Is small-scale agriculture really the main driver of deforestation
in the Peruvian Amazon? Moving beyond the prevailing narrative
Ashwin Ravikumar1,2 , Robin R. Sears2, Peter Cronkleton2, Mary Menton3,&Mat
ıas P ´
erez-Ojeda del Arco2,4
1Keller Science Action Center, The Field Museum, 1400 S Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL, USA
2Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), La Molina, Av. La Molina 1895, La Molina, Lima, 12 Peru
3Solutions & Evidence for Environment & Development (SEED), 163 Howard St, Oxford OX4 3BA, UK
4Sociology of Development and Change Group, Wagenigen UR, Droevendaalsesteeg 4, 6708 PB Wagenigen, The Netherlands
Deforestation policy; drivers of deforestation;
land use policy; Peruvian Amazon; shifting
cultivation; subsistence agriculture.
Ashwin Ravikumar, Keller Science Action
Center, The Field Museum, 1400 S Lake Shore
Drive, Chicago, IL, 60605, USA. Tel: +1
31 January 2016
11 May 2016
A key premise underlying discussion about deforestation in Amazonian Peru
is that small-scale or so-called migratory agriculture is the main driver of
deforestation. This premise has been expressed in government documents and
public outreach events. How the Peruvian government understands drivers of
deforestation in the Amazon has profound implications for how it will confront
the problem. It is therefore important to critically revisit assumptions under-
lying this narrative. We ﬁnd that the narrative is based on remote sensing of
deforestation patch sizes but not on ﬁeld data, potentially conﬂating distinct
drivers of deforestation under the umbrella of “migratory,” “small-scale,”
or “subsistence” agriculture. In fact, small patches of deforested land may
indicate any number of processes, including sustainable fallow management
and agroforestry. Moreover, the data underlying the narrative tell us little
about the actors driving these processes or their motivations. Different pro-
cesses have distinct implications for environmental sustainability and require
targeted policy responses. We unpack these diverse actors, geographies, and
motivations of small-patch deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon and argue
that differentiating among these drivers is necessary to develop appropriate
policy responses. We call for researchers to revisit assumptions and critically
assess the motivations of observed deforestation to appropriately target policy
For decades, discourse around deforestation in Peru
among government and nongovernment conservation
actors has highlighted small-scale––or “migratory”––
agriculture as the key driver (Watters 1971; Dourojeanni
1987;). This same discourse continues today (Velarde
et al. 2010), with the government claiming that 90% of
deforestation in Peru is caused by migratory agriculture
(MINAM 2014). At the same time, recent research indi-
cates that other major drivers are growing in importance,
including the conversion of primary forest for the instal-
lation of industrial monoculture plantations such as oil
elez et al. 2011) and cacao (EIA 2015),
gold mining (Asner et al. 2013; Scullion et al. 2014), oil
and gas extraction sites (Finer et al. 2008), and roads
through rural and wilderness areas (M¨
aki et al. 2001).
This discourse that focuses on small-scale agriculture is
often accompanied by the assertion that poverty and so-
cial conﬂict in the Andean highlands create an impetus
for out-migration to the Amazon, which underlies de-
forestation linked to migratory movements (Dourojeanni
1976; Ugarte-Guerra 2009; but see Ichikawa et al. 2014
for intraregional migration patterns). However, migration
is also linked to agriculture policy and programs (Alvarez
& Naughton-Treves 2003; Chavez et al. 2014). In reality,
deforestation events––including small-scale ones––have
multiple and complex underlying causes (Geist & Lambin
2002; Almeyda Zambrano et al. 2010; Coomes et al. 2011),
including policy incentives, shifting market conditions,
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Tracing deforestation drivers in Peru A. Ravikumar et al.
changes to infrastructure, and the availability of invest-
How the Peruvian government understands the drivers
of deforestation in the Amazon has critical implications
for how the country addresses the problem. It is therefore
important to revisit the mainstream narrative about de-
forestation and its drivers. We examine the evidence that
has been used to support the attribution of deforestation
to small-scale agriculture, and argue that it is imprecise,
outdated, and inhibits the design of an effective strategy
for combating deforestation. We applaud recent com-
munications from the government (e.g., MINAM 2015)
that present a more nuanced message about causes of
deforestation, as they provide a stronger basis for ad-
dressing the problem. Nevertheless, the discourse among
government agencies in the Peruvian Amazon continues
to blame Peru’s small-scale farmers, who have been
consistently marginalized in the country’s development
agenda and through past forest policy (Sears & Pinedo-
Vasquez 2011). In this article, we trace the origins of this
narrative to give it a critical look, and ultimately propose
a more nuanced approach to understanding drivers of
small-scale deforestation that could enable policy makers
to respond more appropriately.
The purpose of this article is to raise questions about
how deforestation is viewed by key decision makers, out-
line alternative interpretations of deforestation drivers,
and issue a call for new research that clariﬁes the
current confused narrative. This article ultimately does
not present new data on the drivers of deforestation,
but rather calls for such data to be collected smartly.
This need is pressing given the current dearth of such
data along with the recent emergence of new actors
and processes that drive deforestation in the Peruvian
Amazon (Finer & Novoa 2015).
The prevailing narrative of deforestation
in the Peruvian Amazon
The idea that migratory or small-scale agriculture is
the main driver of deforestation can be found in many
current documents and discussions in Peru. For ex-
ample, Peru’s 2013 REDD+1Readiness Plan (MINAM
2013) cited small -scale agriculture as the main driver of
deforestation. We heard this statement repeated by repre-
sentatives of the Ministry of Environment (MINAM) and
the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation (MINAGRI) in
public events related to the United Nations Framework
Convention on Climate Change Twentieth Conference of
Parties (UNFCCC COP 20) in Lima in 2014. Perhaps the
most striking expression of this narrative was found in
the Forests Pavilion at the COP 20 on a poster intended
to educate the general public about deforestation in Peru.
It stated, ”90% of the logging and burning of Peru’s
Amazon forests occurs at the hands of peasants living
in poverty who migrate from the highlands and practice
subsistence agriculture” (MINAM 2014, translation by
the authors). This statement is troublesome for three
reasons. First, it places blame ﬁrmly on migrants to
Amazonia, apparently excusing other groups. Second,
it conﬂates the actors who are deforesting with the
practices that lead to deforestation, which can range from
small-scale shifting cultivation, to forest conversion for
pasture or cash-crops, to mining. Third, the data-source
(CDI/INDUFOR 2012; MINAM 2012) on which this
claim is based reports on the frequency of deforestation
patch sizes and not total area deforested.
This generic narrative is also reﬂected in the draft of
the National Strategy on Forests and Climate Change
(MINAM 2015, translation by the authors), which states:
“Traditional small-scale agriculture is the principal
driver of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon. The
area of these landholdings varies between 5 and 30
hectares . . . The majority of deforestation is associated
with subsistence agriculture, although the ﬁnal state
of deforested lands may be pasture, perennial crops, or
These examples illustrate how the Peruvian govern-
ment considers a broad group of actors, including recent
migrants and longer term resident small-scale farmers,
to be responsible for most deforestation in the Peruvian
Amazon. The above statement also reﬂects the assump-
tion that land use change tends to move from forest to a
ﬁnal deforested state, without allowing for the dynamic
equilibria between forests, croplands, and fallows that
are found in smallholder production systems in practice
(Padoch et al. 1985; Marquardt et al. 2013). Before un-
packing these issues around land use change in the Peru-
vian Amazon, we examine the evidence for the narrative
that small-scale subsistence agriculture is responsible for
the vast majority of deforestation in the region.
Where do these conclusions come from?
The 2014 draft National Strategy on Forests and Climate
ıguez et al. 2014), which informed public
discussions at the COP20, cited reports from The World
Agroforestry Center (Velarde et al. 2010) and a re-
port from Peru’s Ministry of Agriculture (MINAG 2002).
Velarde et al. (2010) themselves rely on MINAG (2002) to
suggest that shifting cultivation is a principal driver of de-
forestation in the Peruvian Amazon. The MINAG report
emphasized the linkages between agriculture and
deforestation, suggesting that 81% of deforestation was
2Conservation Letters, June 2016, 00(0), 1–8 Copyright and Photocopying: C2016 The Authors. Conservation Letters published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
A. Ravikumar et al. Tracing deforestation drivers in Peru
caused by shifting cultivation using data from INRENA
(the former agency responsible for natural resource
management), which was calculated from an analysis of
Landsat imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The report explained, “contrary to popular belief, timber
extraction does not destroy forests. The activity that has
the greatest impact is agriculture and livestock (migratory
agriculture), as farmers burn enormous forest areas to
uncover lands” (p. 42, translation by the authors).
In addition, a widely cited report from CDI/INDUFOR
(2012) bases its conclusions on a MINAM (2012) anal-
ysis of remote sensing data. The MINAM data showed
that deforestation in both 2005 and 2009 occurred in
very small patches: about 75% of deforested patches
were smaller than 0.5 ha, and another 15% were smaller
than 1.0 ha. Based on this, the CDI/INDUFOR report
concluded: “It is evident that the deforestation that oc-
curred during both periods was dominated, at the na-
tional level, by the activities of peasant farmers, who re-
quire small areas for settlement” (p. 31, translation by
the authors). In this way, the report linked the frequency
of small deforested patches to small-scale agriculture as a
Examining this evidence base, we ﬁnd that the gov-
ernment’s statement that most deforestation in the
Amazon is driven by migratory agriculture is ultimately
based on the frequency of a certain size of patches de-
tected in analysis of remote sensing data. We found no
evidence that the major studies used to support this nar-
rative collected ﬁeld data or systematically analyzed the
actors involved in land use practices on the ground or
their motivations. Methods for linking remote sensing
and social science to provide a complete picture of land
use change dynamics have been the subject of lively de-
bate for some time (Liverman et al. 1998; Wood & Skole
1998; Rindfuss et al. 2003). Considerable attention has
been paid to the importance of ground-truthing along
with remote sensing, and the discussion is ongoing (see
Hansen et al. 2014). Even as remote sensing technologies
provide increasingly accurate information about the na-
ture of land use change on the ground, alone they still
cannot reveal which speciﬁc actors were involved and
what their underlying motivations were, nor how po-
litical negotiations and policies inﬂuenced them (Tropek
et al. 2014; Vergara-Asenjo et al. 2015). Understanding
such details is essential for assessing land cover change
Without evidence of the direct drivers from the ground,
to what extent can these data sources rigorously support
the notion that the vast majority of deforestation in the
Amazon is driven by small-scale and so-called “migratory
agriculture”? We argue that policy makers need a more
nuanced picture of small-scale deforestation that draws
distinctions between the various types of actors involved
in clearing small patches as well as the varied factors that
motivate their behavior.
“Small-scale” and “migratory”
agriculture: clarifying the terminology
Key Peruvian agencies have variously used the terms
“small-scale agriculture” and “migratory agriculture.”
However, these terms frame the debate in ways that ob-
scure processes at work on forest frontiers and may ham-
per the formulation of appropriate policy responses.
There are at least two concepts that the term “mi-
gratory agriculture” may refer to that merit explicit
distinction, and that are problematic if subsumed under
a single umbrella term. First, in Spanish, the term
“migratory agriculture” often refers to swidden-fallow
agriculture, or shifting cultivation, wherein farmers
rotate production among active ﬁelds of annual crops
and regenerating forest areas, or fallows. An extensive
literature on shifting cultivation in Peru (see Denevan &
Padoch 1987) describes a tremendous diversity of strate-
gies and practices used by farmers in Amazonia. Rather
than leading to permanent land conversion, shifting culti-
vation involves patterns of growth, fallow, and regrowth.
Such cycles produce temporal and spatial mosaics of
crop ﬁelds and forests that can be relatively stable and
A second meaning of “migratory agriculture” is “agri-
culture by migrants” (Che Piu & Menton 2014). This
refers to the expansion of the agricultural frontier via
the inﬂux of immigrants who may spontaneously occupy
forestland and transform it into agricultural land. While
some immigrants become resident in a given area, others
may only exploit the land until it is degraded and move
on to new frontiers, sometimes participating in land spec-
ulation schemes. These processes have long been studied
both in Peru and elsewhere in the Amazon (e.g., Collins
1986; Rudel 2013).
The ﬁrst sense of the term “migratory agriculture”
refers to how agriculture is being practiced, whereas the
second refers to who is practicing agriculture. The current
discourse conﬂates the two. It seems to suggest that all
deforestation for small-scale agriculture is bad, and that
it necessarily occurs in forested areas not designated for
conversion. The implicit problem, from the government’s
point of view, is that these small-scale cultivators are
moving into and spontaneously settling areas that should
not be converted.
Distinguishing between who deforests, why they
deforest, and where the deforestation takes place is
essential for designing policy actions and understanding
their trade-offs, yet these distinctions are often lost in
Conservation Letters, June 2016, 00(0), 1–8 Copyright and Photocopying: C2016 The Authors. Conservation Letters published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. 3
Tracing deforestation drivers in Peru A. Ravikumar et al.
the dominant discourses described above. To illustrate,
we describe several distinct behaviors and processes
that produce small deforested patches, explain how the
motivations and incentives for these behaviors differ, and
show how recognizing these differences leads to different
sets of policy alternatives.
First, we distinguish between the types of actors and
behaviors that deforest in small patches, and also be-
tween the motivations and incentives for these behaviors
(Table 1). Most small farmers in Amazonia practice shift-
ing cultivation to meet subsistence needs on long estab-
lished landholdings. Many of the very small deforestation
events detected by remote sensing analysis are likely the
periodic clearing of 1, 2, or up to 5 hectares of forest,
usually secondary, to rotate and sometimes to expand a
productive area. In such cases, deforestation is one phase
in a relatively stable pattern of land use that over the long
term results in a diversiﬁed mosaic of ﬁelds, pasture, agro-
forests, and forests (Pinedo-Vasquez et al. 2002). These
strategies are employed by both indigenous and mestizo
communities in Peru. On the other hand, some farmers,
and especially those new to an area, convert shifting cul-
tivation systems to monocultures, pasture, and planta-
tions in a bid to intensify production. Such conversion
may be motivated by offers of credit and future prof-
its by private ﬁrms or government agencies, or opportu-
nities arising from global commodity booms, including,
importantly, the illicit cocaine trade (Salisbury & Fagan
These diverse land use scenarios should elicit distinct
policy responses from the government. For example,
cyclical on-farm deforestation in stable settlement areas,
without expansion of the original landholding, is likely
of little environmental concern. However, policy mak-
ers treat these traditional (yet adaptive, see Vogt et al.
2015) diverse farming systems as a problem, seeing them
as inefﬁcient, unproductive, and backward. Traditional
development programs encourage a transition toward
agricultural intensiﬁcation and greater reliance on exter-
nal markets through policies related to land tenure and
credit incentives. Instead of continuing these policies, de-
cision makers could seek ways to encourage sustainable
Conversely, because negotiations between third-party
investors and small landholders are private, it is challeng-
ing for the government to intervene. Policies that incen-
tivize and create enabling conditions for family farming
and make such rental arrangements less attractive could
help reduce deforestation in this case.
Second, we distinguish between deforestation on
established landholdings in areas of stable settlement,
as discussed above, and deforestation taking place in
forested state lands zoned for permanent forest cover
or with high conservation value. The geography of
deforestation determines its environmental signiﬁcance,
and should therefore frame policy alternatives. The
latter cases are of greater concern, wherein spontaneous
informal settlement is sometimes facilitated by logging
interests as an excuse to establish roads and access tim-
ber, or where large-scale commercial entities manipulate
institutional gaps to gain formal property rights from
regional governments and deforest tracts of mature
forest to install commercial monocultures. In other cases,
smallholders themselves may deforest these lands in or-
der to demonstrate “economic exploitation” of the land,
which has been required to gain titles through national
titling programs (e.g., Peruvian Legislative Decree 1089
Whether smallholders or other actors are converting
primary forests into shifting cultivation mosaics or mono-
cultures, the state has a key role in moderating these pro-
cesses by providing smart incentives (e.g., B ¨
orner et al.
2011) and facilitating dialogues with multiple stakehold-
ers to assess the costs and beneﬁts of different land use
options. Intelligent and enforced zoning that allows some
conversion of forests, especially where it is likely to pro-
duce great beneﬁts, but disallows it in ecologically sensi-
tive regions or areas where present deforestation is likely
to lead to future deforestation––including in and around
protected areas––is critical.
Table 1 shows these diverse processes and elabo-
rates on their distinct policy implications. It is impor-
tant to note that this table implicitly disentangles prox-
imate and underlying drivers of deforestation, a critical
distinction (see Geist & Lambin 2002). The incentives
for behavior are, in essence, underlying drivers; mean-
while, the speciﬁc behaviors that lead to small-patch de-
forestation are proximate drivers. While farmers felling
small patches proximately leads to the observed patterns,
examining factors such as the type of forest they are
felling, the crops that they are planting, and the policy
and historical factors that led them to deforest can re-
veal underlying motivations and suggest policy response
Two important conclusions emerge from this overview
of the types of drivers of deforestation. First, the sim-
plifying language of “migratory agriculture” or even
“small-scale agriculture” that has pervaded discussions
in and communications from the Peruvian government
obscures important distinctions among classes of actors
and deforestation drivers. Second, the various processes
that drive deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon have
distinct motivations, which means that any policy that
is to successfully address excessive deforestation and
forest degradation must attend to these underlying
4Conservation Letters, June 2016, 00(0), 1–8 Copyright and Photocopying: C2016 The Authors. Conservation Letters published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
A. Ravikumar et al. Tracing deforestation drivers in Peru
Table 1 Examples of long-term land use impacts of diverse behaviors that produce small deforested patches and related policy options
Behaviors that are Incentives and underlying
proximate drivers of drivers for behavior and
small-patch deforestation Location Land use impact policy problems Viable policy responses
In established landholdings
and in areas of long-term
Diversiﬁed mosaic of
fallow, and forest
Policy makers treat these
systems as inefﬁcient,
They instead encourage
dependence on narrow
range of market
Incentivize diversiﬁed farming
systems, recognizing their
and importance for
livelihoods and food security
Recognize forest fallows as a
productive land use
Forested state land, recent
areas with little, or
Initial fragmentation of
mature forest areas,
inﬂux and more forest
clearing for agriculture
Lax enforcement allows
Eliminate the requirement for
land clearing to establish
Enact enforceable zoning to
prevent new clearing in
annual and perennial
In established landholdings Diversiﬁed production
mosaics converted into
monoculture cash crops
Intensiﬁcation pushed by
policy makers (e.g.,
and monoculture) for
higher productivity and
Consider targeted support for
diversiﬁed farm mosaics by
moving away from credit
policies that incentivize
In established landholdings
and in spontaneously
settled state forest lands
(e.g., papaya, maize,
and rice) replaces
Struggling farmers lease
or sell their land to
investors; the State is
absent from these
Ensure that such behavior
does not spread into
Craft market policies like
credits and incentives that
create enabling conditions
for diversiﬁed family farm
The way forward
The Peruvian government and civil society have taken
key steps toward confronting deforestation while simul-
taneously recognizing the importance of smallholder
livelihoods issues, such as enacting new regulations
under the Forestry Law that recognize diverse forestry
activities on farms. The purpose of this article is not to
disparage discussions and efforts being made to address
deforestation and its drivers in Peru, but instead to urge
critical reexamination of the current narrative. By tracing
the origin of the notion that small-scale or “migratory
agriculture” is the main driver of deforestation, we
have illustrated how overly general assumptions can
mask the real dynamics and drivers of deforestation. In
this context, we have several suggestions to clarify the
narrative and move forward.
First, we call for renewed and rigorous investigation
to identify and characterize the direct drivers of de-
forestation and forest degradation to complement the
advances made in assessing land cover change by remote
sensing (DeVries et al. 2015; Joshi et al. 2015). We suggest
examining the underlying motivations for deforesta-
tion, particularly drawing links between agricultural
and development policies, the historical socioeco-
nomic marginalization of smallholders, and the current
power dynamics embedded in decision-making about
Such an approach will triangulate information gleaned
from remotely sensed data that have driven much of the
conversation in Peru about deforestation to date with
complementary quantitative and qualitative data that
will help policy makers to address the complexity of
Conservation Letters, June 2016, 00(0), 1–8 Copyright and Photocopying: C2016 The Authors. Conservation Letters published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. 5
Tracing deforestation drivers in Peru A. Ravikumar et al.
land use decisions in forested areas. This should permit
innovative policy design and, crucially, iterative policy
learning. We urge the Peruvian government, civil society
organizations, and academic institutions to capitalize on
Second, agencies in the government of Peru, Pe-
ruvian and international researchers, and civil society
must work together to generate dialogue based on ev-
idence about current drivers of deforestation and for-
est degradation. As the proliferation of industrial plan-
tations for crops such as cacao and oil palm acceler-
elez et al. 2011; Dammert 2014; Potapov
et al. 2014; EIA 2015; RAISG 2015), and the gold min-
ing industry continues to boom in some parts of the
Amazon (Asner et al. 2013; Potapov et al. 2014; Scul-
lion et al. 2014), the proﬁle of deforestation drivers is
changing (Finer & Novoa 2015). Indeed, Scullion et al.
(2014) found that in Madre de Dios, since 2007, arti-
sanal gold mining has become the predominant driver of
land use change, surpassing agriculture. Evidence from
elsewhere in the Amazon, such as in Brazil, shows that
even when small-scale agriculture––as diffuse and diverse
as it is ––does primarily drive deforestation, new pro-
cesses such as land consolidation, plantation establish-
ment, and large-scale ranching can and do become more
signiﬁcant drivers over time (Godar et al. 2012; Alencar
et al. 2016). This dynamic context makes it ever more
important to revisit assumptions and conduct rigorous
The implications of not fully understanding and ad-
dressing the drivers of deforestation in any country
are signiﬁcant, particularly with recent commitments by
most governments to achieving REDD+emissions re-
duction targets. The existing narrative risks perpetuating
problematic generalizations about the expansion of the
agricultural frontier have led to undue condemnation of a
range of sustainable agricultural practices. It has justiﬁed
policies that aim to eliminate shifting cultivation from
conservation programs, even though traditional agricul-
tural practices can in fact be key parts of a sustainable
land use agenda (Padoch & Sunderland 2013; Van Vliet
et al. 2013; Vieira et al. 2014).
Assuming that some deforestation will occur in the
Amazon, a productive approach will be to examine the
balance of social and environmental costs and beneﬁts
associated with different patterns of deforestation, and
then prioritize outcomes that are desirable or that should
be avoided. We support the notion that the expansion
of the agricultural frontier into undesignated natural
areas must cease in Peru and elsewhere, but we take
issue with the suggestion that shifting cultivation is the
main problem. If Peru is to reduce deforestation and
forest degradation while still meeting development and
livelihoods objectives, more rigorous mixed-methods
research on the drivers of deforestation coupled with
multistakeholder processes to evaluate trade-offs is
required. Old assumptions about deforestation must
be revisited. But acquiring better information to un-
derstand the drivers of deforestation is only an initial
step in devising effective land use plans and policy
Ultimately, such information must be translated into
action through political negotiations, and decision mak-
ers should commit to participatory processes to enable
government, civil society, and local communities to
work together, capitalizing on the management strengths
of Amazonian people to achieve environmental, liveli-
hoods, and development objectives. As is always the case,
divergent interests will have to be negotiated. Even with
better information, the relative importance of different
drivers will likely still be contested by some actors.
Nevertheless, understanding the realities of deforestation
is a necessary starting point for such conversations. We
suggest that other countries should likewise revisit their
prevailing narratives about deforestation, and endeavor
to collect data that captures the complexity and diversity
of drivers of deforestation.
We thank Valentina Robiglio, Anne Larson, and Manuel
Guariguata for in-depth discussions that motivated this
article in the ﬁrst place, and for reviews of early drafts.
We are also grateful to our friends and colleagues in the
Peruvian government who have been critical allies for
us in our research activities, and continue to be open-
minded and proactive in improving forest management
and land use practices. We would also like to thank Nigel
Pitman for a helpful review of a later draft, the Conser-
vation Letters editor, and three anonymous reviewers
for essential comments that greatly improved this article.
The CGIAR research programme on Forests, Trees, and
Agroforestry, the Norwegian Agency for Development
Cooperation (NORAD), the German International Cli-
mate Initiative (IKI), and The Field Museum’s Keller
Science Action Center and Integrative Research Center
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