A Troubling Turn for Glacier Science in Argentina

Ricardo Villalba (source:Jakub Malecki/Twitter).

An Attack on an Argentine Glaciologist

The long struggle by activists and scientists to preserve Argentina’s glaciers took a bizarre and surprising turn on November 27 when a federal judge indicted three former government officials and Ricardo Villalba, the country’s leading glaciologist, for allegedly abusing their authority by failing to properly enforce environmental law. They are accused of delaying and deliberately narrowing the scope of the National Glacier Inventory which Villalba supervised. After decades of advocacy for an inventory and six years of hard work to bring it to fruition, Villalba is banned from leaving the country, threatened with jail and accused of sabotaging his own life’s work.

Scientist conducting research for the Argentine National Glacier Inventory (source: CONICET).

The campaign to protect the glaciers was sparked by the expansion of high-altitude mining operations in the Andes. A first bill was passed in 2008 but vetoed by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, allegedly due to pressures from the mining lobby and its allies in provincial governments. In 2010, the legislature once again passed a bill to protect glaciers. This time Fernández de Kirchner signed the bill, the landmark Law for the Preservation of Glaciers and Periglacial Areas (N 26.639), bringing it into effect. This law called for the rapid development of a National Glacier Inventory, entrusting the task to the 45-year-old Instituto Argentino de Nivología, Glaciología y Ciencias Ambientales (IANIGLA), which Ricardo Villalba directed. Since 2011, the inventory has documented over 15,000 bodies of ice through satellite imagery and on-site inspection; completion is projected for 2018.

Tensions over a Foreign Mining Corporation

But a sticking point in implementing the law has been the treatment of existing mines. The lightening rod of controversy have been the mines owned by the Canadian firm Barrick Gold in the province of San Juan: Veladero, which began operation in 2005, and the nearby Pascua Lama, which straddled the border with Chile and never became fully operative due to legal challenges in the neighboring country. From early on, these mining projects were rumored to cause widespread damage to glaciers and periglacial areas. Despite this, Veladero continued to operate as the inventory was produced. Then, in a series of accidents in 2015, 2016, and 2017, Veladero spilled millions of liters of cyanide solution into public watersheds. These accidents led to a short-lived shutdown of the mine and a criminal complaint, which the local activist group “Jáchal No Se Toca” [Don’t Mess with Jáchal] lodged against Barrick Gold for environmental damage and against the state for failing to act.

Veladero mine in Argentina (source: Onadal/Creative Commons).

This is where the case took an odd turn. The accusations against Barrick ended up in provincial court, where a friendly judge let the corporation off with a minor fine. But the accusations against the state led to the federal indictment issued last week.

According to the judge’s ruling, which closely follows the activists’ complaint, the defendants were deliberately negligent in carrying out the inventory and therefore in implementing the law. The claim is that if the inventory had been properly carried out, the mine would have been shut down, and the spills would never have occurred.

The indictment claims that Villalba and the three officials responsible for the environment (secretary until 2013, minister afterward) violated the law by proceeding too slowly with the inventory, failing to inspect Veladero specifically, and delaying the publication of the results. Perhaps the most telling accusation concerns technical standards. Villalba decided, and the government agreed, that the inventory should only include bodies of ice greater than one hectare in area. According to the ruling, this contradicted the language of the law, which spoke of mapping all glaciers and periglacial areas, and meant that significant periglacial environments, particularly around Veladero, went unmapped.

Heavy machinery removing glacier ice at the Barrick Gold mine on the Argentina-Chile border (source:Chile Sustentable/Twitter).

Yet the one hectare threshold is not an arbitrary decision but the current international standard, applied in inventories of the UN-affiliated World Glacier Measurement Service and Global Land Ice Measurements from Space. This standard is equally or more rigorous than that employed for the national glacial inventories of Switzerland, France, Norway, Canada, the U.S., Chile, and Peru.

Moreover, the one hectare standard is not the problem, for as Villalba wrote in response to the indictment, “in that area we mapped 30 bodies of ice with an area of four square kilometers, 4000 hectares. The inventory reveals the existence of glaciers in Veladero and Pascua Lama, and that element alone was sufficient to decide whether or not mining activity should continue. That decision belongs to the authorities responsible for applying the law and not the IANIGLA.”

Demonstration on December 4 in support of Ricardo Villalba in Mendoza, Argentina (source: DiarioContexto/Twitter)

As Villalba’s response suggests, the reasons for delay and inaction were political and institutional rather than technical. Given Argentina’s federal legal structure, the provinces play a key role in environmental regulation. In this case, the government of San Juan took aggressive action to protect the mines of Barrick Gold from the threat of the glacier law. First, the province claimed the law violated provincial autonomy, gaining an injunction on its application within San Juan for two years. Then, in 2012, the province passed its own law to make its own inventory, which would cover glaciers but not periglacial areas. In that same year, the province took advantage of an ambiguity in the national law to carry out its own provincial environmental impact assessment, which despite sharp criticism concluded that the mines could continue operating.

None of these provincial actions are mentioned in the indictment, which places all of the blame for the slow pace of the inventory with IANIGLA and national officials. Equally important, the indictment makes no distinction between expert bodies like IANIGLA and regulatory authorities of the state. This seems like a troubling misattribution of legal responsibility to IANIGLA. Today it threatens Villalba; tomorrow it may threaten any expert offering advice on protecting the environment or strengthening state regulation.

National and International Campaigns to Defend Villalba

Valuable as the work of environmental activists has been, the accusation by “Jáchal No se Toca” has yielded a perverse result. Threatening to jail a distinguished scientist for carrying out a conservation effort fully in line with international standards is troubling, and unlikely to lead to any greater protection for glaciers or the environment more broadly. For this reason, scientists and activists have rallied to Villalba’s cause since the indictment, with petitions garnering thousands of signatures and a rally held outside Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council.

In an interview with GlacierHub, a remote sensing professional at IANIGLA, Laura Zalazar,  described the situation as “very troubling.” She emphasized that his work on the National Glacier Inventory was of the highest scientific standards. She added, “Ricardo Villalba is a person with whom I have had the privilege of working. I can assure you that his research and honesty are exemplary.” She asked GlacierHub to include this link to a petition for Villalba, where concerned individuals can add their names to the others who have written to support his case.

To be sure, a few have defended the indictment, but coverage in the international scientific press has been roundly critical. The case remains open; its stakes for science and the environment are clear, as has been recognized by the leading scientific journals Nature and Science. At a time when scientific expertise and citizen activism are more necessary than ever, this case should trouble us all.

Demonstration on December 4 in support of Villalba at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) in Mendoza, Argentina (source: Señal U/Youtube).