$200 million in gold extracted in Amazon mine through illegal licenses – Mongabay.com

  • Gana Gold generated R$ 1.1 billion (US$ 200 million) in revenue using illegally-obtained environmental licenses in Brazil, equivalent to 3 tons of gold extracted.
  • By the company’s own reckoning, its operations should be producing annual revenues of around R$ 30 million ($6 million) if operating within licensing limits.
  • Located inside a conservation area, the company has extracted 32 times more gold than the projected estimate it made to the regulating agency.
  • An embargo has been placed on Gana Gold along with R$ 10 million (US$ 2 million) in fines following reports of illegal activity.

A gold mine hidden in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon generated nearly $200 million in revenue in just over a year for Gana Gold Mineração, according to Brazil’s National Mining Agency (ANM). In addition to the unusually high earnings, Gana Gold is also suspect for extracting 32 times more gold than their projected estimates.

Now under investigation by the Federal Police, Gana Gold is only able to operate because the municipality of Itaituba where it is located overruled state and federal legislation to license it — and because the ANM turned a blind eye to its operations. The case is an example of the discord between the institutions that should be protecting the Amazon, the permissiveness of governments focused on facilitating mining in the region, and the success of lobbies in Brasilia on the part of federal senators and congressmen in the Bolsonaro administration.

A six-month investigation of Gana Gold as it hit its first billion led to the company’s mine in the Amazon.

A leader in gold extraction in Brazil’s northern region, Gana Gold is responsible for 18% of all gold mined in the state of Pará, according to the company’s website. Its high level of productivity stands out simply because the operation was slated to extract only 96.53 kilograms of gold, according to information provided by Gana Gold to the sector’s regulating agency. By the company’s own reckoning, its operations should be producing annual revenues of around R$ 30 million ($6 million) if operating within licensing limits.

But the company has declared income of over R$ 1 billion ($200 million) since 2020. In the first eight months of 2021, it surpassed the estimates provided to the regulating agency for the year by 32 times.

The level of productivity is uncommon: if accurate, it would rank the Gana Gold mine above the planet’s most profitable operations. The average grade (the geological measure of the number of grams of ore per ton of raw material extracted from the earth) would be much higher than those found at neighboring mines. Gana Gold declined a request to be interviewed.

Gana Gold lies inside the  Tapajós APA (Environmentally Protected Area), outlined here in yellow near to the Munduruku Indigenous land and other federal Conservation Units.
Gana Gold’s mine, processing plant and airstrip in Itaituba, Pará. Photo by © Airbus DS / Earthrise, July 7, 2021.

The lucrative mine are inside a federally protected area neighboring the Munduruku Indigenous Land in Itaituba, a municipality in the southwest part of Pará State. The region is experiencing an actual gold rush that’s only intensified since the start of the Jair Bolsonaro administration in 2019. Bolsonaro is known to support clandestine prospectors and his administration has been fighting to legalize mining on Indigenous land.

It is a market that mobilizes billions of Brazilian reais every year, largely from undercover operations. More than one-fourth of the 174 tons of gold produced in Brazil in 2019 and 2020 was illegally mined, resulting in losses of R$ 9,8 billion ($ 2 billion) for the country according to a study carried out by researchers at Minas Gerais Federal University (UFMG) and by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office (MPF). The study was the basis for four MPF civil action suits in the state of Pará presented in July and August of this year, asking for suspension of prospectors in the region and of financial institutions accused of buying illegal gold until there is more control over sale of the ore. The suit does not apply to industrial gold mining, which is what Gana Gold does.

The study also shows that most of this production goes to countries like Canada, the U.K., and Switzerland. In the first half of 2021, the production of gold considered to be potentially illicit remained high, reaching 26% of the 46.8 tons of gold produced over the period, according to researcher Bruno Manzolli from UFMG.

Itaituba, where Gana Gold is headquartered, stands out in this scenario.

The UFMG researchers show that, together with the municipalities of Jacareacanga and Novo Progresso, Itaituba generated 85.7% of illegal gold sales with designation of origin in untouched areas with native forest between 2019 and 2020. In other words, ore was extracted illegally in other locations.

An institutional video produced by Gana Gold shows a large undertaking using heavy machinery and a processing plant. The mine even has its own landing strip built in 2018 on a site that, according to an MPF public civil action suit, was illegally deforested.

In the second half of 2020, the company extended the airstrip, which is now 850 meters long. Itaituba is among the municipalities with the worst deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon according to a study by IMAZON (the Institute of Amazonian Man and Environment) published in June of this year.

Despite the fact that it is a mega undertaking, the company holds only one license, which was granted by the municipality of Itaituba — even though municipalities have no legal authority to license gold mining. Still, the ANM — the federal regulating agency for the sector — accepted the document and allowed the company to operate in March, 2020, contrary to the agency’s own legal norms.

Because of the type of mining carried out there, involving heavy machinery equipped to remove 50,000 tons of earth annually to find gold, and classified as a high environmental risk under federal legislation, the license should be granted by the government of Pará State. Typically during the licensing process, the state secretariat requires a company to carry out an environmental impact study and later present this document to the ICMBio (Chico Mendes Institute of Conservation and Biodiversity), which is the federal regulator for preserved areas. Environmental protection laws on the books also require that the license should only be given if the institute concedes authorization for environmental licensing, or ALA, after analyzing the possible environmental impacts of the proposed activity.

In the case of Gana Gold, none of the above was carried out.

Fool’s gold

Gana Gold’s success story began in June, 2016 when a company called J.J.G.E. filed a gold ore research request for an area comprising 4,183 hectares near Água Branca, a prospecting community in Itaituba settled at the end of the 1970s. The site had been studied by another mining company, Brazauro Recursos Minerais, between 2006 and 2013. It concluded a report on the financials of exploration and the site was abandoned definitively in 2015.

Brazauro’s 2015 report also affirms that the company reported the presence of illegal prospectors at the location in 2012. Satellite images show that by 2016 there was illegal prospecting going on at the mine under the umbrella of J.J.G.E. It is impossible, however, to determine exactly who was responsible for the activity.

Then at the start of 2017, J.J.G.E. was given a license from the government mining regulators at the ANM to carry out a new study. That study found that the mine would be economically viable for exploration. After the study, the next step would have been to seek permission to remove the ore — what the ANM classifies as a “mining concession requirement.” However, the company chose to take an easier route to be able to start operations and requested a Guide for Use (GU) for experimental mining — a type of simplified authorization for extraction that can be granted during the research phase.

Although it involves less bureaucracy, a GU requires the applying party to present an environmental license. This means that in order to remove ore, the company must seek out the appropriate environmental agencies and present and environmental impact analysis together with a compensation proposal.

This is not what J.J.G.E. did.

In April 2018, the company instead handed the mine over to M.M. Gold Mineração, owned by Marcio Macedo Sobrinho, the current author of the mining requirement.

The licensing process should have been carried out by the Pará State Government, under jurisdiction of the State Secretariat of the Environment and Sustainability, or SEMAS. According to the full text of the mining process filed at the agency, the company even requested a license from the state secretariat in December 2018, but then changed its strategy. According to the company, though, it was only after “gaining knowledge” that the request could be made with the municipal environmental agency — even though, in reality, the municipal secretary has no authorization to grant it.

Based on this interpretation, the company used loopholes in established procedures and gained a license from City Hall in Itaituba to operate in just nine days. A document sent to the ANM on September 16, 2019 demonstrates the unusually rapid approval process. Typically, according to two environmental analysts interviewed for this report, this procedure takes anywhere from 30-60 days in order to carry out an analysis of relevant environmental impact documents.

The remarkably short time frame becomes even more confounding when one Guilherme Aggens enters the story. A forestry engineer and partner in Geoconsult, a consulting firm for the mining industry that had carried out some technical studies for Gana Gold, Aggens has a history of travel with politicians to Brasilia to lobby for the sector. The company granted him power of attorney on September 24 — eight days after it applied for the operating license with the city — granting him power over all administrative procedures regarding the mine with the Environmental Departments of the state of Pará, of Itaituba and also with the ANM. On the following day, the city’s Secretary of the Environment and Mining, Bruno Rolim da Silva, granted Gana Gold the license.

The dates could be a mere coincidence if, a week before, Aggens hadn’t posted photos of himself on a trip with Rolim on social media to lobby for the mining sector in Brasilia. The posts show meetings with politicians that support prospecting in the Amazon, especially on Indigenous lands, like senator Joaquim Passarinho of the PSD party of Pará and Itaituba city councilman Wescley Tomaz of the MDB party. During the trip, they also managed time in the agenda of then-Chief of Staff, senator Onyx Lorenzoni, close ally of President Jair Bolsonaro, who today is Minister of Labor and Social Security.

Senator Joaquim Passarinho and councilman Wescley Tomaz are also frequently seen on visits to heads of Ministries in the national capital for the purpose of lobbying, especially for the loosening of laws regarding prospecting in the Amazon. In May of this year, Tomaz and Aggens met with then-minister of the Environment  Ricardo Salles, who openly supports prospecting on Indigenous lands and is currently under investigation by the Federal Police for his involvement with the illegal extraction of wood. Tomaz and Aggens were together in Brasilia once again at the end of August, this time to participate in a hearing by the Congressional Commission of Mines and Energy overseen by senator Passarinho to discuss the legalization of illegal prospectors in the Tapajós region.

Aggens and Rolim’s relationship doesn’t appear to have begun with the Gana Gold mine. Both also appear standing together with the newly-elected Jair Bolsonaro in a photo published in November 2018 by attorney Fernando Brandão, a resident of Itaituba. A year later, Brandão would participate, together with prospectors, in a secret meeting with Ministers Ricardo Salles and Onyx Lorenzoni to place pressure on the government to punish IBAMA officials who had burned machinery used in environmental crimes.

City Hall of Itaituba was contacted about the mistakes in the license granted Gana Gold on July 14 asking which environmental legislation allows a municipality to grant a license for the mining company’s activity. No response was received. Secretary Bruno Rolim da Silva was contacted directly via WhatsApp on his personal number as to whether his relationship with engineer Guilherme Aggens influenced the fact that the concession was emitted in only nine days. No response was received, but there was a reaction from the company.

Also on July 14 about five hours after the inquiries were sent, Gana Gold filed a partial cession request with the ANM to transfer 4,001 hectares of M.M. Gold’s solicitation, which was originally for 4,183 hectares. However, the gold mine is situated precisely on the 182 hectares that were left to M.M. This is also where the processing plant and the landing strip are located. Aggens never answered the questions I sent to him asking for an explanation on why this change was requested, coincidentally, on the same day that I had questioned the company.

The mine’s authorization is also missing another important stamp of approval: that of ICMBio. As the operation lies within a federal conservation unit — the Tapajós Environmentally Protected Area bordering the Munduruku Indigenous Territory — the license should only be granted after ICMBio authorizes it. Incidentally, this requirement for ICMBio approval could cease to exist if the bill altering environmental licensing, which was approved in Brazil’s congress in May, is passed by the Senate and made into law.

Three inquiry emails were sent between July and August to ICMBio’s press office, but the only response came from the agency for the Information Access Law (LAI) on September 1.

“At no point in time was any communication sent to ICMBio from environmental agencies, state or municipal, about environmental licensing for the mining process 850.397/2016 [the registry for the mine where Gana Gold extracts], which is for mineral research with a Guide for Use, in which case an environmental license and ICMBio authorization are obligatory,” states the agency response.

The bureaucratic soap opera ended in March, 2020 when the ANM shrugged off Brazilian environmental legislation and accepted the illegal document presented by Gana Gold, conceding permission for the company to mine 36.6 hectares — the area where extraction takes place withing the 4,183 hectares included in the original petition.

Carolina Santana, an attorney for the Human Rights Observatory for Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples, argues that processes already in place can’t simply be set aside.

“You are not allowed to choose the licensing agency for your undertaking,” Santana said in an interview. “Environmental legislation determines this. Independent of who made mistakes in this case, there are a number of illegal elements in this licensing process that must be investigated, mostly because of the presence of Indigenous communities in the APA Tapajós region.”

Helder Barbalho’s administration guaranteed Gana Gold’s operation when it signed an agreement with the company and five other mining companies to expand gold extraction in the state of Pará. Photo by Marco Santos/Agência Pará.

The Pará Agreement

As of September 2021, the Pará state government had not directly analyzed Gana Gold’s mining project because the company did not request its license from the state agency. In February, Pará Governor Helder Barbalho signed an agreement with six companies, including Gana Gold, to promote the gold industry in the state. The objective is to refine the ore in the state.

The grave errors in Gana Gold’s licensing process haven’t yet gotten a response from Barbalho’s administration. An email sent to his cabinet and to SEMAS requesting information about the agreement made with the company and asking if the government plans to maintain the agreement. A press officer from SEMAS did respond that they had granted no licenses to Gana Gold. Queries sent to gubernatorial advisors via WhatsApp received no response.

Gana Gold’s mine lies in the Tapajós Gold Province in the southwest of Pará, where conflicts over the precious metal are a threat the Munduruku Indigenous people and conservation units in the area.

Professor Luiz Jardim Wanderley from the Geography Department at Fluminense Federal University (UFF) explains, “There are three factors at work bringing more prospecting to the Tapajós region: first, a surplus of manpower because of the unemployment rate and Brazil’s economic situation, which was worsened by the pandemic; second, the rising price of gold; and third, of course, the actions the Bolsonaro administration has taken to weaken environmental controls, which encourages those investing in illegal mining.” Wanderley coordinated the report O Cerco do Ouro [The Gold Siege] together with researcher Luísa Molina for the National Committee for the Defense of Territories Against Mining. Published in April 2021, the document analyzes increased illegal mining on Munduruku lands.

In the Brazilian market, the price of gold is US dollar denominated. During times of economic crisis, it becomes a safe port for investors, which drives up the price. This was one of the factors that caused the price of gold to double between 2019 and 2020, reaching R$ 379 ($75) per gram between August and November last year. As vaccination moved forward in 2021, the price fell and is now around R$ 300 ($60)—a value 50% higher than before the pandemic.

Three cities in the region of the Tapajós and Jamanxim Rivers (see photo) were home to 85.7% of sales of illegal gold with designation of origin in untouched areas with native forest between 2019 and 2020. Photo by Felipe Werneck/IBAMA.

Gold Multiplied

With its license in hand in March 2020, Gana Gold began extracting gold and generated R$ 235 million ($47 million) during its first year of operations. Its performance ranked sixth among the state’s largest mining companies according to ANM data.

But it hasn’t all been easy for the company. In June, it was robbed by armed men who took 20 kilos of gold. No one has been arrested yet for the theft.

In 2021 alone, Gana Gold expanded its operation and reached R$ 883 million ($176 million) by August. However, according to the production estimate report that the company delivered to the ANM in October 2019, extraction at the site should generate up to 96.53 kg per year, which would result in estimated total annual revenue of around R$ 30 million ($6 million).

In order to generate R$ 883 million in revenues in 2021, Gana Gold would have to remove 3.14 tons of gold from its mine in the Amazon — 32 times its production estimate. This calculation relies on the same research methodologies as UFMG on illegal gold production cited by the federal prosecutor’s Office, which takes into consideration the information on weight and average gold prices in the tax month informed by the company on the ANM open data website.

In the opinion of researcher Luiz Jardim Wanderley, this discrepancy in values indicates that Gana Gold is extracting much more gold that it informed the ANM about.

“When it got its operating license quickly without having to go through the process of requesting a mining concession, the company produced no detailed analysis of incurrent environmental damage, nor did it promote the necessary public debate on those impacts, which is mandatory,” Wanderley said in an interview. “At any rate, the Guide for Use requires the company to present the appropriate environmental licenses. As the GU is supposedly used for smaller volumes, the environmental agencies ask for simplified procedures. However, Gana Gold has been operating at levels equal to an industrial mine.”

The large volume of ore extracted by Gana Gold in Itaituba also raises doubts as to the type of permission that was granted by the ANM, which was for experimental mining, comments Edson Farias Mello, Geology professor at Rio de Janeiro Federal University.

“It is uncommon for a gold mine to be developed under a Guide for Use, unless you’re talking about the initial phases for determining the character of the ore,” Mello said. “The concept of experimental mining covered by the GU is compatible with small volumes, which does not appear to the be the case [of Gana Gold. While the concession can take years to be granted, a GU is released in just a few months.”

But again on September 9, Gana Gold ran into trouble.

Around 30 Federal Police agents arrived at Gana Gold and served warrants to the company. They collected gold samples to verify whether the ore has the same geological characteristics as 39 kilograms of illegal gold seized at Jundiaí airport in the state of São Paulo in August.

During the operation, which was dubbed “Gold Rush,” Federal Police also arrested a man for carrying a gun with a serial number that had been scratched off. In a statement, without mentioning the name of Gana Gold, the Federal Police stated that the GU “was used to lend a legal appearance to illicit transactions involving a large volume of gold of spurious origin.”

According to the Federal Police the details of the ongoing investigation can’t be disclosed. They also state that those responsible could be held liable for crimes of usurpation of national assets, misrepresentation, illegal occupation of public lands, criminal organization and several other crimes against the flora.

The exorbitant numbers placed the Tapajós region’s new mining company at the top of the ranking of the state’s gold miners — up from sixth place — leaving behind companies with decades in the sector. Not bad for a company that holds no environmental license from the appropriate agency.

The volume reported by Gana Gold does not appear to be new information to the ANM — data on the operation is available on the agency’s website. The agency also, in a communication regarding the company’s mining process, admitted at the beginning of the year that it is “favorable to” the company’s goal to expand the mine, and highlighted that “the project is important within the mineral sector’s portfolio.”

I contacted ANM staff for further explanation. The agency’s ombudsman, Paulo Santana, responded that there is “nothing abnormal or illegal” in the case of Gana Gold. The response also said that the “mine’s grade” could be as high as “20 grams/ton.”

This information is not coherent with the geological study presented by Gana Gold, which indicated an average grade ten times lower, of just 1.97 g/t. “We are obligated to stimulate and foment the mineral sector,” wrote Santana in response to questions regarding the ANM’s position on Gana Gold’s expansion.

The ombudsman’s evaluation also ignores the company’s practical performance reported to the ANM last year. According to the data declared by the company, the mine in Itaituba has recorded an average grade of 62.70 g/t — based on the supposition that the company is operating legally.

Last year, Kitco, a site specialized in mining, highlighted a mine in Australia with the highest average grade of gold per ton in the world, of 42.4 g/t. In other words, lower than Gana Gold.

Nugget city

Itaituba’s economy is driven by the gold business — both legal and illegal. The town’s mayor, Valmir Climaco, is an ex-prospector and prospecting enthusiast in the pandemic who has been the object of several complaints and was condemned in 2019 for illegal deforestation of 746 hectares of native forest in a preserved area. That same year, the Federal Police found weapons and nearly 600 kg of cocaine on one of his farms in Itaituba. In a statement, he affirmed that the property had squatters living on it and that he had no relationship with the criminals imprisoned during the operation.

This is the history that led City Hall in Nugget City — as Itaituba is called — to grant Gana Gold its operating license. The document has serious informational errors, including citations of environmental laws that contradict the license itself.

The document’s first error has to do with the type of activity. In its title, the city states that Gana Gold has applied for Mineral Research with Experimental Mining, but on the next page, it refers to the PLG, or Permit for Prospect Mining, which is a more rudimentary activity, different from the license granted and with a simplified license. It also cites a particular distinction which deals with prospecting.

“Judging from the equipment used by the company and its processing — which includes crushing rocky material — it is clear that the company is working with primary ore,” stated geologist Edson Farias Mello in an interview. “Therefore, the activity cannot be classified as prospecting. This legislation defines that the Prospecting Permit, or PLG, can only be granted in places where gold occurs in secondary deposits.”

The error could have been just a mistake made by the municipal agency if it weren’t for one small detail: according to the state environmental legislation, City Hall does not have the autonomy to grant licenses for experimental mining, only for mining prospectors.

The operating license granted by City Hall to Gana Gold cites resolution No 116 of the State Environmental Council (COEMA), which specifies that municipalities can only grant the prospecting permit (PLG) or the “mineral research without experimental mining”. At the time when the license was granted, the valid COEMA resolution was No. 120, which presented the same mining rules as the resolution published the previous year. Article 1 of the resolution, which has validity as legislation, specifies another error committed: not consulting the federal environmental agency responsible for the management of Brazilian Conservation Units.

The resolution also states clearly federal and state agencies must be consulted for the licensing of activities or undertakings which will have local environmental impact inside State or Federal Conservation Units.” In February, the state council published new regulation on the types of licensing that city governments can grant, which maintains the same requirements.

When questioning the ANM about the irregular licensing of Gana Gold, I mentioned the environmental legislation that prohibits the municipality of Itaituba from granting licenses for experimental gold mining. Even so, without presenting any document or regulation to support his answer, ombudsman Paulo Santana wrote that “this technical body is aware that the municipality of Itaituba, PA has authorization for municipal environmental management, which was granted by the State Environmental Department (SEMES).” Santana also reinforced that “It is not up to the technical staff of the ANM to validate these documents.”

SEMAS, in turn, says such authorization does not exist. I questioned the state secretary on August 8 after receiving the email from the ANM’s ombudsman, and the response they sent me was that, beyond the federal legislation and the COEMA norms, “There is no instrument in force delegating competence between the State and the municipality of Itaituba for the classification ‘mineral research with experimental mining’.”

Clandestine runway

In a video released by the company, a helicopter and an airplane are seen landing at the mine — yet another signal that it is a large operation.

Neither the heliport nor the runway is registered with Brazil’s National Aviation Agency (ANAC). They are clandestine. In July, ANAC’s press office said the case was being checked by the agency’s “intelligence sector” and indicated possible punishment for those responsible.

But Gana Gold doesn’t need to concern itself with this for now, because in early June, the agency published a temporary ruling allowing take-offs and landings in unregistered places within the Brazilian Amazon. The justification given by the government was “to facilitate the transport of medicines, supplies and patients to communities in these regions” during the pandemic.

The area where the 106-hectare airstrip was built was illegally deforested in 2018, according to a lawsuit filed by the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office in Pará, which cites Nill Vitor da Silva, the registered owner of the land in the CAR (Rural Environmental Registry) system. Registers in the CAR are self-declared, and Silva’s is listed as still “pending”.

Silva’s name does not appear anywhere as a Gana Gold partner. This could be the reason why the complaint filed by the Prosecutor’s Office, made by the Amazônia Protege program — which uses data from INPE and IBAMA to hold deforesters accountable — does not mention that the deforested site serves as a clandestine landing strip for the mining company.

Public documents also indicate that the land operated by Gana Gold may be irregular. Through the Mapbiomas platform — a project run by environmental NGOs and universities — one can see that, aside from Nill Vitor da Silva, the area occupied by the mine comprises an area of 405 hectares also registered in the CAR registry system, also listed as “pending.” It is registered under the name Sebastião Luiz da Silva, who also has no apparent connection to the Gana Gold group.

The name Márcio Macedo Sobrinho also comes up in the CAR registry as owner of the precise 402 hectares where the mine is located, next to the land that would belong to Nill Vitor and Sebastião da Silva. Sobrinho’s registration, made in July 2019, comes up as “suspended” in the CAR system in Pará.

Attempts to contact Gana Gold partners Márcio Macedo Sobrinho and Domingos Dadalto Zoboli were unsuccessful and there was no answer at the numbers registered in the ANM mining process. Emails to the company were returned as having an invalid address. The same questions were sent via email to engineer Guilherme Aggens, who said by WhatsApp that he would look at the content, but he did not respond to questions about why the company is extracting 32 times the limit established by the ANM, why ownership of the land is registered in the CAR system under three different names, or even as to Aggens’ relationship with Itaituba’s Secretary of the Environment, Bruno Rolim da Silva.

In a response via Brazil’s Information Access Law, ICMBio informed me that the agency only found out about Gana Gold’s activities “by means of an institutional video being passed among WhatsApp groups in the region,” and that it began to investigate the case at the time, in April of this year.

Finally, after the Portuguese version of this article was published in The Intercept Brasil on September 16 exposing Gana Gold’s activities, ICMBio decided to take a harder stance regarding the company. On September 23, agents of the federal environmental agency seized the operation and fined Gana Gold R$ 10 million ($ 2 million) for “building, installing and operating a polluting establishment without environmental licensing,” based on article 66 of decree 6514/ 2008. The embargo affects the entire 4,000-hectare area of the Gana Gold mining process within the Tapajós Environmentally Protected Area.

This article was originally published in Portuguese in The Intercept Brasil and is part of the Pistas do Desmatamento project, which investigates the environmental impacts related to clandestine airstrips in the Amazon, a partnership with the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network.

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