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How Wars Undermine Sustainable Development

Russian-Ukrainian War as an Example

How Wars Undermine Sustainable Development

How Wars Undermine Sustainable Development

Russian-Ukrainian War as an Example

Peace has always been the driving factor and the optimum condition for growth and prosperity of nations. By achieving it, the focus of governments, leaders and people shifts to important and vital issues that weren’t considered or regarded during times of wars and turmoil.

The quality of education, health, poverty eradication, proper nutrition, environment preservation, social justice, and other issues; all disappear in the shadows of wars and conflicts, and with that, the aspirations and hopes of younger generations are vanished, not to mention the yet to come ones.

The humanitarian crisis because of war in Yemen, the destruction of crops and lands due to war in Ukraine, the displacement of thousands as a result of the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict, and many others; are crystal clear examples and a warning alarm for the devastating effects of wars on all elements of the environment: biodiversity, land, water, air, and most importantly human being.

Undoubtedly, our current world is going through one of the most difficult times throughout its contemporary history, which is a direct result of several challenges and crises that crushed world peace and all its elements. The world just soon after a short relief from Covid-19 repercussions, found itself facing a new crisis: “the Russian-Ukrainian war”, which shortly after its outbreak started to deliver blow after blow to both, developed and developing countries.

World Order between strength and weakness

The relatively extended periods of peace that our recent world experienced after the end of World War II, and the conclusion of Cold War along with dissolution of the Soviet Union; had a great impact on creating new economic powers and political alliances that may not have been possible before that. Therefore, many countries unleashed an accelerated movement of research and development, accompanied by international cooperation and commercial exchange in all fields, which turned our planet into a global village.

As we know, each geographical location has a unique type and amount of resources along with environmental, political and topographical conditions, which resulted in the flourishing of specific industries in certain countries, the availability of surplus raw materials that can be exported to others, or the possibility of extensive research and development in a specific field, so that some countries took the lead in areas such as: electronics, mining and oil refining, transportation and communications, crop cultivation, and others.

With time, the world reliance on each other increased enormously to an extent that a virus appears in China causes the death of millions in America, and a Russian invasion of Ukraine increases the bread prices in Cairo.

In fact, this huge international cooperation and exchange, led our world -in its entirety- to an enormous civilizational and technological leap, but at the same time it created many weaknesses in the world order, and gave some nations the ability to control others; As a result, the special interest of the “Great Powers” prevailed over everything else.

This development leap accompanied with peace spreading in most parts of the earth had an inevitable result: “Overpopulation”; and on Tuesday, November 15, 2022, the United Nations announced that the global population has surpassed the 8 billion milestone.

Sustainable development, the reality and hope

The continuous population increase has brought many challenges, on top of which is the continuous rise in demand for all products and services. This led by default to the expansion and evolution of industry and agriculture, with a sharp increase in production and development rates. As a result, many resources were depleted, in addition to severe pollution to our land and huge emissions to the atmosphere.

Luckily, the conscience of humanity was still alive to scream in our ears and open our eyes to the dangerous consequences and the existential threat resulting from our activities, which is “Climate Change”.

Climate change and all phenomena related to it such as: arctic sea ice decline, sea level rise, and loss of biodiversity, in addition to droughts, wildfires, and floods; all of which painted a gloomy picture of our future, so, the term “Sustainable Development” emerged on the global agenda as a promising solution.

The term “Sustainable Development” could be defined as, the development that meets the needs of the present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, in addition to, saving the environment and all of its elements. Across the world, this concept has widely become the main subject in terms of how to apply it and achieve its 17 goals.

Despite the sophistication of terminologies and the elegance of speeches, the “Great powers” continued to give priority to their own agendas, to ensure safety and prosperity mainly for their people, even at the expense of other nations; which is allowed under the rule of “Global capitalism” that only recognizes numbers and profits. As a result, different industries and services developed greatly while encouraging consumption of all products, even the products of death and war industry.

Perhaps it will not be surprising to know that the USA is the No. (1) exporter of arms and military equipment in the world, as this industry represents an essential element in its economy. War industry is also a main source of profit for many other countries such as Russia, Britain, France and Germany.

According to a recent study from “Brown University”, the US Department of Defense -with the arms it produces and uses- alone has a larger annual carbon footprint than most countries worldwide, and is the largest single producer of greenhouse gases, in addition to being the world’s largest institutional user of petroleum.

Since the beginning of USA invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, could you guess the amount of carbon that the US military emitted to the atmosphere? The answer is 1.2 billion tons. For comparison, the UK’s total annual carbon emissions are estimated at around 360 million tons.

Between the difference of races and tribes, the divergence of religious and doctrinal visions, along with the clashing of strategies and political interests; the image of world peace was blemished by blood of domination and greed of some countries, perhaps the most prominent in recent decades is the US invasion of Iraq, and before that Afghanistan, the ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian war, the conflict of interest through war in Syria and Libya, and most recently the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Perhaps most of us did not think or imagine that a war between Russia and Ukraine would mean a threat to global food security, in addition to an overshoot in energy prices to record levels while creating a state of uncertainty that casts a shadow over the global economy, with fears of a recurrence of the global financial crisis in 2008.

The war between Russia and Ukraine has impacted and continues to greatly affect global supply chains, while impeding the flow of goods, dramatically increasing prices, and leading to a shortage of various products; the most important of which is food.

The most affected by the crisis

The war against Ukraine was accompanied by a sharp rise in inflation rates, under the pressure of food, energy, and basic commodity prices. Inflation was already rising throughout 2021 as a result of economic recovery from Covid-19 pandemic and the continuous disruption of many supply chains, and the war added to that. Certainly, Covid-19 and the war against Ukraine delivered a double whammy to the whole world; however, the developing countries were the most affected by it, as inflation represents a gargantuan challenge for them to overcome.

This sudden rise in inflation led to a large increase in interest rates by central banks while tightening the monetary policies. Once again, developing countries were the most affected, not to mention that their external debt has doubled again in recent years.

Unlike the developed countries, developing countries have only a small margin of financial stamina to contain crises and mitigate their impacts on their citizens, and this became more evident after the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

If we look more specifically at the different regions of the world, in the Middle East, for example, non-energy-producing countries that import large percentage of grains, such as Egypt, have been clearly overwhelmed. The International Monetary Fund also expects a sharp economic slowdown in North Africa, as well as the countries that were already experiencing local crises, such as Lebanon, and even more so in Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan.

On the other side of the map, we find the Caucasus and Central Asia were severely affected due to their close relations with Russia and Ukraine. As for non-energy-producing countries (especially Armenia and Georgia) they are certainly the most at risk.

In Latin America, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a lot of problems in many countries. This led to a sharp rise in poverty and inequality. In addition, the continent is expected to witness a sharp economic slowdown this year, especially in Brazil and Chile.

Russian-Ukrainian war, which represented the last straw for many countries, undermined the efforts of many governments in achieving sustainable development agendas, and in the following pages we will highlight the role and contribution of each of the two countries to the global economy, especially food and energy security.

Russia contribution to the Global Economy

Russia’s importance in the global economy is linked to its being a major producer and exporter of energy and grains. Outside of commodity markets, Russia has always had relatively little economic influence, despite its huge size and large population.

The Russian economy ranks (eleventh) in the world, representing 1.7% of the total global output in 2021, and despite the declared intention for many decades to diversify its economy, oil and gas dominate its GDP. In other words, Russian economy revolves around the exports of different fossil fuels.

Trading is a crucial resource for the Russian economy, as the ratio of Russian merchandise trade (exports plus imports) to GDP has averaged around 40% in recent years, compared to 20% in the United States. In 2020, Russia ranked 16th in the world among goods exporters and 21st among importers, its total exports amounted to $492 billion in 2021, an increase of 46% over 2020.

Minerals, including oil and gas, accounted for nearly 45% of these exports, while imports increased by 27% to reach $294 billion in 2021. Mechanical devices ranked first among imported goods, accounting for nearly one-third of Russian imports.

It is worth mentioning that Russia is one of the largest producers and exporters of some grains and strategic minerals in the world, for example, the country is a major source of Neon used in semiconductors, palladium used in catalytic converters, and titanium metal used in the aviation industry. Energy wise, Europe gets nearly 40 percent of its natural gas and 25 percent of its oil from Russia.

In general, Russia is the world’s largest natural gas exporter, the second largest oil exporter, and the third largest coal exporter with 20%, 11%, and 15% of global exports, respectively, in 2019 (according to IEA data). In addition, Russia is the main global exporter of nitrogen fertilizers, and the second and third main supplier of potassium and phosphorus fertilizers, respectively, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In total, it represented more than 15% of global fertilizer exports in 2020.

Russia has an essential contribution to world food security; And that is because it is the largest exporter of wheat in the world, as it exports of wheat exceeded “7.3 billion” dollars in 2021. The main destinations for Russian wheat were Egypt, Turkey, Nigeria, Iran, and Libya, and for the 2022/2023 season, the US Department of Agriculture estimates that Russia will maintain its position as the largest exporter of wheat, with expectations of its exports to reach 39 million tons, an increase of 18.2% by year-on-year basis.

The vital Russian role to food security is beyond exporting wheat and fertilizers, as Russia is also a major supplier of barley, corn, soybeans and rapeseed, in addition to seed oils such as sunflower oil, rapeseed oil and others.

Ukraine contribution to the Global Economy

Contrary to what many people might think, Ukraine is home for one of the most fertile agricultural lands in the world, several specialists consider its lands to be of the highest quality. Luckily, the agricultural land covers 71% of Ukraine, which qualified it to be a major agricultural country, securing the needs of its people and exporting huge amounts of grains all over the world.

To put things in perspective, Ukraine is the largest exporter of seed oils mainly used for cooking, accounting for 40% of world production, and it is also the fourth largest exporter of maize, accounting for 13% of world exports. Ukraine also produces up to 50% of the world’s production of Neon gas.

We will not be exaggerating when we consider Ukraine as one of the major elements to international food security, as it produces about half of the sunflower oil in the world, and according to the US Department of Agriculture, Ukraine represents 15% of the world trade in corn, and 10% of the global wheat trade, but unfortunately, the Russian invasion blocked grain exports through Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea.

Ukraine is also a market for the export of meat and poultry, in addition to dairy products. It also has a large share in the global honey market, as it ranks third globally, and first continentally.

Ukraine’s importance to the global economy is not limited to grains and agricultural crops only, as it is one of the largest exporters of steel in the world, ranking eighth. As a result, the Russian-Ukrainian war gave a hard slap to the global steel market, that led to a significant increase in prices.

In addition to the above, Ukraine is one of the leading countries in the space industry. With 16,000 employees, the “State Space Agency of Ukraine” roughly matches the size of NASA. The institution inherited from the Soviet Union era, controls “20 companies” working in the space and satellite industry.

Furthermore, Ukraine is home of large reserves of natural gas in its eastern part, in addition to huge mineral resources, as it is home to some of the world’s largest reserves of titanium and iron ore, untapped lithium fields, and huge deposits of coal. Collectively, they are worth tens of trillions of dollars.

War impacts on Ukrainian Environment

The Russian-Ukrainian war caused major disturbance and turmoil to global economy, geopolitics, and food security. However, due to the tragic human conditions in this part of the world, the effects on the environment were overlooked. Furthermore, due to the fighting and violent battles, those effects will be even more tragic, leading eventually to an environmental disaster.

Although the war is still going on, the war is already affecting regions outside of Ukraine, as there is ample evidence of severe air pollution and GHG emissions resulting from the battles, in addition to the military operations near Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (the largest of a kind in Europe); Which raised the concerns of radioactive pollution and brought to mind the Chernobyl disaster.

Biodiversity is greatly affected due to severe deforestation and habitat destruction. The military operations including bombing and digging of trenches and tunnels led to land degradation, which is of great importance; Because Ukraine has large areas of the most fertile soil in the world; Which will definitely constrain food production.

Water quality and its availability are likely to be affected; Due to the destruction of infrastructure and pollutants transmission to water reserves, not to mention the shortcomings of ecosystem services because of deforestation, which will reduce the ability of the environment to regulate air or climate pollution.

Soil degradation will hinder food production, not to mention the impact on landscape aesthetics and cultural heritage, along with the destruction of social cohesion; All will greatly threaten the Ukrainian people. Finally, the impact on human health is already huge, but it will be even greater with exposure to high levels of pollution and more deterioration of sanitary conditions.

Russian-Ukrainian war and Global energy market

Energy production and the export of goods play a significant role in the Russian economy. Therefore, Russia is a major player in global energy markets – not only the oil market, but also in natural gas and coal, with Europe being particularly vulnerable to any changes in Russian energy supplies.

How Wars Undermine Sustainable Development

Oil and gas market has been strained since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This has contributed to rising in prices and inflation around the world, while the West is trying to find ways to get away from Russian energy supplies, so that Russia becomes more isolated from the global economy.

For many years, Europe relied on Russia to secure a large percentage of its needs of natural gas; This percentage has increased dramatically in recent years due to the energy policies of European Union, which include phasing out nuclear energy and reducing coal consumption, with aim of reducing GHG emissions.

To convert the above to numbers, Russian natural gas covered the needs of Finland by 94%, Germany by 49%, Italy by 46%, Poland by 40%, France by 24%, Netherlands by 11%, in addition to smaller percentages for other countries, so it was not surprising that natural gas was diverted to “an ace in the hole” for Russia to encounter the harsh sanctions imposed by USA and European Union; Thus, Europe is at risk of facing a tough winter, due to the shortage in Russian gas supplies, which is mainly used for heating.

Russia halted the supplies of natural gas to many member states of the European Union, which was like a bare-knuckle punch to the old continent. It also put many governments on the ropes against an ethical dilemma between abandoning obedience to Russian gas and returning once again to coal. The main mission here is to fulfill the increasing needs for energy during the winter season, even if this means neglecting any considerations or effects on the environment and climate.

Although it is officially committed to its plan to completely stop using fossil gas by 2030, Germany has changed course since Russia invaded Ukraine last February. Ironically, German Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action “Robert Habeck” announced that the government is restarting Coal-fired power stations to make up for Russian gas.

At the end of last June, the German Chancellor “Olaf Scholz” coalition, gave the green light to restart «27 coal-fired power stations» until March 2024. The German government is not the only one that has taken this decision within the European Union, as some countries -Austria, Italy, the Netherlands and France- have expressed their intentions to extend or restart coal-fired power plants that have been shut down, in efforts to get through the next few months safely. The UK has also postponed all plans this year to shut down coal-fired power stations.

But what will be the consequences of relying again on coal as an energy source?

The return to coal and its impact on the climate

There is no doubt that Europe is considered a huge industrial giant, and as long as we mention “industry”, “energy” must be mentioned simultaneously, as the energy needs of the old continent have increased dramatically in recent decades due to the great industrial and technical progress, especially the demand for natural gas due to it being the least polluting fossil fuel, which satisfies the sustainability policies adopted by these countries.

The return to coal revealed the true face of the West in giving priority to private interests in times of crisis and exposed its hollowness slogans of preserving the environment and limiting climate change. Speaking about the latter, the return to using coal on a large scale will represent a new obstacle to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming under “2 degrees Celsius”, while “1.5 degree” being the ultimate goal.

Climate change is the most serious long-term global impact of returning to coal-fired power stations. Chemically, coal consists mostly of carbon, which, when combusted, reacts with oxygen in the air to produce carbon dioxide, the most critical greenhouse gas, which, when released into the atmosphere, acts as a blanket that wraps around the earth, leading to a rise in its temperature above normal averages.

The consequences of global warming include drought, sea level rise, floods, extreme weather, and loss of species. The severity of these effects is directly related to the amount of carbon dioxide we emit, including emissions of coal-fired power stations. In the United States, for example, coal accounts for nearly a quarter of all energy-related carbon emissions.

Therefore, the decrease in natural gas supplies due to the war means a deficit in energy for many European countries. This has led many states back to coal for power generation, which in turn means an increase in carbon dioxide emissions. The bill would be a more severe global warming, while other countries -not part of the conflict- are left to pay the price.

Perhaps the most prominent example of the devastating effects of climate change on countries far from conflict zones is the current famine in Madagascar. This simple agricultural country suffers from the worst drought in decades, which led to the destruction of agricultural communities, leading to a famine considered to be the first of its kind caused by climate change.

How does war affect food security?

Despite their limited position in the global economy, with only approximately 2% of the world’s GDP, Russia and Ukraine are considered «world food baskets» and are important producers and exporters of vital agricultural commodities and grains.

Given that the ongoing war is between two major agricultural powers, the Russian-Ukrainian war has various negative social and economic effects that are now being felt at the international level and it may even worsen, especially with regard to global food security, which poses a challenge to many countries, particularly those who depend on food imports.

At the same time, the war came at a bad time for the world food market, because food prices were already high; Due to supply chain disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, strong global demand, and poor harvests in some countries.

Prices of basic agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers, are at record levels due to the high cost of energy needed for production. Consequently, many farmers in many parts of the world are replacing high-cost crops that require fertilizers, such as wheat and maize, with crops that require less fertilizers, such as soybeans. This may exacerbate the current shortage of supplies and raise the prices of grains and other important foods.

Many countries have applied restrictions on their exports to secure local food supplies and contain inflation. For example, India reduced the export of wheat, and Serbia reduced the export of grains and vegetable oils, which exacerbated the situation globally, and while these restrictions may be attractive on domestic level, they have a harsh negative effect on global food pricing and food security.

Military operations could have short- and long-term consequences for Ukraine’s ability to transport agricultural products in and out of its borders, especially if ports and railway facilities are destroyed. Moreover, in April 2022, Russia pledged to limit agricultural and food exports only to the “friendly countries” in response to the imposed Western sanctions. All of the above will only deepen the wound of global crisis, leading to food shortage, increased prices, and crushed food security of millions.

Effect of war on achieving SDGs

The Russian-Ukrainian war is a tragic global event; Apart from the loss of lives, the current conflict has enormous impacts environmentally, economically, and socially. The conflict has also sparked a series of events with repercussions at the global level, especially in energy and food markets.

The escalation of this conflict poses serious obstacle in achieving of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), not only for the countries directly involved in the conflict but also for those outside it, particularly the developing countries, which are the most vulnerable economically.

The impact of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict on SDGs varies, for instance, the goals for preserving the environment are mainly affected at regional level (Russia, Ukraine, and the surrounding countries), while goals such as the 3rd  goal (Good health and well-being) and the 4th goal (Quality Education) are affected in the countries involved in this war by one way or another.

The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine has transboundary effect on several SDGs for countries outside the conflict, particularly 1st goal (No Poverty), 2nd goal (Zero Hunger), and 12th goal (Reasonable Consumption and Production). However, the consequences of war on food security are compounded by a variety of underlying inertia, weaknesses and inefficiencies in global food systems.

The rise in food prices drained the “foreign exchange reserves” of food importing countries, and as a result, the exchange rates for local currencies were affected severely, leading to enormous economic challenges, and diminishing all efforts to recover from Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the halting of all plans and strategies for sustainable development.

The currency depreciation in many countries is contributing to more inflationary pressures and a rise in the prices of foods, services and other commodities. This will reduce the purchasing power of consumers and increase the burden on government budgets.

This war will undermine the sustainable transformation of many countries in terms of food systems. For example, several countries are pressing the European Union to postpone sustainable policies of «transition to greener agriculture» and focus on increasing agricultural production in response to the war without any other consideration.

Indeed, and as was observed during the COVID-19 pandemic, war can have a serious impact on progress towards achieving SDGs. This is due to the emergence of a global food crisis that may expose the agendas of sustainable development for many governments to postponement and even failure.

In addition to the above, the elevated energy prices have prompted many governments to increase production using solid fossil fuels as a cheaper alternative to the eco-friendly options; Consequently, delaying the “Energy transition” and leading to more GHG emissions. In addition, governments slept on agendas to phase out the use of coal, as a result, the 7th goal (Affordable and clean energy) has also gone with the wind.

Instead of investing in renewable energy, developed countries are rushing to get more fossil fuel, and are allocating billions of dollars to build liquefied natural gas facilities. Moreover, the rise in minerals prices led to an increase in the costs of renewable energy, which depends on metals such as aluminum and nickel.

As we can see, the Russian war on Ukraine, which the world is still suffering from its impacts to this moment, provides a stark truth of the war influence on global strategies, as it shifts the focus from sustainable development to other temporary issues without any other considerations, while giving priority to the private interest of each country at the expense of others.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine brings another stark truth: without peace, our efforts to build a sustainable future are doomed to failure, and the consequences of that failure will be catastrophic. In March of 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared in crystal-clear words that we are at a critical juncture and that only with immediate action can we avoid a climate disaster.

The Russian-Ukrainian war in COP27

Although the main topic at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, was about how the richest and most polluting countries can provide financial support to the poorest and most vulnerable countries to climate change, the Russian war on Ukraine was on everyone’s lips, as many discussions focused on the negative effects of war on climate, energy and food.

Russia did not officially comment on the war at COP27, other than criticizing the sanctions imposed on it for harming the country’s low-carbon technologies, green finance, and constraining supply chains.

From the “City of peace”, Sharm el-Sheikh, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi called for a conclusion of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict during his opening speech at the COP27 World Leaders Summit on November 7, 2022.

How Wars Undermine Sustainable Development

In sincere words, “El-Sisi” said: “This war must end… It is not that I want to play a particular role in this issue, but I, like many others, want to see an end to this war”. Mr. President also explained how international instability contributed to slowing down Egypt and its economy, as he expressed this by saying: “Please allow me to say the following: My country is not the strongest economically. We suffered enormously because of the Covid-19 pandemic for two years, and today we are suffering again because of this unnecessary war. I imagine the whole world is suffering because of the war between Russia and Ukraine.”

President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s call at the Climate Summit represents a positive initiative, to which we hope that the world powers will respond to it urgently and to find an immediate solution to end the conflict in Ukraine, in a manner that preserves world peace and relieves pressure on nations in various regions.

Conclusion of the featured article

It is indisputable that war takes human lives, destroys vital infrastructure, hinders economic growth, and causes several other social and economic damage in the regions of conflict. However, history shows us that the disruptive impact of war runs much deeper and transcends the geographical boundaries of clash.

In recent decades, historians have documented in painstaking detail how past wars have cast a shadow over our delicate relationship with nature. And today, the war in Ukraine has displayed that more so, it also showed how war can impact food and energy prices around the world.

Apparently, the world was not at peace in the years leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with many describing the overwhelming Western reaction to the Russian invasion -compared to other conflicts- as at best a «moral double standard» and at worst «racist».

Accordingly, the massive Western reaction to this specific war indicates that this invasion -more than any other- will have far more consequences on sustainability.

While the long-term consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the global order are still not clear, there is some concerns that this war is an announcement of a new era of global conflict and a remapping of superpowers, especially in parallel with the continuous rise of China.

The current crisis impairs political will and sidelines the climate crisis from the headlines, as Europe, the United States, and other countries give more priority to defense budgets, while on the other hand, the new Cold War emerging in the scene would sever the multilayered international ties that are essential to a concerted effort to address climate change. Finally, and just as during the original Cold War, financial and technological support for emerging economies may become contingent on ideological conformity rather than a commitment to environmental conservation or citizen welfare.

Since their creation in 2015, the SDGs have been seen as closely interdependent, and as American writer “Kristen Smith” described the 16th goal (Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions): “It can be said that achieving this one goal [peace] is an essential condition for the success of other goals”. This quote may have seemed exaggerated a few months ago, but we are living it now.

In conclusion, we can only say: Our world is now going through a difficult period, in which concepts have changed, priorities have modified, and the special interests of some countries have dominated the interests of all humanity.

The time has come to take the responsibility, as history is in the making to record how humanity dealt with the imminent danger that threatens it and its planet, and whether we only considered our private agendas and own aspirations, or we lived up to the moment and truly became… the “Earth Guards”.

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