The Glacier Law Conundrum: Protecting Glaciers or Limiting Hazard Response and Adaptation?

The environmental and socioeconomic benefits of the world’s glaciers, from their role in water storage to their influence in tourism, have led to the development of national laws to protect glacial environments from activities like mining that could adversely alter them. While legal protections aim to safeguard glaciers and the value they generate, the laws often fail to account for the actions necessary to mitigate glacial hazards or adapt to climate change. A recently published study in Ambio examined glacier protection laws in Argentina and Chile in an effort to explore how laws could better address interventions in rapidly changing glacial areas.

Figure of rapid growth of a glacial lake
Figure detailing the rapid growth of a glacial-dammed lake, highlighting the need for a quick mitigation response to glacial hazards (Source: Iribarren et al. 2018).

The study was part of the Newton Picarte project on Glacial Hazards in Chile, a partnership between Universidad Austral in Chile and Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom. Its goal, according to author Pablo Iribarren, a glaciology lecturer at Universidad Austral, was to emphasize that glaciers not only provide environmental and socioeconomic benefits but also pose a threat to mountain communities. In addition, Iribarren told GlacierHub that “…this duality must be considered by Glacier Protection Laws (GPLs) to better face challenges associated with a rapidly changing cryosphere.”

It might seem impossible to protect glaciers, except by reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. But there are other concrete steps that countries can take, particularly in relation to mining. GPLs are a relatively new phenomenon intended to preserve glaciers and their surrounding environments from commercial endeavors. Argentina was the first country to ratify a GPL in 2010. Chile and Kyrgyzstan have also developed GPLs, although these laws have yet to be ratified, due largely to the power of the extractive lobby. The opposition to GPLs from the mining industry and even the government is robust because of the economic benefits of natural resource extraction. For example, in the central Chilean Andes 55.1 billion dollars were generated from 2004 to 2011 and over 60,000 people were employed by the industry.

Photo of the entrance to Pascua Lama mine
The entrance to the controversial Pascua Lama mine. Barrick Gold is the Canadian mining company behind the project (Source: infogatecl/Twitter).

Mining and other natural resources extraction activities on and near glaciers in many cases destroy ice or cover it with debris and contaminate water resources. Chiles’s unresolved GPL, for instance, stemmed from a mining project known as Pascua Lama developed by Barrick Gold, a Canadian mining company that proposed the removal of glacial ice for mining purposes. However, despite intending to protect glaciers from destruction or alteration, GPLs can also inhibit the mitigation of glacial hazards and climate change adaptation by limiting intervention in glacial environments.

Glacial hazards are primarily caused by three sometimes concurrent processes: glacial advance, glacial blockage of mountain streams, and the growth and subsequent failure of glacial-dammed lakes. In the case of advancing glaciers, their leading fronts can become stranded, blocking streams and creating lakes. These glacial dams are then particularly vulnerable to melting. A well-known glacial disaster occurred through this mechanism in the Argentinian Andes in 1934, when an ice-dam blocking a stream failed. The resultant flood inundated a valley below, killing 20 people. Conversely, retreating glaciers often leave in their wake glacial lakes, some of which can be very large in volume. When the volumes of these lakes increase or when waves from glacial calving strike the dam, damaging outburst floods can occur.

Photo of the draining of a glacial lake
The draining a glacial lake in the Himalayas to reduce the risk of an outburst flood (Source: Renaud Meyer/Twitter).

To reduce the risks posed by glacial hazards, different strategies can be employed. One strategy for an ice-dammed lake is the modification of the ice dam itself through reinforcement methods like increasing its impermeability. Another strategy involves the actual excavation or blasting of ice to prevent glacial advance or to preemptively drain an ice-dammed lake. In another form of intervention, local communities near glaciers might utilize glacial lakes as a water reservoir in response to reduced water availability due to climate change or reduce the risk of outburst floods by lowering lake levels.

However, conflict arises between these glacial interventions and GPLs because interventions usually involve the modification of the glacial environment. Under Argentina’s GPL Article 6, activities that modify a glacier’s natural condition or result in the destruction or movement of glacial ice are prohibited. Section 6b continues by prohibiting the construction of infrastructure on or near a glacier, although it does allow infrastructure for scientific purposes or to prevent risks.

Glacial hazard mitigation and climate change adaptation would fall under this article, but any proposed intervention would be subject to an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), according to Article 7 of the GPL. Thus, the authors presume that “the most likely scenario for handling a hazard would be to conduct an EIS, yet this procedure may take months or even years.” During this possibly time-consuming process, a hazard “could put lives and infrastructure in danger.” For another view on this issue, GlacierHub spoke to Jorge Daniel Taillant, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Environment, and author of “Glaciers: The Politics of Ice,” who finds it unlikely that preventive action against a potential glacial hazard would be delayed by a GPL and an accompanying EIS.

Why the disconnect between Argentina’s GPL and glacial interventions for hazard mitigation and climate change adaptation purposes? For Iribarren, it’s a result of the GPL being developed in response to conflict between mining and local communities fighting to protect their water supplies. Glacial hazards were simply ignored in the midst of a seemingly existential fight between international mining conglomerates and local people.

Photos of mine waste on a glacier and a damaged road that was built on top of a glacier
Photo A shows the mine waste that was dumped on top of a glacier in Kyrgyzstan. Photo B shows a road built over a glacier in Chile which was damaged when the ice beneath it crept forward (Source: Iribarren et al. 2018).

The omission of glacial hazards and climate change adaptation during the development of GPLs means intervention into the glacial environment could possibly be impeded or even prohibited altogether. To improve upon this current intersection, the authors argue that GPLs should include allowances for glacial interventions that protect lives or infrastructure. They further argue that the process to authorize intervention should be sped up so that hazards are addressed in a timely manner, reducing the possibility of disaster. Finally, they propose that GPLs should clearly designate the government institutions responsible for glacial interventions.

While these proposals would likely help to improve GPLs, challenges would still remain. The biggest of these, according to Iribarren, is the possibility that GPLs that allow for easier glacial interventions could be used as a loophole for parties to intervene in glacial environments for strictly economic purposes like mining.

With Argentina’s GPL, the only one of its kind enacted worldwide, future research is undoubtedly needed to truly assess the conflicts these laws potentially pose. A first step in this process, Iribarren believes, is to study how other glacial countries like Peru or Switzerland have balanced “conflicts between economic interests and the protection of the cryosphere and surrounding landscapes.”

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).


Retreating Glaciers and Advancing Scientists Converge for UNESCO Meeting

The glaciers of the Andes are retreating and researchers are taking notice. Participants of UNESCO’s Impact of the Glacial Retreat in the Andes: International Multidisciplinary Network for Adaptation Strategies project met in Mendoza, Argentina, from August 23-25, to address challenges of glacial retreat in the Andes. 

A glacier in Argentina (Source: Studio 91.7).

The meeting took place at the IANIGLA Institute (The Argentinean Institute of Nivology, Glaciology and Environmental Sciences), and served as the final synthesis of the project. The project, which was established under UNESCO’s International Hydrological Program in 2012, focuses on developing a multidisciplinary network of professionals in the area of snow and glacial management to improve climate change adaptation strategies in the Andes. Presentations at the meeting, many of which were on research conducted from the beginning of the project, covered a range of topics. Researchers from Chile detailed the challenges facing glacier protection in their country, while the participants from Colombia detailed how their country protects the few glaciers they have left.

The final day of presentations at the UNESCO meeting on glacial retreat in the Andes held in Mendoza, Argentina (Source: CONICET Mendoza).

As a result of climate change, glaciers in the Andes face an uncertain future. Increased temperatures serve as the primary driver of glacial retreat; in the tropical Andes temperatures increased by 0.8 degrees Celsius during the 20th century. Glacial retreat poses significant challenges to the Andean region and the people and ecosystems that rely on these glaciers. Many places in the Andes and coastal regions of western South America count on glaciers to provide water, especially during the dry season when they act as a buffer to guard against the seasonal variability of precipitation. 

Luckily, these issues are not being ignored. The UNESCO meeting was truly a continental affair attended by more than 40 experts from across mountainous regions of Latin America, from Mexico to Chile and Argentina.

Lucas Ruiz, a glaciology specialist at IANIGLA, who attended the conference, spoke to GlacierHub about his experience at the meeting. Ruiz, when asked what he viewed as the most significant result of the meeting, said that it showed that it is “possible to work between scientists, governments, citizens and local communities, not only to create awareness of the importance of taking care of the water, but also to change the way water is used in more sustainable ways.”    

One of the highlights of the meeting was the presentation by IANIGLA of their National Inventory of Glaciers for Argentina which is expected to be completed by the end of the year. The national inventory, one of the world’s first, almost never got started. Scientists from IANIGLA launched the inventory back in 2011 but were unable to reach an area near a large-scale mining operation in San Juan, Argentina, run by the world’s largest gold mine, Barrick Gold. The year prior, the Argentine government had passed the “Law of the Glaciers” to protect water supplies by banning activities like mining on or near glaciers and calling for the completion of the national inventory of glaciers. A 2012 ruling by the Argentine Supreme Court upheld the Law of the Glaciers opening the glaciated areas near mines to inventory scientists, enabling the inventory to proceed.

Researchers training for the glacier Inventory (Source: IANIGLA).

The law and inventory are of particular interest to Andean countries as a blueprint for glacier protection. Every country in the Andes now conducts glacial monitoring programs, but a complete Andean glacier inventory has yet to be finished. The lack of a complete inventory in the view of Ruiz is a hinderance to the development of a comprehensive glacial retreat adaptation plan. “Until we have solid knowledge of all the glaciers in the country, it is hard to establish a strategy,” he said. However, he also believes that the starting goal of any adaptation strategy is to build up awareness around glacial retreat, something the project has done well. 

Aconcagua, the highest point outside Asia. Participants from the UNESCO meeting visited the mountain during the conference (Source: Mark Horrell/Creative Commons).

Other notable glacial retreat monitoring projects were also presented at the meeting. Researchers from the University of Chile detailed their study of the Maipo basin, one of the primary source regions of water for the capital of Santiago, and some of the most important industry and agriculture areas in the country. On a larger scale, a collaboration between the Imperial College London, UNESCO, and others on glacial retreat vulnerability mapping across the Andes was presented. 

In light of the somber impacts of climate change, hope still abounds. Challenges remain, but as Ruiz told GlacierHub, the only way to overcome the challenges associated with climate change and glacial retreat is through collaboration and the consideration of all stakeholders involved. The Impact of the Glacial Retreat in the Andes: International Multidisciplinary Network for Adaptation Strategies meeting and project proved that collaboration between different governments, scientists and local communities is not only possible, but also greatly beneficial.

The Pascua-Lama Mining Project Threatens Glaciers

Fabiana Li, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Manitoba, brings new insight to a long-standing conflict over a South American mining project in her recently published article “Moving Glaciers: Remaking Nature and Mineral Extraction” on Sage Journals. Li’s article investigates the controversial Pascua-Lama mining project, located on the border between Chile and Argentina, run by Barrick Gold, a prominent mining company from Canada. The project gained recognition because of its plan to move three glaciers located at the mining site, disturbing the integrity of the glaciers in the region. Ongoing debate over the site’s future and expenses led Barrick to abandon the project in 2013, but controversy over the future of the site continues.

“The Pascua-Lama project is still in limbo,” Li said in an interview with GlacierHub. “Like other mining companies recovering from the downturn in the metals market, Barrick is now looking for partners for a joint venture in order to mitigate the risks involved in the project. The company has already spent $8.5 billion on Pascua Lama, so it is not likely to abandon it entirely, but it will not be able to continue operating as before, without a new approach to community relations and environmental issues.”

The Pascua-Lama project first ran into trouble when dealing with the glaciers that surrounded the ore deposit, notes Li. In the company’s initial environmental impact assessment, they disregarded the glaciers’ existence. In 2001, the company decided to include the glaciers in the environmental impact assessment by creating a section called the “glacier management plan.” The plan stated that Barrick would move 10 hectares of glaciers with bulldozers, front loaders, or even “controlled explosives,” if necessary, to an adjacent area outside of the development. This plan was approved by the Chilean authorities in 2001.

Outlined borders of the Pascua-Lama project area (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

However, the company’s proposal to move the glaciers was met with animosity from environmental organizations, local residents of the Huasco Valley (a region in Chile located below the mine), representatives of the Catholic Church, Diaguita indigenous communities (who claimed the land as their own), and local and foreign activists. Li told GlacierHub that she tried to show in her article how glaciers, mountains and rivers are more than just resources. “They make up people’s sense of place, their identities, and ways of life,” she said. “They form part of important relationships that people forge with their surroundings and that sustain life.” Communities in the Huasco Valley, for example, protested the glaciers’ removal, arguing that they are dependent on the water supply for agriculture and drinking, with the glaciers storing water for the dry season.

During the 1990s, there was a boom in companies investing in exploration and extraction from countries in South America like Peru. As of 2013, Pascua-Lama was thought to own one of the world’s largest gold and silver resources. Barrick first began exploring the Chile/Argentina border in 1994, searching for possible mining opportunities. It was not until 1997 that both the Chilean and Argentinian presidents signed the Mining Integration Treaty that allowed mining development along the mountain ranges. The treaty granted access to economic activity, foreign property ownership, and water and resources. The Pascua-Lama project also became the world’s first binational mine, creating an example for other projects and developments to follow.

One of Barrick Gold’s sites in Pascua-Lama (Source: Barrick Sudamerica/Creative Commons).

In 2004, the company released an environmental impact assessment, which diminished the importance of the glaciers once again, calling them “ice reservoirs,” “ice fields,” or “glacierets.” One of Barrick’s top executives even denied that there were any glaciers at all. Scientists and researchers hired by the company, such as those at the Centro de Estudios Avanzados en Zonas Aridas (Center for Advanced Studies in Arid Zones) and the Centro de Estudios Científicos (Center for Scientific Studies), stated that snow and ice features identified “are of very small surface area and it is not clear from the images whether they would be classified as névés, glacierets or glaciers.” They defined the term glacieret as an ice body “formed primarily by blowing or avalanching snow, which usually shows no surface signs of flow.”

In 2006, the assessment was approved under the condition that the company “only access the ore in a manner that does not remove, relocate, destroy, or physically interfere with the Toro 1, Toro 2, and Esperanza glaciers.” Barrick modified the size of the mining pit and claimed that the three “ice fields” were outside of the mining pit limits and wouldn’t be touched.

Community groups protesting against the Pascua-Lama mining project (Source: The future is unwritten/Creative Commons).

Mining construction resumed in 2009, but inspectors soon found that the company neglected their water management plan, which affected the Estrecho glacier and environmental mitigation strategies to protect the glaciers, such as plans to reduce the amount of dust from the site over the glaciers. Chilean government inspections confirmed the company’s negative impact on the glaciers, rivers and wetland systems, resulting in the project’s closure.

According to a local paper, Diario Financiero, the judgement authorized the “temporary closure of Pascua-Lama mining operations, without having the necessary measures in place to ensure the physical and chemical stability of the water sources affected by the project.” Barrick’s continued disregard for environmental regulations resulted in a $16 million fine, the highest possible fine under Chilean law, according to Li. Originally, the company estimated the mining project would cost $3 billion, but this estimate increased after additional costs were added, including from legal battles and additional fees for not abiding with environmental regulations. The project was officially halted in 2013 after the Supreme Court of Chile suspended the project due to the company’s environmental wrongdoings.

Due to complications with the Pascua-Lama project, Argentina created a law in 2010 that prohibited mining and oil drilling in glacier and peri-glacier areas to preserve its water resources. Additionally, Argentina started a national glacier inventory, so that the government and companies are able to identify where mining projects can and cannot take place. Barrick also signed a memorandum of understanding with 15 indigenous communities in Chile to open a dialogue, although there have been no updates on whether or not the project will resume. In the end, the Pascua- Lama project provides an important example to all sides. “This conflict helped to raise awareness about the consequences of resource extraction and inspired people to speak out against mining in a country where this industry has long been considered the backbone of the economy,” Li said. “Pascua Lama also helped make glaciers more visible, and brought to light new issues that had not been addressed.”

In Argentina, Tensions Remain Between Mining and Glacier Protection

A recent article “Defending Glaciers in Argentina” in the journal Peace Review, written by Asmaa N. Khadim, explores the history of one of the world’s largest mining companies, Barrick Gold Corporation, and its conflict with Argentina’s environmental protectors. Many of its mining projects are in proximity to glaciers, which are a crucial water source for local residents.

Argentina mining (Credit: Wikimedia)
Argentina mining, province of San Juan (Credit: Wikimedia)

In recent years, to bolster its economy, the Argentine government created incentives to attract foreign capital to invest in mining, which includes lower royalties, favorable foreign investment laws, and a competitive tax regime. But it has not always paid attention to environmental issues.

Many multinational companies want a share of Argentina’s natural resources, like Barrick Gold, Strata, and Meridian Gold, all which have invested heavily in the country’s mining industry. Many of their gold mining operations lie in the Andes, and this region is considered to be one of the most important gold and silver districts across the world. However, many ore deposits lie near glaciers. This location creates risks of water pollution and of mismanagement of water resources, including groundwater. Mining operations could also create soil and air pollution in these settings.

The Perito Moreno glacier in southern Patagonia
The Perito Moreno glacier in southern Patagonia (Credit: Wikimedia)

Two particular projects, Veladero and Pascua Lama, in this region have caused many of the disputes, because of their proximity to numerous glaciers high in the Andes. These two projects are run by Barrick Gold Corporation, a Canadian company. The Andes are environmentally sensitive, not only because it is home to massive glaciers, but also because of the significance of glaciers as a source that contributes to Argentina’s water supply.

In 1987, the Brundtland Commission released the paper Our Common Future defining sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This paper reframed the vision of environmental rights, which led many countries, including Argentina, to add environmental protection to their constitutional frameworks.

In late 1990s, local environmental organizations saw the risks of mining development in the Andes. They started to press the Argentine government for a law to protect glaciers. As the paper in Peace Review recounts, “The first bill was approved by Congress in 2008, but was subsequently vetoed by President Cristina Fernandez on the basis of economic development arguments.”

Later, in September 2010, a new version of the glacier protection law, the National Glacier Act, was ratified by the Argentine senate. The role of this law is to act as an inspector to identify areas that require protection. This law faced significant resistance from mining companies. The companies allocated funds to lobby legislators to oppose the  bill. They also paid for nationwide advertising campaigns which opposed this bill and its enforcement. Jorge Daniel Taillant, an Argentine researcher, has documented these efforts in his book Glaciers: The Politics of Ice.

As a result of the pressure from powerful mining companies, a federal court judge suspended the implementation of the 2010 glacier protection law within the province of San Juan, where many mining projects are located. It was not until 2012 that Argentina’s Supreme Court overruled this decision and restored the application of the law to this province.

Environmental law in Argentina (Credit: Wikimedia)
Environmental law in Argentina (Credit: Wikimedia)

The tension between mining interests and environmentalists has become more severe as the mining projects continue. Mining brings negative impacts on ecosystems and  biodiversity, water quality, and human health. Khadim describes how Barrick Gold Corporation has hired private security and pressured local provincial police to repress the environmental organizations. Violence and riots have resulted.

It remains a question whether the 2010 law will protect glaciers and water resources. “While constitutional entrenchment alone may not be sufficient to achieve the protection of environmental rights, it appears to be a core foundational step upon which an effective regulatory system may be built,” Khadim states. The outcome of this conflict will have consequences not only in Argentina, but in other areas of the world, such as Central Asia, where mining companies seek to expand into environmentally sensitive mountain areas with glaciers.


Science on Trial at Pascua Lama

Edited NASA image of a Chilean glacier, unnamed. ©Stuart Rankin
Edited NASA image of a Chilean glacier, unnamed. ©Stuart Rankin

Chile’s environmental court ruled on Monday that Pascua Lama, the Andean nation’s most controversial mine, is not responsible for damage done to three glaciers near the mine site.

While the mine’s operations will remain suspended due to a variety of other challenges, the decision was a setback for local environmental groups, who seek to protect the country’s glaciers. Some say it also represents a defeat for Chile’s scientific institutions.

The lawsuit, filed in June 2013, was brought by farming communities in the Alto del Carmen region of northern Chile, who depend on water from the glaciers, together with NGO Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA). Alto del Carmen sits in the Huasco Valley, an oasis at the southern end of the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world. The suit alleged that dust from Pascua Lama, which straddles the border with Argentina, accelerated melt at glaciers in the area, depleting waters that feed into the El Toro river.

Alto del Carmen. ©lanube360
Alto del Carmen. ©lanube360

In a statement (translated from Spanish), OLCA noted that in its decision, the environmental court ignored scientific documents produced by the state’s own scientists in favor of scientists hired by Canada’s Barrick Gold, the company that operates the mine. Though the court recognized that dust from the mine had settled on the glaciers, it did not accept scientific arguments made in a final state environmental rating resolution on the mine, or RCA, that indicated one millimeter of dust could accelerate melting of the glaciers by as much as 15%. An RCA represents the final outcome of the environmental impact assessment process.

The case seemed to bear out the findings of recent research published in Science and Culture, which suggest that Chilean scientists and scientific institutions have little power in policy debates despite efforts by Chile’s democratic government to build them up over the past decade and a half, post-Pinochet.

“Legally there is this ongoing debate over these resolutions, called RCAs,” said Javiera Barandiaran, assistant professor in global studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of the paper. “How much legal weight do they have vis a vis the law? In the past, there have been challenges, that these resolutions should become the law, the legal standards that the companies are held to. But they say, ‘No, all we’re held to are permits and the country’s laws.’ Because there is no law, it doesn’t matter.”

"PascuaLamaPlanMap" by I, Earthsound. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
PascuaLamaPlanMap” by I, Earthsound. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

In mid March, Chilean authorities put forward a proposed framework for a glacier protection law, but it was unclear what specific protections it would offer to glaciers outside Chile’s national parks like the ones affected by Pascua Lama.

Controversy over the Pascua Lama mine is what first put glaciers on the map for Chilean authorities, according to Barandiaran, and launched the debate over the need for laws to protect them.

The Pascua Lama decision inspired a renewed call for strong glacier protection laws from the Chilean branch of global environmental organization Greenpeace.

“If today the environmental court couldn’t credit [the mine] with destruction of the glaciers, having concrete evidence in hand, then we urgently need a law that protects and conserves glaciers,” said Greenpeace Chile director Matias Asun in a statement. He added that Barrick Gold is still charged with glacier damage by Chile’s environmental enforcement agency, the Superintendencia de Medio Ambiente (SMA).

Run by Minera Nevada, the Chilean subsidiary of Canada’s Barrick Gold, Pascua Lama still faces numerous environmental, legal and administrative challenges. Among other things, Barrick is waiting to hear from the SMA about fines that could total over $200 million.

Atacama desert, Chile, the driest desert in the world. ©Tom Goskar
Atacama desert, Chile, the driest desert in the world. ©Tom Goskar

Barrick said the decision confirmed the findings of its own scientists. “Barrick worked with leading independent experts and glaciologists to develop and implement one of the most rigorous glacier monitoring programs anywhere in the world,” said Eduardo Flores, Barrick’s Executive Director for Chile in a statement, available on the company’s website. “We are pleased that the court has confirmed what the technical and scientific evidence demonstrates, that these ice bodies have not been damaged by activities at the Pascua-Lama project.”

The controversy is far from over, but for now Chile’s political and business elites seem to have the upper hand when it comes to competing claims over scientific truth.