The shoppers didn’t really know what hit them. One minute they were happily trundling their food-laden trollies out of Woolies and the next they were caught up in a Trash Mob event.
It was a typical Saturday morning at Constantia Village in Cape Town until the small group of Trash Mob volunteers started cajoling shoppers into stripping the plastic from their food.
This was the first trash mob event organised by the fledgling eco-activism organisation Warrior Youth, founded by Capetonian Matthew Furlonger and his partner Jess Sjouerman.
Stripped “naked”, the plastic-free food was then put into paper bags supplied by the charming mobbers. At the end of the two-hour protest Woolies was presented with a trolley-full of plastic. The video of the event at Constantia Village in July has been viewed 39,000 times and continues to spread through social media.
Eco-activism appears in many different forms, from trashing plastic in public to marching on Parliament to demand climate action. And then there are the less public activists, the ones who arrange beach clean-ups, save heirloom seeds and encourage a zero-waste lifestyle on Instagram.
The eco-hero of the moment has to be Greta Thunberg, the diminutive schoolgirl from Sweden who has set the world alight with her forthright, no-nonsense climate strike campaign.
Her global followers, dubbed the Greta Generation, are, like her, too young to vote but they are taking a stand and facing up to the inconvenient truths of the climate crisis. Eco-activists around the world have rallied around Thunberg’s #FridaysforFuture and #ClimateStrike hashtags.
Meet some climate activists in SA who share their passion for living a greener life.
Generation Greta: Yola Mgogwana, Earthchild Project
Yola Mgogwana, 11, recalls the day she and her friends came across a dog trapped in a plastic bag at a flooded illegal dumpsite.
“We couldn’t reach the dog but it managed to break free by using its claws. That was when I was 10 years old and it frightened me,” says Yola.
Yola and her friends were collecting plastic at the time and they decided to do more to clean up their immediate environment.
“I live in Site B, Khayelitsha, a place known for being violent and it’s very poor in terms of standard of living,” says Yola.
The eager eco-warriors started volunteering with the Earthchild Project, through their school, Yolomela Primary in Khayelitsha. The Earthchild Project is a nonprofit organisation that integrates environmental education into classrooms.
In March 2019, Yola joined the global climate strikes and marched to Parliament in Cape Town. She addressed the crowd of nearly 2,000 fellow learners, appealing for justice and environmental policies to confront global heating.
How did Yola find herself addressing the crowd that day?
“My teacher told us that the world eco-warriors class was invited to the #ClimateStrike #Fridaysforfuture march in Cape Town and I was chosen to do a speech at the march,” Yola says calmly.
What do you do for the environment?
“I take my eco-activism seriously and spend my spare time raising awareness around the problem of single-use plastic.
“We collect plastics and I give talks at other schools about things like single-use plastic. Our school has started growing organic vegetables and we monitor the school’s water and electricity consumption. We can see that there have been some improvements in our area.
“Every school should make environmental education part of their curriculum. Climate change is a foreign topic to my family – without the environmental club I would be in the dark,” says Yola.
“When the drought in Cape Town 18 months ago had the city weeks away from ‘Day Zero’ that was the big sign, for me.
“I realised that we need to change our ways and stand up for nature because our government wants to profit from the environment instead of implementing policies that protect it,” she says.
Yola’s natural habitat
Yola enjoys being outdoors. “I am happiest in a vegetable garden, on a soccer field, in a forest, on a farm or lying on the grass.”
“My eco-hero? Greta Thunberg, the leader of the #ClimateStrike #FridaysforFuture movement.”
Generation Greta: Jade Bothma, founder Oceano Reddentes
“When I was seven years old I started an eco-club at my school,” says Jade Bothma, 14, the founder of Oceano Reddentes, a nonprofit aiming to “save the ocean one piece of plastic at a time”.
Bothma started her nonprofit when she was 13 after watching Chasing Coral, a Netflix documentary about the bleaching of the coral reefs in the Great Barrier Reef.
“I wanted to do something to help but there aren’t really coral reefs in South Africa. But I would find lots of plastic when I was surfing and I started making eco-bricks for five minutes every time I went to the beach. Oceano Reddentes grew from that simple decision and my vision is to build a home out of eco-bricks for someone in need.”
Oceano Reddentes hosts beach clean-ups in Cape Town and gives talks and workshops to learners around the problem of plastic pollution.
Jade was awarded the Commonwealth Points of Light award by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle when they visited Cape Town in September 2019.
“The plastic that we collect is part of ongoing scientific research into what type of plastics we’re finding on our beaches,” says Jade.
“I would love South Africa to acknowledge the youth climate marches that we do every term.
“If the youth are standing up, then you know that we know that there is a problem and the big corporates are too scared to admit it,” says Jade.
How do you live eco-consciously?
“We have our own compost bin at home and recycle at home as well,” says Jade. “I wouldn’t say I am zero-waste nor plastic-free but we try to cut down on the amounts of plastic we use in our house every month.
“Eco-bricking is a great way to show us what plastic we are using and we are slowly eliminating these types of plastic. We try to find alternatives to everyday things, like Stasher bags, reusable shopping bags, our own water bottles, bamboo coffee cups, bamboo straws, cardboard earbuds, bamboo toothbrushes, toothpaste bites, shampoo bars and locally made ocean-friendly sunblock that comes in a tin. We buy cooldrinks in cans instead of plastic bottles.”
What have you given up for the environment?
“The first thing I gave up was plastic straws, they are completely useless and the easiest thing to give up,” says Jade.
“Then we gave up plastic bags, plastic water bottles, toothpaste tubes and other things. There are so many alternatives to plastic bags. Plastic bags are killers and are ingested by thousands of marine animals every year.
“We are slowly trying to cut down on meat.”
Jade’s natural habitat
When she’s not at the beach you’ll find Jade zero-waste shopping at Shop Zero in Woodstock or Wild and Waste Free in Glencairn.
“We also like to shop at Food Lovers. It is the first South African food retailer to ban straws and the plastic bag in their stores,” says Jade.
“My favourite beach is probably Windmill Beach because it’s amazing for snorkelling and diving. I love Water’s Edge, a little beach on the coastline near Simon’s Town. It’s where I saw my very first gulley shark!”
“My eco-crush? Leonardo DiCaprio.”
The Eco-Activist Couple: Jess Sjouerman and Matt Furlonger, Warrior Youth
Warrior Woman: Jess Sjouerman
“I’ve scrambled to the top of caramel Sahara dunes, cried my heart out under the northern lights in Norway, driven a rickshaw over 3,000km through India, volunteered as a children’s clown in Syrian refugee camps in Greece and dived beneath backlit shoals of thousands of sardines,” says eco-activist Jess Sjouerman.
Soon after graduating from UCT with a BMedSci Hons in 2014, Jess Sjouerman, 26, walked out on a conventional career and spent the next four years exploring the globe and embarking on a voyage of self-discovery.
“I’ve always felt a deep connection to nature and been overwhelmed by its beauty,” she says.
“I think much of it came from my Brazilian heritage. My mother was from Rio, so we went to Brazil every year to visit our family.
“My memories of this include the tattoos of hummingbirds, dolphins and panthers on my family members’ bodies; the endless rainforest and trying to find my cousin’s lost skunk.”
During her globetrotting Sjouerman met her partner in eco-activism, Matthew Furlonger, and the couple decided to settle in Cape Town where they are dedicating their time towards setting up Warrior Youth.
What have you given up for the environment?
“We do what we can by avoiding plastic and taking reusable bags shopping, recycling, changing over to eco-friendly and natural products, avoiding products that contain ingredients that can be environmentally and socially destructive (like palm oil or GMO foods), composting, cleaning beaches, collecting spring water and staying on top of our water consumption. With that said, we do none of these things perfectly and there’s always room for improvement,” says Sjouerman.
“As a vegan, I’ve given up any animal-derived products, along with plastic, palm oil, GMO foods or chemical products that are harmful to our bodies and the environment.
“After watching the documentary The True Cost on Netflix, I also realised that the next step in reducing consumption would be to stop supporting fast fashion, so I recently started becoming hyper-aware of everything I buy and the potential costs/benefits of supporting certain businesses.
“I have challenged myself to boycott fashion (especially the fast fashion industry), looking into alternatives like second-hand stores, repairing and repurposing old clothing, supporting local co-operatives and hand-me-downs from family.
“I also invested in reusable cloth pads, a menstrual cup and two small sponges (all made locally) rather than using disposable pads and tampons.”
Jess’s natural habitat
You’ll find Sjouerman at her local Food Lovers Market – “we love that we can buy loose fruit and veggies without blowing our budgets”.
“When we eat out we go to The Kind Kitchen in Woodstock for vegan food and for zero-waste shopping we go to Nude Foods in town. My favourite green spaces are hiking in Newlands Forest and on the Kirstenbosch contour path.
“My favourite beaches are Llandudno and Clifton for beach walks and short winter swims.”
“My eco-crushes? Sir David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg.”
Warrior Man: Matthew Furlonger
“I’ve always had a deep love and fascination for nature – trees, insects, animals, birds – and when I was younger I would consider them all to be my friends,” says Matthew Furlonger, 29, co-founder of eco-activism organisation Warrior Youth.
“I’ve been eco-conscious for as long as I can remember.”
Shortly after graduating from AAA where he studied marketing communication, Furlonger sailed to Rio for the World Summit for Sustainable Development.
“It was a life-changing experience,” he says. “I made a promise to myself that I would dedicate the rest of my life to the well-being of humanity and this planet.”
He spent a year living off-grid, learnt how to grow his own food and build naturally and in February 2019 he and partner Jess Sjouerman decided to settle in Cape Town.
“My green dream for this country is for all South Africans to come together through the common goal of becoming as eco-conscious as possible,” says Furlonger.
What have you given up for the environment?
“Part of living eco-consciously is to embrace minimalism, trying to shop for food as responsibly as possible. Is it in season? Is it imported? Is it fair trade or grown locally, is it organic? Is it a GMO or does it contain palm oil?
“I buy as few clothes and products as possible (most of my things are either gifts or hand-me-downs), we catch all our washing machine and shower water to flush the toilet, we catch our dishwashing water and use that to water our plants, I’ve given up showering every day and make a concerted effort to buy as little plastic as possible.
“I also compost and recycle. I’m still learning how to best do all of this though and where else I can reduce or make up for any negative consequences my lifestyle may have.”
Matt’s natural habitat
When he isn’t staging Trash Mobs in shopping centres you’ll find Matt in Kirstenbosch Gardens, the Cederberg, the Transkei, Garden Route and the Karoo.
“My favourite places to shop eco-consciously are Nude Foods (it is amazing), Food Lovers Market is great in terms of plastic-free options, the Oranjezicht City Farm market for all sorts of responsibly sourced and produced goodies and treats and we try to buy organic food boxes from local farmers where possible as well,” he says.
“My absolute favourite walk around CT is along the contour paths of Table Mountain from Kirstenbosch which I do as often as possible.
“My eco-crushes? Definitely John Muir and Henry Thoreau.”
The Environmentalist: Aaniyah Omardien – founder of The Beach Co-op
“My passion for the environment comes from immersing myself in wild open spaces – be it walking in the mountains, surfing at my local surf break or snorkelling in the kelp forest,” says Aaniyah Omardien, 41, the founder of the nonprofit organisation The Beach Co-op.
Omardien is at home in the sea. She surfs it, dives in it and digs deep to organise regular beach clean-ups along Cape Town’s shoreline for the NPO that she founded in 2017.
It all began in 2015 when Omardien and a group of volunteers started getting together every new moon to collect marine debris at Surfers Corner in Muizenberg.
These informal new-moon gatherings evolved into The Beach Co-op.
“Our mission is to eliminate, reuse, redesign and recycle single-use plastic, which often lands up in our oceans and on our beaches,” says Omardien.
Where does Omardien’s eco-activism come from?
“My mom is an eco-warrior at heart and she fostered my love for nature. She taught my sisters and me how to use greywater to feed the herbs that we planted; how to recycle tin, paper and glass; and the importance of never wasting food.
“She also took us to the beach often and Dalebrook tidal pool was a favourite summer picnic destination for our family.
“From a very early age, I was conscious of the need to respect and to live within ecological boundaries. I was probably about eight when I consciously realised what Mom was teaching me and why. It shaped who I am today, the work that I do and how I raise my children.
“I attended Wynberg Girls High School after the schools ‘opened’ to all races in 1990 and this exposed me to a range of school activities. My favourite was hiking and my geography teacher, who headed up the club, encouraged me to join the Wilderness Leadership School, which took to me incredible places. We went on five-day hikes in the Cederberg and Hogsback mountains. I was also trained to lead children from the Cape Flats up Table Mountain. This all led to me studying science at the University of Cape Town, although the option of doing art was a close second choice!”
What have you given up for the environment?
“I try to live according to the eco-conscious teachings of my mom. We love to travel as a family, but keep it local, taking road trips and visiting Cape St Francis once a year – this has been our annual mid-year destination for more than a decade.
“I am also trying to eat less red meat by restricting it to weekends only. I use reusable shopping bags, try to remember my reusable coffee mug and, where possible, avoid buying fruit and vegetables wrapped in single-use plastic.
“It is hard to avoid single-use plastics especially if you only have time to go to one shop to buy food. I am trying to eliminate plastic packaging from my bathroom buys – also a challenge.
“I would love to have our solid waste management system in SA operating at very high levels of efficiency with all waste sorted and reused and recycled where possible or composted, with nothing going to landfill – a full circular economy model for all manufactured products,” she says.
Aaniyah’s natural habitat
When she’s not at the beach you’ll find Aaniyah shopping at Checkers in Muizenberg “because they sell loose fruit and veg, as does Organic Zone in Lakeside”.
“I also shop online and have recently discovered Khween Shebar’s amazing soaps and body products – with no plastic packaging.
“I love spending time at Cape Point Nature Reserve – walking, surfing, diving, foraging mussels and simply chilling. Another favourite destination is the equally magnificent Silvermine Nature Reserve, which is a great place to walk or swim in the dam.”
“My eco-crush? One of my favourite humans is Celine Semaan who founded #FashionActivism organisation The Slow Factory and the Library Study Hall – a space for industry to discuss and solve sustainability challenges. The hall is allied with companies like Tesla, Adidas, G-Star Raw and Swarovski and it operates as an education and advocacy platform.”
The Environmental Scientist: Rhian Berning, Eco Atlas
“It’s hard to say where my passion for the environment comes from, it’s a bit like breathing,” says Rhian Berning, an environmental scientist and founder of Eco Atlas, a search engine for eco-friendly accommodation, products and services in South Africa.
Berning, 42, lives in an off-grid house on the Garden Route with her husband, two children and a small menagerie of animals.
“I remember having a lot of empathy as a child, empathy for all life, for trapped insects, abused animals and bullied children. I think empathy and kindness are at the core of being ‘eco-conscious’,” says Berning.
Berning studied Environmental Science at UCT as well as a postgrad in education, and for many years her focus was on environmental education with SEED, Nature Network and Eco-Schools.
Seven years ago she founded Eco Atlas, an online search engine for “places good for people and planet”.
“Eco Atlas was born of the premise that we can create a groundswell of positive change through our daily choices if where we shop, eat, stay and play is based on having positive social and environmental impacts,” says Berning.
“Our daily choices become good for both people and the planet if they are well informed and we vote with our wallets for the places actively water-saving, upskilling staff, supporting local suppliers and working towards zero waste.
“Eco Atlas allows you to search, recommend and review places based on these criteria so you can actively play a part in creating a better world. We really can all be everyday activists in our own way,” adds Berning.
Berning and her family have embraced sustainable living in their self-built house near Plettenberg Bay.
“We live in an off-grid home that we rebuilt after losing everything to the Garden Route fires,” says Berning. “We run 100% on solar power and rainwater and we filter and recycle all of our waste-water into the growing of food.
“We live as low impact as we can with the principles of supporting local, creating minimal waste, growing organic food, protecting the biodiversity of our area by planting indigenous and leaving natural areas to be, well, natural.”
What have you given up for the environment?
“I’m on a journey to give up all single-use plastics, and I think we need to see it like that, as a journey, because all the systems are not yet set up in our town (and many others) to be completely single-use plastic-free, but I’m confident that that time will come,” says Berning.
“I always have my reusable water bottle, my reusable shopping bags and produce bags, my own container for takeaways, my glass straws for my children with me, as part of my survival kit for refusing single-use plastics.
“However, I’m not able to get all my food packaging-free and so those bits of packaging go into an eco-brick which we will be using to build structures at schools.
“Our home is vegan/vegetarian, but with my husband eating completely plant-based it is just easier to cook vegan meals for the whole family instead of cooking two different meals.
“Flying is not something I do regularly at all. However, if there is a conference or workshop I really need to attend I might do a short-haul flight once or twice a year because our public transport system in no way compares to that of Europe where the no-flying commitment has really taken off, inspired by Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot,” says Berning.
Rhian’s natural habitat
You’ll find Rhian in her veggie garden or on a beach along the Garden Route. “From Nature’s Valley to Robberg Peninsula we are blessed with some of the best beaches in the world, the sea is clean and just the right temperature, the beaches expansive and the coastal forest glints in the sunlight,” says Rhian.
When it comes to shopping, Rhian supports local, eco-conscious brands. “We are lucky to have a travelling zero-waste store in the form of the Garden of Dee-Light, where you can bring your own containers and get all your staple grains.”
“My eco-crush? Wangari Maathai, although she is no longer with us, is definitely my biggest eco crush. I also have a soft spot for Arundhati Roy and Barbara Kingsolver and of course Greta Thunberg, who is the eco-crush of the moment!”
The Climate Smart Seed Saver: Busisiwe Mgangxela
“Our ancestors did not eat the kind of food we are eating and they lived longer and were healthier because they produced their own food, they kept their own seed,” says Busisiwe Mgangxela, 57, an agroecology farmer living in the Eastern Cape who grows her own food and sells the surplus in Hogsback.
Mgangxela, who is a qualified nurse educator, spent much of her career promoting quality nutrition as the first line of management in health care.
“Caring for plants, the environment and mother Earth are my passion. If people had a healthy diet there would be less chronic diseases that are mainly caused by unhealthy eating and eventually there would be less burden on the health budget for preventable conditions,” says Mgangxela.
“I use agroecology principles in my food production. This looks at a balance in the ecology system where humans benefit from nature and vice versa. Soil preparation is by use of kraal manure, compost, vermicast, vermiliquid from my inhouse worm farm, my free-range indigenous chickens and cows.
“Diversification through crop rotation and companion planting makes this possible. Different vegetables, herbs, flowers and grains thrive in my garden.
“My love for seed saving comes from my cultural background. Maize was planted using kept seed, ‘isi swenye’, which was either obtained by sharing or battering and multiplying for future use. When there was more harvest and more surplus, selling would happen.
“I still remember my mom, when I was about 13 years old, telling me in 1974 that we would be out of water in our country and we should therefore plant trees to prevent the situation becoming worse. At the time I thought it was just talk, but look at us now,” says Mgangxela.
“I believe that if we farm sustainably we can create jobs and improve our environment, and my dream is to showcase agroecology and GMO-free farming on a 48ha farm that is currently illegally occupied,” says Mgangxela.
Busisiwe’s natural habitat
You’ll find Busisiwe working in her garden and taking in the views. “I live in a beautiful area surrounded by the Amathole mountains in a basin comprised of 13 villages not far from Hogsback. Natural forests and valleys that are not disturbed give tranquillity and a beautiful breathtaking view.”
“I admire a lot of seed savers: Sibongile Cele in Johannesburg from Izindaba Zokudla is one. Rushka Johnson in Port Elizabeth, Siphiwe Sithole of African Marmalade in Mpumalanga and Botshabelo Mabunda in Limpopo are some others.”
Grassroots activist: Xolani Hlongwa, founder Green Camp Gallery Project
“When I was growing up, my grandfather kept cows on a farm near Port Shepstone, on the South Coast,” says Xolani Hlongwa, founder of ID: Green Camp Gallery Project in Durban’s Glenwood.
“Staying with him gave me a sense of what life was like on a farm, a connection to the land. I was conflicted about going home to live in the township.
“I looked around me in the township and I saw environmental injustices,” says Hlongwa, who lives in one room in the property in Glenwood.
“I came from a broken home and there was no money for education so I had to leave school with only a matric certificate. I was expected to go out and get a job working for a white man who would pay me a pitiful salary but I didn’t want to live like that.
“I got on to a drama and dance programme for underprivileged children that was offered by the Playhouse Theatre and from there I got into ballet.
“I thought dance would be my ticket out of the township but it didn’t work out and I ended up giving in to my family and getting a regular job.
“I started working at a Playtex factory but when I reconnected with friends from my old ballet class who were living in a backpackers, planning to get funding to set up a ballet school, I chucked in the job and moved out of home again and into the backpackers.
“The ballet school idea didn’t get off the ground but I was offered accommodation and a job at the backpackers that paid R1,500 a month. I had it made.
“It was the first time I’d had white friends and I met backpackers from all over the world, including a Swedish woman who I got involved with. I lived in Europe (Sweden, Germany) for 10 years and that’s where my eco-conscious ideas came together.
“I studied sustainable development because I was inspired by the way people in Sweden live in harmony with nature.”
Hlongwa had many jobs in different areas, including working as an organic chef in a school co-operative in Stockholm that focused on organic lifestyles.
“I developed a passion for the environment and that was when I came up with my Intelligent Design (ID) concept. Green Camp Gallery Project is the first baby of ID and it provides answers to all our needs in an organic way. I’m creating a replicable model of sustainable living at Green Camp,” says Hlongwa.
“We need to change people’s mindset about the environment in SA: my family doesn’t even understand the difference between organic and GMO seed.”
What have you given up for the environment?
“I have given up a comfortable life in Sweden and my township identity. I don’t have friends in the township any more because of my eco-conscious lifestyle. I live in the ruins of Green Camp and I don’t get to see my children much because they live with their mothers in Sweden (two daughters) and Germany (a son),” says Hlongwa.
Xolani’s natural habitat
Xolani lives and works at Green Camp Gallery Project, an organic and sustainable lifestyle hub that focuses on “urban farming and creativity in all its forms”.
“We are a distribution point for organic vegetables from local farms and I try to visit these farms to see where our food is coming from,” says Hlongwa.
“Area Based Management is an organisation that I have worked with. It is an eThekwini municipality programme looking at off-grid building and regeneration of the inner city.
“I enjoy visiting Antbear Eco Lodge, an organic permaculture farm in the Drakensberg that we lived on for a while.”
“My eco-crush? To be honest, it’s me, Xolani. The problem with asking me to name someone else as my eco-crush is that if I pick a white person I will be accused of racism. I don’t see colour. I am a human being and that’s how I see everyone: as human beings.”
The chemical engineer turned eco-influencer: Janisha Harie
“I am a chemical engineer by profession. After working for almost 10 years in the petrochemical industry, I became seriously ill with an occupational lung disease that was induced by chemical exposure,” says eco-influencer Janisha Harie, 34.
The impact on her life was huge, says Durban-born Harie, who now lives in Johannesburg.
“I had to leave the chemical operations environment and I turned to natural and alternative healing modalities, started using chemical-free personal care and household cleaning products, and adopted a mostly plant-based whole foods diet in order to aid my healing.
“As I became aware of what I was putting into and onto my body, I also became conscious of how I was consuming and the waste that I was generating.
“I became increasingly aware of the global crisis of plastic pollution, started transitioning to a plastic-free lifestyle, and used my social media platforms to advocate for sustainable living. [See Harie on Instagram]
“I choose consciousness over convenience, and advocate for plastic-free and low-waste living, chemical-free living, as well as mindful health and wellness,” says Harie.
What have you given up for the environment?
“I refuse single-use plastics, and over time I have swopped out many other household and lifestyle products for more sustainable alternatives
“I am a vegetarian and choose local, organic and package-free food where possible. For those items that are packaged, I recycle what I can, and EcoBrick the rest.
“All my home cleaning products, personal care and beauty products are natural, cruelty-free and chemical-free.
“I try to support local sustainable lifestyle and fashion brands rather than buy fast fashion.
“I use my clothes, electronics and homeware for as long as possible before replacing them, and try to repair, reuse and repurpose whatever I can.”
Janisha’s natural habitat
“Over the weekends you’ll usually find me seeking out a green space in the city, and whenever I have an opportunity for a longer break I try to head to the mountains or the ocean” says Janisha.
“My favourite places to shop eco-consciously are: Faithful to Nature (online), The Refillery, SEK Zero Waste Store, 44 Stanley, The Bryanston Organic Market and Jacksons Real Food Market.
“When I want green space in Jozi I’ll head for The Wilds, James and Ethel Grey Park, Emmarentia Dam and Nirox Sculpture Park.
“My eco-crush? There are so many people in SA and around the world doing incredible things to make a change that I can’t single out just one.” DM
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