beaches and light green shining water. After snorkeling and swimming in the sea, we could hardly believe that a horrible tsunami, which took a lot of lives and badly damaged the coral reefs, occurred 9 years ago. The recovery is related to the efforts of the Panglima Laot, which has protected this beautiful sea since 17th century.

Panglima Laot is a local community-based fishery management system. Panglima Laot means “sea commander,” which is the leader whose duty is to manage community fishermen in marine fisheries. The Panglima Laot system is one of provincial customary laws that help resolve the problem of fishery resource over-exploitation. They have strict regulations regarding fishing allowances and methods in order to protect marine resources.

This afternoon, our classroom was beside the beautiful beach. Two fishermen from the Panglima Laot of Aceh joined us in discussion and brought their stories. They were Saiful Bahri, a leader of Panglima Laot and Ridwan, the vice Panglima Laot. Ridwan used vivid body languages to help him communicate with us. With the help of a translator and Ridwan’s son, we started our conversation across languages and cultures, sharing the same concern about nature and the sea.

There are 3 villages controlled by the Panglima Laot we met with. Currently, there are 193 Panglima Laots in Aceh. Saiful Bahri and Ridwan, were selected by a senior boat captain in the community. He has the highest authority among his community. The authorities include: determining fishing ground, granting or restricting access by outsider fishermen to fish in their territory, settling disputes and conflicts among fishermen, rapidly responding to any sea accident, assisting local government and academic institutions, practicing tradition and protecting the coastal environment. When facing violations inside the community, the power of Panglima Laot can be realized in 3 different ways — warnings, fines and sanctions. Although the Panglima Laot has the highest power in community, they still discuss punishments with the community before coming to a decision. The core purpose of the Panglima Laot is to serve the community.

As an integral part of customs and tradition, Panglima Laot have a lot of taboos and special traditions. We can find their roots in religious belief. A faithful heart to God is also an important criterion for electing a Panglima Laot. This form of stable, firm networking provides every member a connection with each other. Outside community members of each different Panglima Laot hold gatherings and discuss with other Panglima Laot. Sometimes an outside Panglima Laot is invited to help resolve conflicts.

Through the years, the regulations of Panglima Laot system have been updated to adapt to a more complicated external environment. The laws are not written and are loosely influenced by Islamic law. Fishermen are exploring options to write down their customary laws. However, this process still requires time and discussion with the central government. The combination of folk tradition and legislation is a challenge for both government and fishermen. Additional challenges face the fishermen. One of the most pressing issues is the monsoons. They cause high waves and disrupt the livelihoods of fishermen. It makes their jobs more dangerous and difficult. Working hard doesn’t guarantee a steady income. Most fishermen still live in poverty. Ridwan’s first son is working for hotel and does not want to become a fisherman.

Nowadays, Panglima Laot are endowed with new functions. They are beginning to cooperate with the Ministry of Tourism. They also assist the government in protecting against illegal fishing from outside the community by altering military authorities when they see violations beyond their own territory. They bring numerous positive externalities to the local society in the short and long term.

The tsunami and global warming have negatively affected coral reefs. However, Panglima Laot have developed created solutions to help keep coral reefs healthy. After realizing the decrease of the coral reefs, three years ago, Ridwan began remove parts of living coral reefs to the places where no coral reefs exist. Surprisingly, the coral reefs survived and grew bigger!

Panglima Laot remain committed to tradition and loyal to their beliefs. This living history reveals the importance of respecting nature and the balance between humans, nature and religion. The Panglima Laot demonstrates the great wisdom to be learned from tradition.

-Jing Li

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Touring Agricultural Sites of Bukit Lawang

We spent our first day in Bukit Lawang touring agricultural sites. Unlike the former days, the vehicle we used to travel was a motor bike with a side car, which was the local taxi. Compared to a bus or a car, this is a better way to learn about this place — we could see the fields, trees, and houses directly. And a long queue with ten taxis on the country road was really a grand sight. The first stop was a rice field. Unlike the subak system in Bali, the irrigation system here was less organized. Farmers were planting rice seedlings when we arrived. In each field, they planted rice in rows. They also invited students to join them. Obviously it was not an easy process– our students still need more practice to make the seedlings stand in a proper way.

The next stop was a small tofu workshop. People use soybeans to make tofu and this process contains three steps: prepare, extract, and solidify. We tasted the tofu here and it was a little more sour than what we usually have. Additionally, local people also use the soybean to make another food called “tapan” — it was a common dish in Sumatra.

In this trip, we learned about different kinds of palm trees. The guide told us that there are 250 kinds of palm trees in Sumatra and the well-known oil palm tree was just one kind. The lives of local people rely in part on these trees. The trunks from one kind are made into flour and can be used in making pancakes etc. Another type is the palm sugar tree. This kind of tree is very tall and had fruits on the top of it. Local people also use bamboo trees (which is also one kind of palm trees) planted beside the palm sugar tree, and cut holes every thirty centimeters on it to make it a ladder. They climb to the top of bamboo, cut the fruit of sugar tree open and collect the juice. The farmers boil and solidify the juice to make brown sugar. Without boiling, the juice would become wine after 24 hours. People use another kind of palm trees to make roofs. They twist and string together leaves and then sell them in the local market.

Another crop here is the cocoa fruit. It is hard and has a yellow peel on the outside and sour pulp inside, which tasted good. Neither of these made the cocoa — you had to get the kernel. The kernels have to be dried and pulverized before making cocoa.

We also saw the rubber tree. People cut the bark from the tree to allow the white liquid to flow down drip by drip. They put a bowl under the tree to collect it and wait for it to be solidified into a white and elastic substance. This is a very important raw material. The rubber tree can just live for 25 years and it takes 5 years to grow a new one so it is big enough to provide rubber. This was also a tree that stores plenty of water — people can usually collect water near its root. However, in recent years, people have to dig much deeper in order to get water.

The last thing we saw was the infamous oil palm tree. They have large leaves and their large fruit clusters are used to make oil. Later in the trip, we would get a chance to see many more oil palm trees in huge plantations.

Many of the crops we saw were trees, including rubber, palm sugar, and fruit trees. Planting certain types of crop trees could partially mitigate the harm brought by farming methods dependent on deforestation, and benefit local communities at the same time. And such replanting should be done scientifically. For example, we need to figure out which kind of tree crop is more proper to be planted in a buffer zone between forest and plantations. Also, agroforestry is more recommended than monoculture since it can better adapt to ecological and market changes.

-Yue He

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Orangutan Endangerment: An Issue of Human Development

Having previously worked with orangutans in a captive setting, one of the most exciting aspects of this trip for me was the possibility of encountering Sumatran orangutans in the wild, and seeing first hand the processes that have left them critically endangered. And neither our hike nor our tour through Sumatra disappointed.


As anyone in my group on the hike can tell you, I reached a point of pure exhilaration about an hour into our day-long trek. This came after seeing our 3rd mother-baby pair of orangutans in the span of an hour, when I thought we’d be lucky if we saw a single orangutan during our hike. Seeing these apes in their natural habitat—the way they moved, ate, interacted, and cared for their young—was truly beautiful, but it also told a story of the challenges that this and all other jungle species are facing. In the course of our hike, the 5 female orangutans that we saw each had a name (Sandra, Mina, Jackie, etc.), indicating that they were once orphaned or rescued from illegal wildlife trade and rehabilitated in captivity before release into the wild. The good news here: Gunung Leuser rehabilitation programs seem to be working. Each female we saw successfully reproduced in the wild, some more than once. The bad news: animals rehabilitated by humans often lose some of their natural fear of humans. Mina and Jackie both begged our group for food to the point of chasing after us, or, in Jackie’s case, grabbing somebody’s hand and refusing to let go while her baby clung to her stomach. This obviously represents a dangerous aspect of human-wildlife contact that can lead to conflicts, and these behaviors can be learned by offspring, perpetuating the issue.


Above: Jackie holds Prof. Hilde’s wrist hostage in exchange for fruit.

Throughout Sumatra, deforestation is an ongoing battle, even in areas such as Gunung Leuser which are protected. The illegal timber trade is one part of this, but as has been previously mentioned on this blog, oil palm plantations are responsible for the majority of deforestation here, decreasing habitat available for orangutans and increasing human-wildlife conflicts. For example, one of our guides, Dede, told us that orangutans are often shot as pests when they are found eating the palm fruit from which palm oil is made. In other areas such as Kalimantan, Borneo, they are still hunted and sold for a large profit. While this presents serious challenges for orangutan conservation, these actions can often mean the difference for those living in poverty in this country, so it has been difficult to prevent these activities in the absence of providing farmers and hunters alternatives.

Unlike the subak system in Bali, which is made up completely of individual farmers, palm farmers in Sumatra must compete with large agriculture plantations which hire low-wage migrant workers from Java and can afford to use expensive fertilizers and chemicals, producing a higher yield. These plantations take up huge swaths of land transformed from forested areas, increasing the rates of deforestation and orangutan conflicts beyond what individual farmers could cause, in addition to damaging the ecosystem by lowering the water table and increasing nutrient loads.

On a positive note, steps are being taken to reduce orangutan conflict in palm plantations. Buffer zones of rubber trees are used to separate palm plantations and forested areas, rather than planting palms up to the forest’s edge where orangutans could easily reach them. Orangutans eat the leaves and fruit of the rubber trees but do not affect the crop, which is harvested by scraping and tapping the trunks for latex. This prevents the problem of orangutans acting as pests within palm plantations, but is not used everywhere yet; it can be difficult for small farms to replicate as rubber trees require much more work to generate profit than palms do, and farmers cannot afford to lose acreage to a less productive crop.

While these struggles are ongoing, people and wildlife alike are suffering. To prevent the killing of orangutans and future deforestation in general, a system creating reimbursement for environmental capital may be useful as many people do not want to shoot orangutans but must to keep their families alive. Additionally, the need for further research into this and all endangered species was made clear to me during our trek as I spoke with Dani, another guide who has been working with orangutans and in the Gunung Leuser park for decades. Knowledge like his will be key to protecting these species as much of what we know now comes out of zoos and other captive programs which does not paint a true picture of these animals in the wild.

Above: Unsatisfied with the banana given in exchange for the safe return of Prof. Hilde, Jackie latches onto Lindsay

E. Becker

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Eco-tourism as a Means of Decreasing Deforestation

We began our 8-hour jungle trek at 9 am, slowly making our way up the steep steps closer to the entrance of Gunung Leuser National Park. We took a quick break at the top of the hill to catch our breaths as Dede, our guide, casually leaned against a rubber tree. He took this opportunity to explain to us the history and rigorous labor process behind rubber production. He emphasized the patience and time it took, and how the laborers only make a few US dollars per week. Before we continued on with our trek, Dede jokingly asked the group, “So who of you wants to become rubber laborers?” We chuckled and Dede remarked, “But anything for money when you have none, right?”

Poverty is a sad reality for most Indonesians, and choices for income source are often quite limited. In order to provide for their families, many get involved in rubber, cacao, wood, or oil palm production, which is especially true for those in villages surrounding the forests. Oil palm production is the most problematic because it involves cutting down miles of rainforest to plant the oil palm trees. Deforestation occurs at the highest worldwide rate in Indonesia, and this is, in part, due to the land requirements for oil palm production.

But an innovative option that promotes both the livelihood of local people and preservation of these forests seems to be on the rise – the business of eco-tourism. According to Dede, many of the villagers are not aware of this alternative use of the forest that links conservation with sufficient income. The villagers might see more value in removing the forest rather than in maintaining it because there is certainty in the income coming from the production of goods. In addition, much of the money coming tourism goes to sustaining the lodges in the national park, and not to the villagers themselves.

Because of this, some of the villagers do not like the idea of tourism simply because they are not aware of the potential tourism holds to directly impact them. But if done right, ecotourism could provide more opportunities for the villagers, and open many jobs such as hotel managers, drivers, tour guides, housekeeping, cooks, servers, and more. As well, it can prevent problems such as deforestation, loss of habitat for numerous species, and emission of greenhouse gases from forest burning. Many of the villagers are unaware of what such emissions may mean for their environment and future generations.

In order to have successful eco-tourism, there must be balance and communication between the local people and the tourists. As of now, there seems to be minimum interaction between surrounding villages, tourists, and education on the importance of the forest grounds.

Gunung Leuser National Park is a government-protected area of the rainforest that prohibits anyone from going in and cutting down their trees. It attracts many tourists globally who wish to explore the rainforests and participate in a fun yet clean and organic adventure. It was not only my first time being in the jungle, but it was also my first time participating in any sort of hike of such rigorous effort. It was extremely challenging, but definitely something I would recommend to others or come back to do again. Being surrounded by miles of rainforest, I was able to explore the different species of animals living in their natural habitat, from orangutans, pheasants, Thomas Leaf monkeys, to long tailed macaques. After a day of being emerged in their own habitat, I was fully able to understand the impact that deforestation has these animals.

-Deanna Zare

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From Bali to North Sumatra to Pulau Weh

We’re now in Pulau Weh, an island (the word pulau) in Aceh province off the northern tip of Sumatra, on the Andaman Sea. It’s an island still recovering from the effects of the devastating 2004 tsunami.

Following our first week in Bali, we’ve just spent the past week in North Sumatra exploring Gunung Leuser National Park, home to Sumatran tigers, endangered rhinoceroses, elephants, and many other animals, including the threatened Sumatran orangutan. The goal of that part of the trip was to contrast the remaining wild ecosystems and habitats with the broad swathes of land that have now been overtaken by palm plantations all over Sumatra (and Kalimantan, in particular). It’s a contrast in values, or perhaps in degrees of complexity of values. Should we move full bore towards converting land towards purely economic uses and prioritize values of productivity and efficiency? That’s what oil palm represents and it comes with rapid deforestation, forest degradation, loss of peat lands, and a significant increase in carbon emissions due to burning and the loss of forest carbon sinks, not to mention a one-dimensional economy dependent on commodity pricing. Or should we see economic values as only part of a larger array of values that include those of conservation, community, and so on, as we saw so intricately woven together in the Balinese subaks? In a country and region with significant poverty, where people struggle to earn incomes sometimes amounting to ten dollars a week, the answers aren’t immediately clear.

Practically speaking, oil palm and timber harvesting are rapidly taking over the remaining forests of Indonesia, one of the final three great remaining forest systems (along with the Amazon and Central African forests). Oil palm revenues are distributed very unevenly and most people in the industry remain in poverty, but work in the industry can nonetheless represent a small boost in income.

All of this, however, is why Bali’s subak system remains such a fascinating case of balancing economic, environmental, community, and spiritual values, epitomized in both the concrete and in terms of the philosophy of tri hita karana. Furthermore, it’s a complex adaptive system that has withstood environmental and economic disruptions because of the very nature, the resilience, of the system. The main threat today is the economic impetus of growth, which in Bali means growth in the tourism industry and the concomitant overuse of resources as well as powerful incentives to sell off rice farming land to hotel developers. Growth comes with a very high price in Bali.

Now, in lovely Pulau Weh, we’ll discuss a system of environmental/economic/community management similar to the Balinese subaks: the Panglima Laot system of marine management. Panglima Laot doesn’t have the ancient lineage of the 1000+-year-old subaks, dating back a few hundred years and revived more recently. But it is comparable in the sense that it is a system of indigenous communal law (adat) and community- based environmental management that has yielded better results where “better” is consistent with local and even global values of sustainability that are often lacking in larger-scale resource management approaches. More soon on Panglima Laot after we meet with leaders and fishermen tomorrow.

T. Hilde

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Reducing Human-Elephant Conflict: But At What Cost?

When first hearing about the elephant portion of our trip, I was absolutely thrilled. Elephants are my favorite animal and I have had a special connection to anything elephant-related since I was eight years old.  Now, just having left the Elephant Conservation Response Unit in Tangkahan, I am left with conflicting emotions.

This facility opened in 2002 after numerous instances of human-elephant conflict devastated both local communities and elephant populations. In Sumatran towns like Bukit Lawang, elephant habitats have been shrinking due to the high rates of deforestation. The rainforests are being cleared to make way for palm oil trees, palm oil being an important export commodity.  This environmental crisis became even more tangible as we drove through palm oil plantations for about two straight hours on our way driving to Tangkahan. With their natural jungle habitats decreasing, the Sumatran elephants have been forced into local towns in search for food. When entering human villages, the wild elephants rampage homes and gardens, leaving the people impoverished and enraged. In retaliation, village members unite to kill the “pest.”

In order to both protect the elephant populations and maintain human livelihoods, the Indonesian government began funding conservation facilities such as the one we visited. The idea in theory is to bring in only the violent wild elephants and keep them in a semi-captive environment in order to reduce the threat they pose to the nearby towns. Additionally, the elephants are then used to help patrol the forests for illegal logging and poaching of elephants, tigers, and other endangered species. Because villagers have only seen elephants in a negative light, the facility conducts environmental education programs to teach locals about the importance of protecting elephants, as well as demonstrating that they can be friendly to humans.

Once we arrived at the facility, my excitement level continued to rise as I saw the beautiful elephants walking around. There were seven female elephants and one male, all given cute names proudly displayed in the visitor center. Taking a closer look, I noticed the area that they had to roam around seemed oddly small and flat, lacking the rich biodiversity of their natural jungle habitat. We were led down to a small river where the rangers each had an elephant they were looking after. Once they commanded the elephants to sit down in the water, we were given brushes and grouped off to scrub the elephants. I picked Theo, the one male elephant of the group. While bathing him, I was grateful that I was having a truly once in a lifetime experience to be that close to an elephant in a semi-wild state. Theo seemed to enjoy the bathing as he flapped his ears and maintained a calm look in his eyes.

Once we were done bathing the elephants, a few of us lined up to get sprayed by the elephants. Feeling the tip of his trunk against my cheek, I eagerly awaited the powerful spray of water on my face. Even though I knew it was coming, it was an exciting surprise each time. The rangers handed us bags of bananas and sugar cane to feed the elephants. This became a playful game as I figured out the best way to place the fruit in their mouths or trunks. The rangers then lined up the elephants and asked us to step back. This was the turning point of the experience.

The rangers started shouting out commands for the elephants to do various tricks like lifting up one leg or bending down on their hind legs. Suddenly, it felt like we were at a circus rather than an elephant conservation unit. These elephants were being used to entertain us and had gone through pain to learn these commands. I saw the elephant hooks that were used in training and later asked the head ranger more about this. He said that they used hooks when the elephants were being violent or stubborn. Elephants are smart animals and it takes a lot of work to train them. The ranger later stated how they had to use the hooks on the elephants’ heads since they “didn’t feel it on the body.”

Having lived in the United States my whole life, I have never experienced knowing what it is like to consider an elephant a pest. For this reason, I must acknowledge my inherent bias in the way I view elephants. However, I am trying to harmonize the differing mentalities in the case of managing human elephant conflict.

When first hearing about the elephant conservation facility, I imagined a place that would attempt to mimic the wild habitat as closely as possible for the comfort of the animals. I thought the unit would be operated with conservation motives as the primary goal, but the closer I looked at what was happening, it seemed like more of green-washing scheme. While the tourist revenue is essential for managing the facility (the government no longer provides funding), it may not be best for the elephants. I was again surprised when I found out that there is no plan for the elephants to be re-introduced into the wild after having stayed in the conservation unit. Yet it is important to understand that these elephants would have likely been killed if it weren’t for this facility.

It is difficult to find a perfect solution for the problems of human-elephant conflict. However, I think it is important to look back to the root cause of this problem– deforestation. Deforestation in Indonesia is being driven by human demand for palm oil. Creating tourist funded conservation units does protect some elephants from being killed and provides the local community with a sense of protection for the safety of their homes and fields. Nonetheless, this is not the ideal situation since it acts as a band-aid, treating only a symptom of the deeper problem.

I left the elephant facility with conflicting emotions, trying to decide if this type of facility was actually helping the elephants, or if it was turning them into show animals for tourist attraction. As a tourist, what had I just partaken in? Was it wrong that I enjoyed washing the elephants and having them spray me?

It was an incredible opportunity for us since it is impossible to interact with elephants in such a way when they are in their naturally wild state. While enjoying this type of playful interaction, it is important to recognize the faults and the benefits of this type of conservation strategy. While it does allow for the elephants’ survival, it keeps them in a captive state mostly removed from their jungle habitat. Bringing tourists to the area generates revenue to maintain the conservation project, but training the elephants in a circus-type way for show does not further environmental education goals.

Overall, I am happy to have experienced all of this, and am grateful to have spent time with the elephants. However, when looking at the photos of our smiling faces washing the elephants, it is important to consider the factors I have mentioned as a disclaimer.

– Neda Movahed


Photo Credit: T. Hilde

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