Argentinian geoscientist faces criminal charges over glacier survey

Government researcher Ricardo Villalba stands accused of shaping a study to benefit mining interests.

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Glaciers provide the bulk of Argentina's drinking water.Credit: Mario Tama/Getty

A prominent geoscientist in Argentina is facing criminal charges over accusations that he manipulated a government survey of glaciers at the behest of mining interests.

On 27 November, a federal judge in Buenos Aires charged Ricardo Villalba, the former director of the Argentinian Institute of Snow, Ice and Environmental Research (IANIGLA) in Mendoza, with abusing his authority and violating his duty as a civil servant. Villalba appealed against his indictment on 4 December — but if he loses, the case will go to trial. In the meantime, the court has ordered Villalba to stay in the country, and has authorized the seizure of his assets up to 5 million pesos (US$289,000).

The case hinges on the definition of a glacier as viewed from space. When Villalba began the government survey in 2011, he determined that it would include glaciers of 1 hectare or larger — following international norms for satellite analyses. But environmental activists in Argentina’s San Juan province argue that he excluded some smaller glaciers to prevent tougher regulation of adjacent mines operated by the Barrick Gold Corporation of Toronto, Canada. Villalba’s scientific colleagues in Argentina and abroad say the charges against him are baseless and political.

International support

“It’s surreal and kind of ridiculous,” says Bruce Raup, a glaciologist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, who co-authored a letter of support for Villalba. Raup maintains an international glacier database that includes information from the ongoing Argentinian survey. He says that many scientists set a minimum glacier size of 1 hectare to reduce the risk of incorrectly counting ephemeral snow and ice.

Ricardo Villalba has been accused of biasing the results of an Argentinian glacier survey.Credit: Alberto Ripalta

Villalba rejects the idea that he or his colleagues at IANIGLA failed to carry out their duties properly. “There is no other institution in Argentina that has done more for the knowledge, care and protection of glaciers than IANIGLA,” he says. The allegation that the glacier surveys were designed to promote mining interests "is totally wrong", he says, and a blow to science in Argentina generally.

Fellow scientists have rushed to his defence. Villalba's co-workers at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) in Mendoza protested on his behalf as he entered his appeal on 4 December. And scientists in other countries who have worked with Villalba are collecting signatures on a letter defending him and his glacier survey. Many of these researchers see parallels between Villalba's case and that of six seismologists who were prosecuted after an earthquake in L'Aquila, Italy, in 2009. Those scientists were found guilty of manslaughter for misleading the public about the dangers of an earthquake, although their convictions were later overturned.

The charges against Villalba stem from a lawsuit by environmental activists in San José de Jáchal, a community in the northwestern part of the country. They argue that the glacier survey conducted by Villalba and his colleagues at IANIGLA did not comply with a law enacted in 2010 that was designed to give extra protections to Argentina's glaciers, which provide the bulk of the country's water. The law also directed the government to conduct a survey of Argentina's land ice — the work that Villalba, who had advocated for the law's passage, later coordinated.

Environmental impact

The environmental activists argue that Villalba and his colleagues should have documented all glaciers, no matter the size — including ice in the vicinity of Barrick Gold’s Veladero gold mine, near San José de Jáchal. "The law did not distinguish glaciers by surface or size," says Diego Seguí, a lawyer who is representing the activist group, the Asamblea Jachál No Se Toca.

Once the ice near the mine had been mapped, the activists say, the law would have required the scientists to audit the Barrick facility's impact on glacial resources. They claim that this would have halted activities there, thus preventing the three cyanide spills that have taken place at the mine over the past two years.

Villalba and his allies reject that idea. They say that as a science agency, IANIGLA is not responsible for enforcing environmental rules. Instead, they argue that the responsibility of maintaining environmental safety at the Veladero mine is the duty of Barrick and of Argentina’s environmental regulators.

“Clearly there is no relationship between the actual mapping and the spill of cyanide,” says Tom Veblen, a geographer at the University of Colorado Boulder who was Villalba’s graduate adviser. “Ricardo is being used as a scapegoat, without a doubt."

Nature 552, 159-160 (2017)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-017-08236-y
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