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ARGENTINA: Frustration Over Veto of Glacier Protection Law

Marcela Valente* - Tierramérica

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 28 2008 (IPS) - The decision by the administration of Cristina Fernández to veto a law to protect Argentina’s glaciers – important reserves of freshwater – has caused deep concern among scientists and environmentalists who participated in writing the legislation.

The Perito Moreno glacier in southern Argentina.  Credit: Photo Stock

The Perito Moreno glacier in southern Argentina. Credit: Photo Stock

“We worked closely with the legislators to get this law passed,” said a disappointed Ricardo Villalba, geoscientist and director of the Argentine government’s institute for snow and glacier research, IANIGLA.

“It’s difficult to understand what happened. The scientific community doesn’t want to slow economic development, but rather preserve freshwater sources in a region where the provinces rely on those reserves for consumption and irrigation,” Villalba, a member of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told Tierramérica.

The Law of Minimum Budgets for the Protection of Glaciers and the Periglacial Environment, approved Oct. 22 by a heavy majority in both houses of Congress, established basic standards aimed at “preserving them as strategic reserves of hydric resources and water supplies.”

The bill also prohibited activities that would affect the function of the glaciers as water supplies, and that would hurt the periglacial environment, defined in the text as the high mountain areas “with frozen soils that act as a regulator of water resources.”

The bill’s second article stated that a glacier is a “mass of perennial ice, stable or which flows slowly, with or without interstitial water, formed by the refreezing of snow, located in various ecosystems, whatever their form, dimension or state of conservation.”

Among the activities banned in those areas were mining or petroleum exploration and exploitation, construction of buildings or infrastructure, and the release of polluting substances, chemical products or any type of waste.

Under advice from the Secretariat of Mines, President Fernández vetoed the bill on Nov. 11, stating that “the prohibition is excessive” and gives “pre-eminence to environmental aspects over activities that could be developed in perfect harmony with the environment.”

In justifying the veto, the president admitted that the governors of the affected provinces “had expressed their concern” about the bill because “it would have negative repercussions on economic development and investment” in those provinces.

The law would have affected projects like the Pascua Lama mine, which Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold is pursuing in the Andes in a border area between the western Argentine province of San Juan and the Chilean region of Atacama, to mine gold, silver and copper over the next 20 years.

Barrick’s investment in the project would be about 2.4 billion dollars, according to the latest estimates, and the mine would produce annually some 615,000 ounces of gold and 30 million ounces of silver, plus 5,000 tonnes of copper concentrate through leaching with cyanide to separate the metal from the ore.

The mining project has already been approved by both Chile and Argentina, despite the harm it would cause area glaciers and despite the strong resistance from residents on both sides of the border, who have been campaigning for years against mining and in favour of preserving the freshwater reserves.

A similar situation is found in the northwestern province of La Rioja, where residents are protesting Barrick’s mining plans in the Famatina mountain range, which is the source of several rivers. But the mining projects continue to advance slowly, despite running into hurdles.

Faced with this scenario, approval of the glacier law had been celebrated as a victory by the activists and residents who worked to preserve the freshwater source. But the party lasted less than a month, before it was cut short by the president’s veto.

“The mountain range is huge and there is a place for everyone,” said IANIGLA’s Villalba.

“The law didn’t say that there could be no projects. What it said was that areas should be clearly delineated. That is why it called for an inventory of glaciers and periglaciers, to monitor and protect them,” he said – a task that was to be entrusted to IANIGLA.

“What should not have been touched (according to the bill) were the areas that supply water,” he said.

Norberto Ovando, vice president of the Friends of the National Parks of Argentina Association, told Tierramérica that even when “mining exploitation takes place in periglacial zones, the explosions cause the release and dispersal of substances that, in addition to polluting, warm the glacier area much more rapidly.”

“The activities banned by the vetoed law are going to accelerate the melting,” said Ovando, a member of the World Commission on Protected Areas.

According to IANIGLA, in southern Patagonia the glaciers have shrunk 10 to 14 percent in the past 20 years as a result of the warming of global temperatures.

“For us, water is more valuable than gold and has no substitute,” Ovando stated.

Although Barrick executives had to step back from their initial plan to “move” three glaciers on the Chilean side of the border, and then pledged not to alter the glaciers, “scientists don’t put much stock in what the mining company says,” said Ovando. The law was a tool to ensure that Barrick lived up to its commitments.

Biologist Raúl Montenegro, with the Foundation for the Defence of the Environment, said in an interview with Tierramérica that it was “a mistake” for the president to veto a “sensible and intelligent” law that also protected high-altitude watersheds in general, as well as the semi-arid economies that exist thanks to the water from the glaciers.

In Argentina, the western provinces of San Juan, Mendoza and La Rioja rely on water supplies from the glaciers for human consumption, farming and livestock.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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