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Eau et développement dans l'Europe moderne

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Salvatore Ciriacono

I : De l'irrigation à la bonification

5. The draining of the lakes in the Netherlands (18th-19th centuries)

Albert J. Thurkow

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Reclaiming and the development of the agricultural economy

1It has frequently been pointed out that there is a connection between the fluctuations of the agricultural economy and the extent of the reclaiming of lakes in the history of the Netherlands (Cools 1984: 84, 97, 168; Slicher van Bath 1977: 220, 234, 253). In my opinion some discretion is needed when using this generalization. In the first place one can call to mind that in an allocation model for agricultural land-use the so-called location rent which is defined as the difference between the rewards from using the land in a certain way and the costs of such utilization and which theoretically determines the extension or the reduction of cultivated land in a rational and economic system, is not only calculated with the help of the market price received per hectare but also with the production costs per hectare and the movement costs (Cox 1972: 258 a.f). In a reclaimed lake the production costs are very important because of the large capital investments in and the costs of maintenance of infra-structural works such as the ring dike, the encircling canal, the regular network of minor canals and ditches and the water pumping mills of these new polders. New prospects for capital investment and technological innovations can give the calculation a very different result. In this context it would not appear so meaningful to compare the amount of newly reclaimed lands after 1850 with the quantity of land gained before that year if one wishes to examine the influence of the changing agricultural economic circumstances on this type of landreclamation. For after 1850, to start with the very big Haarlemmerlake scheme that was completed in 1852, the exclusive use of steam pumps was more and more put into practice for draining lakes, especially after 1862 when the centrifugal pump was successfully introduced into the Netherlands as a water removing device. Besides these innovations an integrated railway network was brought about in the same years, resulting in a considerable decrease of transportation costs. If the attention is directed to the years before 1850 a first important question seems to be whether the decisions to start with schemes of lake draining were made in a strictly rational and economic way. The first known reclaimed lake, which was situated near the town of Alkmaar, dates back to 1533. From that year up to 1850 a number of 157 of these schemes were completed with a total area of almost 69 000 hectares of which 95 % was realised in the province of Holland (Schultz 1992). In this province a specialised and commercialised agriculture was already characteristic from 1500 and the rise of a class of big, financially strong and market-orientated farmers could be noticed (Zanden 1985: 33). Over and above it can be established that already in the 16th century but definitely in the first half of the 17th century the capital investments required for draining the lakes were financed by rich merchants, capitalists and other important people living in the towns who per definition used to have a very rational and economic way of thinking. So it can be assumed that from the onset the instigators of a reclamation scheme calculated the profits and losses of their enterprise as best they could. But there were always some unknown and uncertain factors to be dealt with, for instance concerning the quality of soils or the exigencies of water control. In the most successful and also largest scheme of the 17th century, namely the Beemster, the owners were after 20 years compelled to change the drainage system in which surplus water was lifted and discharged in three stages, to a system of four stages because the bottom of the former lake had sunk several decimetres in that period. The additional costs were heavy, apart from the sustained damage to the crops as a result of the drainage problems and the defective encountered pumping in the years before this alteration (Keunen 1985: 12). It was of course at first unknown that the soils of clay underlying the lakes could sink more than 1 meter in time (Smits 1966: 240-247). Nevertheless apart from these sorts of hazards the generalization on the subject of the connection between the extent of the draining of the lakes and the development of the agricultural economy certainly holds true for the 16th and the first half of the 17th century considering the special characteristics of the chief initiators. Seemingly this connection also exists for the periods thereafter until 1850. If the development of the agricultural economy after 1533 is considered, then the period until 1650 can be characterized by the rise of the prices of farm produce and farm rentals. In the period 1651-1750 there was a deep depression. It was of regular occurrence that farmers in the province of Holland abandoned their land in reclaimed polders because they were no longer able to afford the rentals and the poldertaxes (Zanden 1985: 34). From 1751-1850 generally the prices of farmproduce and rentals rose again except for a short period of a slump between 1820 and 1835. The amounts of reclaimed lands are in these different periods respectively in the proportion of 46, and 12, 42. The link with the long-term fluctuations of the agricultural economy seems to be perfect. However, an important interfering factor must be pointed out. In the first period established (1533-1650) mainly natural lakes were drained by private entrepreneurs who, as already mentioned, first calculated their benefits and losses as well as they could. In the other two periods (1651-1750 and 1751-1850) a strong emphasis existed (respectively 96 % and 92 % of the involved area) on the reclaiming of bodies of water that came into being as a consequence of peat digging. In stead of private investors now for the greater part public corporations such as local authorities (ambachten) took on the task of draining these new bodies of water. They mostly did not do so because it was so profitable or because they wanted it so badly but because they were obliged to do it according to the permits issued by higher authorities to dig peat in certain areas (Fockema 1934: 206-210). In these documents it was stipulated after how many years the digging and dredging of peat had to be finished and when the lakes, which resulted from these activities, had to be drained. It was also stipulated in the permits that a fund for the draining had to be formed by levying of a tax on the obtained peat. This capital was not to be used for any other purpose. The farm lands which were created in this way can at best be indirectly linked with the general economic development. For during those years in which the economy of the towns flourished there used to be a great demand for fuel in the form of lumps of peat because of a growing urban population and expanding industrial activities. But the time of reclamation of the newly formed bodies of water came much later because the period that was granted for the digging of peat usually extended over several decades. However, a still more disturbing factor is, that the central government itself started to drain a number of large and deep bodies of water which had been partly dredged and stripped of peat before 1700 when it had not yet been decreed to apply for a permit. Even when, after 1700, the removal of the peat was continued in these places with an acquired permit, the collected capital was very insufficient to meet the expenses of draining the extensive bodies of water. So the state assumed this task. This happened for the first time in 1772 (Droogmakerij van Bleiswijk en Hillegersberg) but until 1850 in four other cases also. These initiatives of the central government were not primarily taken to create new farmland but because these large bodies of water were a continuous threat to the surrounding areas (Thurkow 1990, 22: 33-54). Until 1850 the area concerned amounted to 13 268 hectares or 46 % of the land created by draining during the third period (1751-1850). This does not include 18 100 hectares of the huge Haarlemmerlake polder which had not yet been completed at that time.

2From what precedes I want to draw the conclusion that certainly in the period 1533-1650 the rising prices of farm produce and rising farm rentals played a prominent part in the willingness of private initiators to invest in drainage projects but that in the period 1651-1750 and especially in the period 1751-1850 the connection between the amount of drained lakes and the state of the agricultural economy was much less direct and much more complex.

The central government and the draining of lakes1

  • 1 Thurkow 1991, 49-56.

3In the Republic of the Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands the governments of the provinces of Holland and of Friesland had a positive approach to the realization of the draining of lakes in the 17th and the 18lh century. It was usual that in the permits, which were granted by these governments to reclaim a lake or an other waterbody, the initiators were exempted from quite a number of taxations for a certain period (in Holland for an average of 15 years and in Friesland even 50 years) which exemption was extended again and again if necessary. The principal motive for this support was the expectation that the country would greatly benefit from this type of enterprises. During these centuries monetary subsidies were not given by the provincial governments, with only one exception namely in the case of the Staverensche Zuiderlake polder in Friesland. The reinforcement of the ring dike of this polder, which was situated very close to the sea, was regarded to be in the public interest by the Frisian government (Thurkow 1992: 63-74). In the 17th century these provincial governments did certainly not interfere with the internal geography and layout of the new polders nor was the construction of canals, sluices or other works imposed on behalf of third parties with only a few exceptions. The government contented itself with the insertion of a clause into the draining permit that the investors had to indemnify third parties who experienced financial damages caused by the draining, with a possibility of appeal to a governmental agency in case of a dispute. In the province of Holland there came already in the 18th century more governmental supervision over the design of the reclamations. The initiators had to produce more detailed plans than before. These so-called project regulations were inserted into the draining permits. The reason for this was, that in this century most of the drainage projects were carried out by lower public authorities and the provincial government of Holland therefore wanted badly to reduce the financial risks of these schemes. Concerning the big drainage projects of the central government itself, the situation was of course quite different. These schemes were completely planned, financed and carried out by the state. It is worth noting that the government frequently introduced new kinds of drainage pumps in its own projects with more or less success. In the Kingdom of the Netherlands in the 19th century all matters of water control and reclamation were strongly centralized. From 1815 draining permits were granted by the king and the initiators had to present their detailed plans of the projects beforehand. These plans were judged by engineers of the department for maintenance of dikes, roads, canals and bridges (Rijkswaterstaat). During this century it was usual that the authorities inserted many different technical prerequisites into the draining permits. When a private draining project appeared to be unprofitable because of the high construction costs of reclamation, more than once subsidies were granted, if the work was considered to be in the public interest. However, this is not to say that the increased interference of the state into the plans and the designs of private draining schemes was a guarantee for their success. Even in several of the huge reclamations which were undertaken by the government itself, great problems of imperfect drainage arose after their completion. In the projects of the state in the 18th or the 19th century social planning was out of the question. The social development in the Haarlemmerlake polder for instance has been described as a form of social Darwinism.

4Nevertheless we may safely conclude that state influence on the physical planning of reclamation steadily increased from the 16th up to and including the 19th century. Both the physical and the social planning of reclamation in our century – so very characteristic in the large new polders of the former Zuiderzee – can be regarded as a logical continuation of state policy in former centuries.

Quality and use of the new farm land

5One must be aware of the fact that an imperfect drainage in low lying reclaimed lands was inherent to a system of wind driven pumping mills. In days of calm weather with heavy rains or in periods when the water level in the reservoir for the superfluous water was very high the windmills could not discharge the excess water sometimes for many weeks. In an article about a large drained lake, named the Nieuwkoopse Droogmakerij, which was initiated and carried out by the state and completed in 1812 and provided with a windmill system, I made it clear that in the period 1834-1853 the farmers were generally very content with the drainage conditions in this polder but that nearly every year there were periods in autumn and in winter when the water level in this polder was far above the accepted maximum. Especially the lowest grounds in the polder were badly affected in this way. Still the farmers endured this inconvenience as rather normal and unavoidable, provided that the water could be pumped out in the late winter or early spring. Indeed it was necessary that the farmers on the lower grounds adapted the use of their lands to a certain degree: more grass and more summer crops, such as oats, than on the higher lying farm lands in the polder (Thurkow 1985: 318-332).

  • 2 Archives Boekelermeerpolder no. 1, Gemeentearchief van Alkmaar.
  • 3 Rijksgeschiedkundige Publicatiën, 1934, 80, s-Gravenhage: 354-355.

6I even found that in a Frisian reclaimed lake the farmers on the lower grounds appreciated a yearly flooding of their landed properties because they were of the opinion that the inundation water would fertilize the soil. At that time (the beginning of the 20th century) there was still a shortage of manure (Thurkow 1989: 16-23). However, if the superfluous water could not be pumped out in time in the early spring there was a lot of damage to the crops on the lower grounds and usually loud complaining by the farmers. Actually this used to happen frequently. It is really amazing that private persons were prepared to invest great amounts of money for such a long time in the draining of lakes. The financial outcomes of these enterprises were not often splendid at all. On the contrary, in the few reports from the 16th century which are available about the situation in reclaimed lake polders references can already be found to many problems such as the inconvenience of much surplus water, though the lakes in question were only small and shallow. For example, in the Boekelerlake polder (340 hectares) close to the town of Alkmaar, which has for the first time been reclaimed in 1569 and for the second time in 1587 after this polder had been destroyed by acts of war, the owners soon decided to use all the new land as a reed marsh in view of a very disappointing soil quality and a great amount of waterlogged conditions. This land-use cannot of course be regarded as economically suitable for land obtained with a great deal of expense. But this use was to be continued for more than 100 years until 1711 when a new effort to reclaim was executed for the third time2. In another small reclaimed lake polder of the 16th century namely the Diepslake (182 hectares) which was drained in 1594-1595 and which was also close to the town of Alkmaar, it happened that the 12 tenant-farmers of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, the secretary of state of the province of Holland and also of the Republic of the Seven United Provinces, who owned one third part of the area of this polder, were not able to pay their rentals in the first years of cultivation as a result of crop failures and waterlogged conditions. The landlord confronted these unfortunate fellows by sending the bailiff to collect the debts3.

  • 4 Archives Noordeindermeer no. 55; Oud-rechterlijk archief no. 6 344, Gemeentearchief Alkmaar.

7In the reclaimed lands of the 17th century both landlords and farmers experienced many problems as well. The costs of construction were usually much higher than expected and the quality of the soils of the former lake beds was often disappointing. Farms turned out to be less profitable than had been anticipated. Moreover there were often many drainage problems because of water that welled up or seeped through the encircling dike. In a number of cases the new polders were flooded again as a result of breaches in those encircling dikes. The Staverensche Zuiderlake polder in Friesland (200 hectares) which was completed in 1620 was for instance wholly neglected in the course of the 17th century and was also flooded and partly abandoned for many years. This polder had to be reclaimed for the second time at the end of that century. The Naarderlake in Holland (700 hectares) was reclaimed several times in its history but appeared to be technically and economically untenable because of enormous seepage. The first effort of draining this lake was made in the 17th century, but after each attempt it was flooded again. Now it happens to be a nature reserve. Admittedly, these examples of disaster are not representative, but nevertheless in the 17th century in most of the drained lakes the benefits were very disappointing. The level of the polder taxes often was as high as the proceeds of the rentals. Here and there this gave course to despondency. The owners of the Heerhugowaard (3 500 hectares), which was one of the big drainage projects of the 17th century, were for instance in 1684, more than 50 years after reclaiming the land, considering to give up and let the polder be flooded again (Vries Azn 1876: 426). If it happened to be necessary to sell farm lands in these new polders there were often heavy losses of invested capital. The Noordeinder lake (218 hectares) was for example drained in 1651 by only one private capitalist who in view of growing debts felt obliged to sell the whole polder after 5 years. I calculated the loss of capital he suffered at 850 guilders per hectare. The proceeds of this sale were only 41 % of the costs of reclaiming and the low level of land values in this polder became only still lower in the next 60 years after this sale4 Strictly speaking, of all the drained lakes in the 17th century only the famous Beemster (7 000 hectares) and also the Purmer (2 756 hectares) were considered as unmistakably successful enterprises as the owners did not petition for a continuation of the tax exemptions granted by the government. But even in the Beemster there were drainage problems in the first 20 years (Bouman 1857: 170-171, 186, 206-207). Concerning the agricultural use of the land in the drained lakes of the 17th century people always started with arable farming (wheat, barley, rye, oats and especially rapeseed). After some years of cultivation there was usually a remarkable expansion of grassland. In the Beemster there was after 20 years only 20 % and after 30 years just 6 % of arable farm land left (Woude 1972: 512). In other reclaimed polders there was a corresponding trend or even a complete disappearance of arable land. The fact that the farmers always started with grain farming on recently reclaimed lake beds is not surprising. In the first years the soil was too soft and too wet to use for grazing. It is also understandable that in the course of time more and more grassland appeared in the new polders. At first the recently reclaimed soils could be used as arable land without fertilizing but usually after 5 or 10 years a need for manure arose and cattle had to be introduced into the polders. However, the fact that the farmers changed over to grassland on such a large scale is often linked with lasting drainage problems. Nevertheless also the attractiveness of the prices of milk, butter and cheese in relation to grain can have been an important factor.

Fig. 8. Plan of the arrangement of parcels of the Droogmakerij van Bleiswijk en Hillegersberg (Ms. Map circa 1775, Rijksarchief, The Hague). This pattern was very characteristic for reclaimed lakes in the Southern part of the province of Holland. The drawn property-strips were 124,3 m (33 Rijnl. Roeden) wide, were bounded by ditches and were lengthwise divided into 3 parts by 2 ditches (not drawn). The ratio of the area of canals and ditches within twithin the new polder to the total area of the polder was 1: 10 which was deemed too be right for drainage by wind-powered watermills.

Fig. 9. the Lynden was one of the three hugge steampumps ((each 360 h. p.) built for the reclamation of the Haarlemmerlake-polder. It came into use in 1849. The introduction of these steampumps in a project of the central government was definitely an innovation. However, because of the big scale of the pumps a direct follow-up in smaller schemes was prohibitive. The building has been preserved up to the present (Litography 1849).

Fig. 10. In 14 of the 27 wind-powered watermills of the Droogmakerij van Bleiswijk en Hillegersberg (reclaimed in the period 1772-1778) a new implement to raise water was ontroduced by the initiator the government of the province of Holland. That implement was the inclined scoop- or paddle-whell, which capacity was bigger than a vertical whheel.

8In the reclaimed polders of the 18th and the 19th century successes varied greatly even after steam pumps had been introduced. The draining of the small Grafterlake (182 hectares) which was a private enterprise in 1847 in the North of the province of Holland, was for instance a financial disaster for the initiators. The land was continually waterlogged, the owners became bankrupt and the loss of capital was also 850 guilders per hectare (Thurkow 1986a, 48: 25-45, 137). It may be admitted that especially after the introduction of the steam centrifugal pump there were also some private projects with a more favourable development (Thurkow 1986b: 181-192 and 1987: 228-239). The large projects which were undertaken by the state in the 18th and the 19th century were also not always very successful in the pioneering phase. In the Zuidplas polder (4 143 hectares) close to the town of Gouda, which was one of these state reclamations and which was completed in 1842, the lowest lying landed properties covering about 1/12 part of the whole area, were actually unsuitable for any cultivation until 1876 because of waterlogged conditions. Then a new drainage system with steam pumps was here introduced (Thurkow 1986c: 369-375). In the Haarlemmerlake polder serious drainage problems occurred during the first ten years, which could only be overcome by the new owners at great additional expense (Thurkow 1986b, 1987 and 1991). But even in the case of those large state projects which are known to have been more or less successful, some critical remarks can be made. In the very first of the state projects, namely the Droogmakerij van Bleiswijk and Hillegersberg (3 747 hectares) near the town of Rotterdam, which was completed in 1778, the drainage system with windmills was certainly not insufficient. Even in the pioneering phase the farmers could maintain a very varied pattern in the use of the land: grass, oats, rye and wheat were the most widely used crops but flax, barley, potatoes, beans, peas and rapeseed were also grown though to a lesser extent. In the low lying areas of this polder the land-use pattern was not very different from that on the higher grounds: somewhat more grass and oats and less rye and wheat. However, the construction costs of this project turned out to be twice higher and the revenues from the selling of the lands to private owners were much lower than expected. The accounts of the state-treasurer showed a deficit on this scheme of more than 1 million guilders. Because of higher tax-revenues that could be levied in the new polder, a return of this capital could be calculated of only 1,1 % per year and there was of course no question of refunding of the invested capital. By examining the leases which were contracted by the new private owners with the tenant-farmers I made a calculation of the yearly returns on the invested capital of those owners. On an average there was a theoretical return of 11 %. Actually this was not the real return, because an agreement about the rate of rentals between owners and tenants is clearly quite different from the payment of it. It certainly turned out that many of the tenants especially in the lower lying areas incurred debts because they could not pay the rentals. After the first five years the total amount of the arrears of rentals was as much as the whole yearly rent for all the grounds in the new polder. On the one hand there had been some drainage problems in the first years, but it is also clear that the tenants in the lower lying areas needed some time to adapt the use of the land to the sometimes rather wet conditions of the soil. This caused financial problems for the tenants and a somewhat lower capital return for the landlords because it happened to be impossible to recover the back debts. After these five years the level of debts stabilized so that we can arrive at the conclusion that the problems were solved (Thurkow 1990). I described a same course of events in another large state project, namely the Nieuwkoopse Droogmakerij (2 590 hectares), which was completed in 1812 and which also had a drainage system with wind driven pumping mills. This polder had also a good reputation from the beginning as to quality and land-use. The theoretical yearly return on the investments for the new private owners varied in the first seven years from 9,7 % for the higher lying landed properties to 7,8 % for the grounds in the lower areas of the new polder. However, in those lower areas not less than 60 % of the leases were prematurely broken in comparison with 4,8 % in the higher parts of the polder. In the pioneering stage the search for a proper use of the land in the lower areas made a lot of victims among the tenants in this polder as well and this certainly led to lower returns for the new owners (Thurkow 1985).

9Finally I should like to raise the question whether there is one particular reason why so many of the drained lakes did not bear the fruit hoped for in the beginning. There is no simple answer to this. Generalizations on the subject of hydraulic projects are often hard to be made because the (natural) conditions are different in each individual case. Often the costs of engineering and construction were underestimated. These costs could run up to 1 500 guilders per hectare in the 17th century, whereas land values of farmland were usually much lower. In many cases the soil conditions were very disappointing: too muddy or too peaty or too sandy or too uneven. Often one had to contend every year with serious and difficult problems of water control and a great amount of superfluous water. However, the causes of these troubles were different again and again. It could be a question of soil differentiation or of a quick sinking of the surface after the reclaiming or of differences in altitude of different parts of the new polder or of a lack of solidarity between the owners and the tenants in the higher areas and those in the lower parts. It could also be a question of bad control of the waterlevel of the reservoirs into which the superfluous water of the reclaimed polders had to be discharged or mistakes could be made in the plans themselves such as an inefficient system of canals and ditches within the reclaimed lands. There could also be much seepage or an overestimating of the used pumping techniques. The province of Friesland presented an unique organisational context in which water control in the drained lakes was often hindered. All these detrimental factors and still others occurred in many different and changing combinations. There was almost always a complexity of causes for the described problems. This made it difficult again and again to learn lessons from the problems in preceding projects. The result of the draining of lakes continued to be rather uncertain and unpredictable.

10— 1989, “Schaal en kwaliteit, een vergelijking van de droogmaking en ont-ginning van drie kleinere Friese veenpolders”, Noorderbreedte.

11— 1990, “De droogmakerij van Bleiswijk en Hillegersberg, een opmerke-lijke onderneming”, Historisch Tijdschrift Holland.

12— 1991, “De overheid en het landschap in de droogmakerijen van de 16e tot en met de 19e eeuw”, Historisch-Geografisch Tijdschrift.

13— 1992, “Een vergelijking tussen de Friese en de Noordhollandse droogmakerijen”, in Jaarboek van de Vereniging van vrienden van het Zuiderzeemuseum, Enkhuizen, Walburg Pers.

14Vries Azn, G. de. 1876, Het dijks- en molenbestuur in Hollands Noorderkwartier onder de grafelijke regering en gedurende de republiek, Amsterdam, Koninklijke Academie van Wetenschappen.

Notes

1 Thurkow 1991, 49-56.

2 Archives Boekelermeerpolder no. 1, Gemeentearchief van Alkmaar.

3 Rijksgeschiedkundige Publicatiën, 1934, 80, s-Gravenhage: 354-355.

4 Archives Noordeindermeer no. 55; Oud-rechterlijk archief no. 6 344, Gemeentearchief Alkmaar.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 8. Plan of the arrangement of parcels of the Droogmakerij van Bleiswijk en Hillegersberg (Ms. Map circa 1775, Rijksarchief, The Hague). This pattern was very characteristic for reclaimed lakes in the Southern part of the province of Holland. The drawn property-strips were 124,3 m (33 Rijnl. Roeden) wide, were bounded by ditches and were lengthwise divided into 3 parts by 2 ditches (not drawn). The ratio of the area of canals and ditches within twithin the new polder to the total area of the polder was 1: 10 which was deemed too be right for drainage by wind-powered watermills.
URL http://books.openedition.org/editionsmsh/docannexe/image/1337/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 464k
Légende Fig. 9. the Lynden was one of the three hugge steampumps ((each 360 h. p.) built for the reclamation of the Haarlemmerlake-polder. It came into use in 1849. The introduction of these steampumps in a project of the central government was definitely an innovation. However, because of the big scale of the pumps a direct follow-up in smaller schemes was prohibitive. The building has been preserved up to the present (Litography 1849).
URL http://books.openedition.org/editionsmsh/docannexe/image/1337/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 234k
Légende Fig. 10. In 14 of the 27 wind-powered watermills of the Droogmakerij van Bleiswijk en Hillegersberg (reclaimed in the period 1772-1778) a new implement to raise water was ontroduced by the initiator the government of the province of Holland. That implement was the inclined scoop- or paddle-whell, which capacity was bigger than a vertical whheel.
URL http://books.openedition.org/editionsmsh/docannexe/image/1337/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 138k

Auteur

Université d'Amsterdam.

© Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2004

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