Megan S. Lee and Cliff Abenaitwe, February 01, 2021

  • French oil multinational Total, its partner investors, and the Ugandan and Tanzanian governments will soon finalize their decision on the Lake Albert Development Project, Uganda’s first oil development
  • The effects of potential oil spills and infrastructure development would cause irreversible damage in the ecologically sensitive Albertine Region, which contributes 30% of Uganda’s fish stocks
  • Communities that have been resettled and others anticipating displacement are voicing grievances regarding their livelihood’s upheaval such as delayed and inadequate compensation
  • Total E&P Uganda’s Public Relations Officer maintains that the project will create around 13,000 direct jobs, 150,000 indirect jobs, new infrastructure, and numerous economic benefits
  • Civil society in France and Uganda is attempting to renegotiate the terms of the project through legal means on the behalf of communities that lack the resources to show up in court
The flooded shores of Lake Albert caused by East Africa’s abnormally high rainfall in 2020. Megan S. Lee/InfoNile

Beneath the land in the Albertine graben on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), there is an estimated 6.5 billion barrels worth of oil, of which 1.4 billion are considered recoverable. Lake Albert is the centerpiece of the Albertine graben. It is Uganda’s second-largest lake, a source of livelihood for thousands of fishermen in Uganda and the neighboring DRC. The lake is part of the Nile River, a crucial water source for millions of people in east and northeast Africa.

French multinational company Total, one of the seven “Supermajor” oil companies in the world, is taking steps toward the final investment decision for the Lake Albert Development Project, which includes the Tilenga, EACOP, and Kingfisher projects, located in the Albertine region. The final investment decision is a point in any infrastructure project where companies, investors, and governments sanction a project’s go-ahead.

Oil development activities in the Albertine region with Lake Albert on the horizon. Megan S. Lee/InfoNile

On September 11, 2020, the government of Uganda and Total signed the host government agreement for EACOP, which represents significant progress toward reaching the final investment decision. What remains are finalizing the Shareholders Agreement, the Transportation and Tariff Agreement, bids for infrastructure plans, land acquisition, and community resettlement, according to Anita Kayongo, Total E&P Uganda’s Corporate Communications Manager.

Civil society and community members are contesting the oil development with allegations regarding human rights abuses and environmental concerns. The contested project would mark Uganda’s first oil production, projected by the government to begin in 2022.

Since oil was first discovered by an Australian company in 2006, residents of Hoima and Buliisa District have been anticipating an influx of wealth from the exploitation of their native lands.

However, negotiations playing out between the government and corporations have neglected the stake local communities hold in the areas where the projects are to be built: their livelihood. Over the years, residents have turned from hopeful to indignant. Environmental risks and their potential effects on communities are some of the many issues that complicate the commencement of Uganda’s first oil development.

Potential for oil spills

On March 29th, 2020, a blowout occurred at a geothermal exploration site in Kibiro Village of Hoima District. Residents feared this could be an oil spill, one of the worst accidents that could happen in oil-rich areas.

The incident sparked discussion on whether Uganda is adequately prepared to handle oil spills it may face with the coming oil development. The Kibiro geothermal exploration site, like Uganda’s oil deposits, is located in the Albertine graben along Lake Albert’s shoreline. 

In a press release more than two weeks after the incident, the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development, one of Uganda’s governmental bodies, downplays the possibility that this incident was an oil spill based on the composition of the discharge, cited as mostly sand, water and clay. 

“Whereas what happened in Kibiro is almost similar to what happens during an oil spill incident, it may be erroneous to dub the incident an oil spill,” Secretary Robert Kasande clarifies in the press release.

An Inter-Ministerial Task Force investigating the incident, however, observed that water reeds along the lakeshore had black deposits resembling crude oil that extended kilometres away. 

The Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development denies the harm of the incident, asserting that though oil was found in trace amounts, aquatic species were found surviving at the shoreline, rendering the incident benign. The Ministry promised to temporarily halt Temperature Gradient Holes drilling activities until a comprehensive Environmental and Social Impact Assessment was conducted.

Communities intertwined with the lake

William Bamuturaki, chairman of Kiyere Village, Buliisa District, has lived near Lake Albert for 58 years. He describes Lake Albert as the lifeline for those of Buliisa and Hoima, as well as on the DRC side.

“This lake is our life. It’s our source of food and has sustained us for decades,” he tells InfoNile, adding that news of the Kibiro explosion has reached across the region. 

William Bamuturaki is the resident and chairman of Kiyere Villa, Buliisa District. Megan S. Lee/InfoNile

Before the explosion in Kibiro, Buliisa residents were already concerned by the oil activities around Lake Albert. Residents say fish populations have reduced, which is rare during the current rainy season.

“We have for years known that during the rainy season, flooding is related to plenty of fish. This however has changed. The catch is too poor these days.”  

William Bamuturaki

Historic data show that before the 1990s, larger fish species were dominant in Lake Albert. Between 2010 to 2015, fish brought ashore per boat declined by almost 30 percent. The main reasons for this decline include the growing fisher population, illegal fishing equipment, weak enforcement, increasing demand, improved access to domestic and Congolese markets, and unrestrained access to fish.

Once oil activities begin, threats such as oil spills and construction will become contributing factors to the declining biodiversity of the lake ecosystem. The potential effects of an oil spill on water ecosystems are dire. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, fish may experience reduced growth, reproduction damage, and other ill effects when exposed to oil.

Fish have reduced in size and number. Megan S. Lee/InfoNile

Harrison Kasaija, a fisherman at the Kaiso landing site, is concerned that an oil spill might result in the massive death of aquatic life, leading to the loss of food and income for the community. According to Kasaija, the fishing community believes oil activities near the lake chased the fish away.

Alice Kazimura, the Executive Director of Kakindo Integrated Women Development Agency (KAWIDA), an NGO in Buliisa, says that because many oil wells are near the lake, residents suspect the oil activities are the culprit for fish loss.

She and other residents speculate that oil might have already spilled into the lake during the construction of drilling sites.

“We keep wondering why fish have reduced when oil activities are in high gear,” Kazimura tells InfoNile. “They keep telling us that fish has reduced because of poor fishing methods, but these methods are what we have used for ages without the fish becoming scarce.”

Threats to water access

Judith Mbabazi, resident of Ngwedo Subcounty in Buliisa, has for years cultivated crops and grazed animals from Kasenyi Village. This area is demarcated to host a Central Processing Facility for the Tilenga oil project and several oil well pads.

“With the CPF, we suspect that the area will now be fenced-off and access limited. This will affect our access to the Nile River for water, especially for our animals. The next water access points are far,” she tells InfoNile.

Ibrahim Okoki, a resident of Uduku Two Village in Ngwendo Subcounty, says that with oil projects underway, they are no longer allowed to graze by the lake. Residents suspect that when the drilling starts, they will be cut off from crucial water access points.  

According to Alice Kazimura of the Kakindo women’s organization, women and children are particularly burdened by such restrictions, since they are the ones who trek for hours to fetch water.

Issues beyond water

Aerial view of homes near Buliisa’s trading center. Megan S. Lee/InfoNile

Water access and ecosystem health are undoubtedly critical issues concerning Lake Albert. But to the residents of Buliisa, land compensation is a more urgent matter. Buliisa lies in the Tilenga oil project delineation area that will be developed by the French energy giant, Total. Other petroleum companies, British-owned Tullow and the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation Limited, are set to pursue massive oil projects in the surrounding area.

The Tilenga Project area is split between the north and south banks of the Nile River, which includes ecologically sensitive areas such as the protected Murchison Falls National Park in the Albert Delta Wetland System Ramsar site, which is a wetland site designated of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty established in 1971.

According to the government, 419 wells will be drilled from 34 well pad locations in the Tilenga project. A network of 180 kilometers of buried pipelines, some passing under the Nile River, will collect the oil produced from each well pad and transport it to the Central Processing Facility located on the outskirts of Murchison Falls National Park in Ngwedo Subcounty, Buliisa District. From the CPF, the treated oil will be sent to the Tilenga feeder pipeline. 

Oil infrastructure on the shores of Lake Albert. Jonathan Kabugo/InfoNile

Oil infrastructure built by Total, its partners, and the government will include a refinery, an airport, a water abstraction system to harvest Lake Albert’s water for the needs of the oil wells, new and upgraded roads, and other oil management facilities. 

The largest infrastructure of them all, a 1,445 kilometer long, 24-inch diameter East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) will transport crude oil underground from Kabaale, Hoima District in Uganda to the Indian Ocean at the Chongoleani Peninsula near Tanga Port in Tanzania. 

It will be built in partnership with Total, CNOOC Limited, the government-owned Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation, and the government-owned Uganda National Oil Company. When built it will be the longest electrically heated pipeline in the world, running through 178 villages in Uganda and 231 in Tanzania, as well as biodiverse ecological systems, wetlands, and rivers that are catchments for Lake Victoria and Lake Albert. 

A study conducted by Oxfam between 2018 and 2020 engaged with 520 community members from 15 villages in Tanzania and 691 community members in Uganda from 21 villages. It estimates that around 3,400 to 3,700 households in Uganda will be displaced from project priority areas and EACOP’s right-of-way, or path. In Tanzania, 425 households will be displaced for priority areas and 9,419 for the pipeline.

The Resettlement Action Plan published in September 2020 by Atacama Consulting on behalf of Total states that the Tilenga project will affect an estimated 31,716 people, mainly those from Buliisa District, where 27% of the population will be affected.

Around 3,400 to 3,700 households in Uganda will be displaced. In Tanzania, 425 households will be displaced for priority areas and 9,419 for the pipeline.

OXFAM 20128-2020

Residents of Buliisa affected by the construction projects are crying foul. “First of all, the compensation rates are too low for our pieces of land,” says William Bamuturaki, a project-affected person. He is referring to 3.5 million Ugandan shillings per acre of land, equivalent to around 970 USD.

“This money cannot enable us to get another piece of land of the same size in neighbouring areas or in other districts,” he tells InfoNile. 

Families can no longer benefit from their usual harvest and have little means to find alternative food sources. Children have dropped out of school as parents lose their ability to pay for school fees, even before the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close. Even healthcare access has been disrupted.

 Roads being built on the way from Hoima to Buliisa District. Megan S. Lee/InfoNile

Ibrahim Okoki, a resident of Uduku Two Village, says that in addition to meager compensation, the payments are being delayed, stranding residents who have been told not to cultivate their land before receiving compensation. According to a report published in October by the French NGO Les Amis de la Terre (Friends of the Earth) and Survie (Survival), families are being intimidated and forced to abandon their lands.

“Oil is proving to be a curse for hundreds of people in Buliisa District,” Alice Kazimura says, adding that the government’s land acquisition process has ruined many lives.  “Government and the oil companies must listen to people’s concerns, involve different stakeholders like civil society organizations in different projects, improve communication with stakeholders but also improve on the speed of compensation payment,” she says.

Maxwell Atuhura, of Navigators of Development Association (NAVODA), an NGO working in the region, says issues like low land valuation, unclear crop valuation, delayed compensation payments, intimidation of residents, preventing people from using their land before compensation, and other serious human rights violations must be addressed.

Village near Buliisa. Megan S. Lee/InfoNile

Kayongo of Total confirms that the company has received complaints from people about compensation rates, but says, “The land rates are based on the prevailing market rates for land in the area,” although the Amis de la Terre study found that these rates were sometimes calculated years before actual payment. She explains that the company is willing to engage in dialogue with communities and other stakeholders to resolve outstanding issues on compensation. 

Total promised to provide displaced people either replacement houses and land at an equal or higher value than what they have, or cash compensation “at full replacement cost,” according to the company’s Resettlement Action Plans.

However, in the first resettlement plan, some residents had no choice for which type of compensation to receive and complained of receiving compensation years later, according to Les Amis de la Terre

While the implementation phase for the first resettlement area (RAP 1) began on Jan. 15, 2018, according to Total, the first resettlement houses were finally built and handed over to 29 residents three years later, on Feb. 1, 2021. 

The Ugandan government’s mitigation measures

A hippo in Murchison Falls National Park, where oil activities could affect sensitive ecosystems. Megan S. Lee/InfoNile

The National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), a government agency responsible for matters related to the natural environment and environmental policy in Uganda, drafted the National Environment (Oil Spill Prevention, Control, and Management Regulations) in 2014, establishing regulations for dealing with oil spills and other harmful substances in Uganda’s industrial facilities, land, and waters. 

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, an oil spill is “oil, discharged accidentally or intentionally, that floats on the surface of water bodies as a discrete mass and is carried by the wind, currents, and tides.” Oil spills are detrimental to water ecosystems but can be partially controlled through chemical or mechanical means.

Another of Uganda’s preventative measures include the National Environment Act, Cap 153 and the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations of 1998, which necessitate an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment report to uphold certain environmental standards.

This assessment for the Tilenga oil project evaluates environmental and social risks, proposes plans called “mitigation measures,” categorized under biodiversity, the physical environment, communities, and emergency preparedness, to minimize impacts and compensate impacted communities and environments. 

One example is the Site Restoration Plan, in which Total promises that impacted sites will be monitored for vegetation growth, erosion issues, and invasive species to ensure these sites are “effectively restored.” Plant nurseries will be created to provide plant materials such as seeds and  common herbaceous species for restoring impacted sites and replacing fallen trees. To accompany this, a risk-based Alien/Invasive Species Management Plan will be implemented.

Plans to address social risks include an Influx Management Strategy for dealing with an influx of workers and maximizing benefits for local communities. The strategy, involving coordination between the Tilenga project, government, other developers, local communities, and civil society, will look into providing alternative sources of fuel, building materials, farming land and food.

The assessment states Resettlement Action Plans (RAPs) will include livelihood restoration, options for alternative livelihoods, and income diversification programs to ease community dependence on natural resources and protected areas.

The oil project and pipeline will cause irreversible damage to fragile, biodiverse ecosystems including Murchison Falls National Park, Lake Albert – which contains 30 percent of Uganda’s fish stocks – the Nile River, Taala Forest Reserve, Bugoma Forest, and Lake Victoria, before crossing through hundreds of miles of elephant habitats, wetlands, game parks and finally coral reefs in Tanzania.

Amis de la Terre, OCTOBER 2020

Murchison Falls – Albert Delta Wetland System Ramsar site is considered to be  highly sensitive, with potential impacts including the loss of habitat, wildlife population decline, disturbances by an influx of workers, and infrastructure creating barriers to wildlife movement. However, the impact assessment states that by following the mitigation plans, the residual impacts of the Tilenga oil project will be low or insignificant. 

“Overall, the Project needs to be viewed as a whole and be determined on the vast array of benefits that it will bring to the Country, which will far outweigh any short term localised negative impacts,” concludes the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment.

The report ends by stating a possibility for numerous benefits, including “… social, health, cultural heritage and archaeological impacts” and “… accelerated economic growth, job creation, … poverty reduction and general prosperity to the people in Uganda.” 

Lake Albert’s shoreline has extended covering vegetation due to floods. Megan S. Lee/InfoNile

However, the October report by Amis de la Terre disputes this assessment, stating that the oil project and pipeline will cause irreversible damage to fragile, biodiverse ecosystems including Murchison Falls National Park, Lake Albert – which contains 30 percent of Uganda’s fish stocks – the Nile River, Taala Forest Reserve, Bugoma Forest, and Lake Victoria, before crossing through hundreds of miles of elephant habitats, wetlands, game parks and finally coral reefs in Tanzania.

These areas will be subject to “extensive digging,” spills, fumes, and wastewater discharge, according to the report. The nature of oil drilling and production also worsens climate change. 

The Environmental and Social Impact Assessment for the Tilenga oil project was approved by the government on April 15,  2019 for a period of 10 years. However, opposition soon followed.

Dickens Kamugisha, founder of the NGO Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), says that AFIEGO filed a case in the High Court of Uganda in May 2019 challenging the approval of the assessment with claims that AFIEGO and other public stakeholders were insufficiently able to voice their stance concerning the environmental and social impacts of the project. The Attorney General asked the Court to dismiss the case for lack of substantial merits.

Kamugisha says that Total and the government have already begun implementing the Resettlement Action Plans to resettle communities and compensate people affected by the project in anticipation of the crucial final investment decision.

The impact assessment for the EACOP project was conducted between 2017 and 2018, also collecting environmental, social and health data to devise mitigation measures and enhance benefits for communities. Project-affected communities across 10 districts crossed by the pipeline were engaged in three public hearings in 2019 with the Petroleum Authority of Uganda to understand community concerns regarding the EACOP. 

The Tanzanian section was approved by Tanzania on November 29, 2019. On December 3 of this year, NEMA’s approval of the impact assessment for the EACOP project in the Ugandan section means the project has been approved for its entire length, bringing oil developments one step closer to the final investment decision and therefore, the official launch.

“The East African Crude Oil Pipeline project will yield substantial Foreign Direct Investment in Uganda and Tanzania during the construction phase,” reads NEMA’s press release.

Yusuf Masaba, Communications Officer from the PAU, says the government is determined to ensure that safeguards defined by the assessment are followed. “Government wants to ensure sustainable exploitation of oil, because this resource is finite but water resources and the environment will remain after oil,” Masaba tells InfoNile.

In the ecologically sensitive Albertine region, an oil spill would be a nightmare for the country, the Nile Basin, and the world. Will government efforts to mitigate  impacts be enough?

Total’s response

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Uganda’s 1965 Land Acquisition Act justifies the compulsory acquisition of land for “public purposes,” stating that fair compensation will be provided for such cases. In Uganda, the Chief Government Valuer with district land boards set values for land and developments on it like crops and infrastructure. Determination of these values has often been questioned by displaced people, including residents in Buliisa and the entire oil region in Uganda.

Communities in Buliisa and throughout the oil-rich Albertine region remain in limbo without adequate compensation, which has been infuriating for many and life-threatening for some, as project-affected people lose their normal way of life.

Anita Kayongo, Corporate Communications Manager at Total E&P Uganda, tells InfoNile that compensation has been addressed only for those removed from the Industrial Area where the Central Processing Facility will be located. Those displaced by the ongoing road construction have not been included to compensate, which Kayongo states are the responsibility of the Uganda National Roads Authority under the government of Uganda. 

Nine out of the 622 people in concern have turned down the compensation, citing the compensation as inadequate. The funds for those nine “. . . have been deposited in a dedicated account pending a judicial ruling,” she explains. Kayongo says that the company is committed to ensuring the highest human rights standards.

Residents at Lake Albert’s shoreline who would be most affected by oil activities. Megan S. Lee/InfoNile

Regarding oil spills, Kayongo states that the company’s highest priority is to prevent them through “international industry practices,” which involve providing secondary containment for storage facilities, regularly monitoring tank contents for signs of leakage, fitting drainage systems with retention basins and oil interceptors, and burying all pipelines to minimize accidental damage.

She adds, “The company is also developing its tiered oil spill response strategy … in consultation with the Petroleum Authority of Uganda  and other oil and gas operators to ensure full alignment with the regulatory requirements and the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan.” 

“The Lake Albert project is of key strategic importance to Total Group, and together with our partners and the government, we have made commendable progress towards the ultimate goal of achieving the final investment decision by the end of 2020,” concludes Total E&P Uganda’s statement to InfoNile.

According to Kayongo, the entire Lake Albert project, including the Tilenga, EACOP and Kingfisher projects, will require a capital investment of over $10 billion, part of which will be spent locally through taxes and locally sourced goods and services. She claims the project will also create around 13,000 direct jobs, 150,000 indirect jobs, new infrastructure, and overall economic benefits. 

But for whom exactly?

Civil society fights back

The women of Buliisa have expressed grievances affecting their families’ livelihood. Megan S. Lee/InfoNile

Human rights groups in Uganda including AFIEGO, NAVODA and KAWIDA are contradicting claims Total and the government have made to protect moving forward with the oil projects. 

With support from the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO) in March 2014, people affected by the oil refinery brought their case against the government to Kampala High Court, Civil Division, following the government’s acquisition of their land in 2012.

press statement by the advocacy group says the government was committing injustices such as payment delay and unfair compensation to those displaced. Community rights to food, education and access to clean water were adversely affected by the government’s land acquisition.

The case remains ongoing up to the present. Allegations that people were receiving inadequate compensation based on rates from 2010 and 2011 were added to the list of complaints. 

On December 10, 2020, the affected people expected their case hearing to take place in the Kampala High Court, Civil Division. They wanted the court to declare that the oil refinery compensation process carried out by the government violated Article 26 of the 1995 Uganda Constitution.

They wanted the court to confirm that it had resulted in delayed and unfair compensation; declare that the use of cut-off-dates that stop the affected people from using their land for new developments before compensation is unconstitutional; order the government to pay fair compensation; and order the government to devise regulations as provided for under section 20 of the 1965 Land Acquisition Act to prevent delayed and unfair compensation that has occurred partly due to the lack of such regulations.

Although the people showed up, no hearing took place because the judge claimed to be ill, according to Kamugisha. AFIEGO is working to fix new court hearing dates.

A group of French and Ugandan organizations is seeking a court order under France’s new Duty of Vigilance Law that would require Total to disclose and effectively implement its plans to address the adverse impacts of the oil activities. The group includes Les Amis de la Terre in France (Friends of the Earth), Survie (Survival), AFIEGO, Civic Response on Environment and Development (CRED), National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE)/Friends of the Earth Uganda, and NAVODA.

“This is the only instrument we have at our disposal to force Total to stop the violations on the ground,” says Thomas Bart, activist with Survie. Bart says that without this legal minimum, the human rights violations will continue, “as voluntary commitments and declarations of goodwill have already proven to be useless,” he concludes.

On the 10th of December, the Versailles Court of Appeal in France ruled in favor of Total, deciding that this dispute falls under jurisdiction of the commercial court instead of the civil court. The fear is that the commercial courts would tend to side with Total, and see the case as “a purely commercial dispute relating to the company’s internal management” rather than affecting third parties such as local communities and the environment.

“We are stunned by this decision of the Versailles Court of Appeal. In our opinion, entrusting cases based on the duty of vigilance law to the commercial courts is a misinterpretation of French law, which leads to ignoring the central objective of of this law: to protect human rights and the environment,” says Juliette Renaud, senior campaigner with Amis de la Terre, in a press release.

They are considering filing an appeal to the highest court in France, the Cour de Cassation (French Supreme Court). Nearby in the DRC, Total abandoned its oil drilling projects in Virunga National Park due to pushback, proof that civil society mobilization works.

“It is unacceptable that the same transnational corporation launches a similar project at the same time in Uganda, just on the other side of the border,” Survie and Amis de la Terre state.

Hoima is the city at the center of Hoima District’s activities. Megan S. Lee/InfoNile

Civil society has also taken to online platforms. An online petition hosted on Avaaz called “Stop this Total madness” states, “To Total CEO Patrick Pouyanné and all the backers of the EACOP project: As global citizens, we urgently call on you to cancel the East African Crude Oil Pipeline and stop drilling in national parks. Your plans threaten to destroy precious biodiversity hotspots and wildlife habitats in Uganda and Tanzania, displacing tens of thousands of farmers. This project seriously undermines your commitment to the Paris Agreement and to become “carbon-neutral”. We urge you to align your business under the values you publicly proclaim.” It has received over 1 million signatures.

Maxwell Atuhura believes that more is needed besides impact assessments and mitigation plans written by oil companies and the government.

“Oil companies and the government alone cannot solve these issues to the satisfaction of residents. My proposal is to have local civil society organizations and leaders on grievance handling committees to ensure that interests of the community are adequately represented and concerns addressed,” he says.

Alice Kazimura advocates empowerment for her community in Buliisa District by learning their rights.

“People must be knowledgeable, because we don’t want to be taken like cows in the bush. [But] if it has failed, where can they go? [the] government should also come out and talk for us. They should be the voice of the communities,” she says. Alice continues to lead the Kakindo Integrated Women Development Agency in Buliisa, sensitizing communities, especially women, on how to resist exploitation but also take advantage of opportunities if the oil development ensues. 

This story was produced in partnership with InfoNile with support from Code for Africa and funding from the JRS Biodiversity Foundation. Editing, additional reporting, data analysis, and visualizations by Annika McGinnis. Graphics by Jonathan Kabugo and Sakina Salem.

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