(IPS) – Since late 2011, scientists in Argentina have been carrying out an inventory of the country’s glaciers, with the aim of monitoring and preserving them. But they have failed to reach the most critical areas, where large-scale mining projects are encroaching on the ice fields.
It was in response to the threat from the mining industry that environmental organisations began to insist on the need for a law to protect the glaciers that run the length of the Andes mountain range in western Argentina.
The first bill was approved by Congress in 2008, but President Cristina Fernández, in office since December 2007, vetoed it on the argument that it affected development in provinces that depend on mining revenue, by limiting economic activities near glaciers.
Two years later, a consensus was reached on a new bill. A law establishing “minimum budgets for the protection of glaciers and the periglacial environment”, approved in 2010, declared the ice fields “strategic reserves of water”.
The law prohibits mining activities in those areas, and requires the protection of glaciers because they preserve water for human consumption and agriculture, as well as maintaining biodiversity and serving as tourist attractions.
The legislation also stipulates the creation of a national inventory of glaciers, to provide “the necessary information for their adequate protection, monitoring and control” by the Argentine government’s institute for snow and glacier research, IANIGLA.
Furthermore, it specifies that the inventory should begin to be carried out where mining or oil companies are already active, and that polluting activities by these industries should be suspended and the companies fined.
IANIGLA director Ricardo Villalba told IPS that the inventory began to be carried out in late 2011, and has been completed in the central province of Mendoza and is well underway in the southern province of Santa Cruz.
Villalba said the institute is creating a series of regional hubs to coordinate the field work and mapping effort with academic institutions in the provinces that have glaciers.
But he said work has not yet begun in the central province of San Juan, the site of two major mining projects by Canada’s Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold mining company.
The director of IANIGLA said the provincial government had decided that experts from the National University of San Juan must carry out the training for the monitoring.
He also said the central government “threw no obstacles in the way” of the delayed inventory effort.
The new glacier law establishes that the activities of the mining and oil industries, major infrastructure works, and the use of chemical substances are prohibited near glaciers or in the periglacial environment, which is a region with widespread permafrost but without a blanket of snow or ice.
By means of a transitional provision, it was determined that the inventory was to start in “priority areas” – where economic activities are already taking place – within 180 days after passage of the law.
But Barrick Gold filed injunction requests in the federal courts, arguing that the glacier protection law was unconstitutional because it blocked economic activity in the province of San Juan, and a federal judge suspended implementation of the law in the province.
Because the legal action questions the constitutionality of the law, it is the Supreme Court that will have the final word.
The provincial government tacitly backed the company’s position, and did not ask IANIGLA to urgently begin its work in the province, said Villalba. For that reason, the institute is not yet working in the glacial areas where Barrick is mining for gold.
“It is up to the provincial authorities to determine the priority areas. The institute is only responsible for carrying out the study within the space of five years,” he said.
Barrick has been working the Veladero open-pit gold and silver mine in San Juan since 2005. The mine, which has a projected life of 14 years, is expected to produce 11.4 million ounces of gold, and cyanide is used in the leaching process to separate gold and silver from rock.
As of 2013, Barrick Gold will also be producing another 14.4 million ounces of gold at the Pascua Lama mine, the first binational mining project in the world, located in the province of San Juan, on the Argentine side, and in the region of Atacama in northern Chile.
For the project, which will also use the cyanide leaching process, the firm originally planned to move three glaciers. But in the face of an outcry from environmentalists and local residents, both countries promised that the glaciers would not be moved.
However, a number of environmental groups, citing the company’s own environmental impact studies, say Barrick is affecting glaciers and periglacial areas.
A July 2011 report by the Argentine chapter of the environmental watchdog Greenpeace, “Barrick: Minería responsable de destruir los glaciares” (Barrick: Mining responsible for destruction of glaciers), points out that the Veladero and Pascua Lama mines are located in glacial and periglacial areas.
The report says, “Mining affects glaciers in the stage of exploration and exploitation…and involves their removal, the construction of roads, drilling and the use of explosives, and the lifting of dust that accelerates their melting.”
Barrick “denies that it is operating in glacial and periglacial areas, but we have carried out studies and we believe information has been intentionally concealed,” Gonzalo Strano, with Greenpeace Argentina, told IPS.
Strano questions Barrick’s claims that its mining activities are not affecting freshwater reserves. “If it does not have an impact on the glaciers, why did it file injunction requests to block the implementation of the law?”
The Greenpeace activist said it is “fantastic” that the inventory has begun to be carried out. But he doubts that the scientists will be allowed to enter the mining areas in San Juan with the necessary urgency.
“The Andes mountains are a priority area for monitoring (the glaciers), and that is especially true in the province of San Juan, where there are more than 150 mining projects on the drawing board, out of a total of 600 in the country,” Strano said.
In the face of the refusal to monitor what is happening in the province, this month Greenpeace Argentina and local NGOs such as the Foundation for Environment and Natural Resources (FARN) and the Argentine Association of Environmental Lawyers (AAdeAA) filed a complaint with the Supreme Court.
They are demanding an immediate halt to Barrick’s activity in the Veladero mine, which they said violates the law to protect glaciers and is blocking the inventory in San Juan, which by law was to be carried out urgently.