Letter of Support for Dr. Ricardo Villalba in his capacity as former Director of the Argentinean Institute of Snow, Ice and Environmental Research (IANIGLA) and of the National Glacier Inventory of Argentina
On November 27, 2017, the Argentinean federal judge Sebastián Casanello indicted Dr. Ricardo Villalba(1), Senior Research Scientist of CONICET (National Research Council of Argentina), former Director of IANIGLA and the National Inventory of Glaciers (NGI), for the crime of “abuse of authority”. This legal action was initiated by the lawyers of the Asamblea “Jáchal no se toca” from the province of San Juan after reports of contamination by the Veladero mining project (operated by Barrick Gold), which produced between 2015 and 2016 cyanide spills towards a tributary of the Jáchal River. According to the judge and the complainant lawyers, if IANIGLA had included the ice bodies smaller than one hectare in the NGI , the toxic spills would have been avoided because this mining company could not have operated in this area. In addition, the complainants and the Judge accused IANIGLA of implementing a document entitled "National Glacier and Periglacial Environment Inventory: Fundamentals and Execution Schedule" in contradiction with the spirit of the National Law 26,639 for the Preservation of Glaciers and the Periglacial Environment.

In view of the evident incongruity of this case, which accuses the Director of an Institute of scientific investigations instead of looking for those responsible for these serious incidents among the managers of the polluting company, and taking into account the extensive technical documentation that shows that the methodology proposed by IANIGLA for the preparation of the NGI is endorsed and used worldwide since it follows the international scientific guidelines(2),(3), the undersigned want 1) to express our support to the aforementioned researcher, 2) to highlight his tireless commitment to his work and his unblemished career as a scientist of international excellence, and 3) to ask CONICET, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation, and the corresponding unions, to once and for all provide Dr. Villalba with complete legal, economic and media support in this unfortunate process.

Our request arises from the evident lack of institutional support that Dr. Villalba has received during this unfair process (which, by the way, forces him to personally face all the judicial expenses of the process), simply because he complied with his work as the Director of a CONICET Institute, a position he held between 2005 and 2015 and to which he acceded through a merit competition. We also consider the participation of these institutions extremely important because, although the aforementioned accusation falls on Dr. Villalba as former Director of IANIGLA, it is based on having used a methodology for the elaboration of the NGI that was approved and endorsed not only by the Presidency of CONICET, but also by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation, by the Secretariat of Environment and Sustainable Development, and by the Chief of Ministers of the Nation.

We also ask judge Casanello to reconsider his ruling of November 27 and to evaluate again the evidence provided not only by Dr. Villalba during his preliminary statements(3), but also by the all the professionals and researchers of IANIGLA who gave their testimony during the judicial process. Among other things, the ruling draws attention to the scarce mention of the evidence presented by IANIGLA (national reference institution in glaciology) in contrast to the high preponderance given to the testimonies of doctoral students, professionals hired by the province of San Juan, and national legislators (who in most cases have little or no experience in glaciological studies) to define basic glaciological concepts and/or question the methodologies proposed by IANIGLA for the realization of the NGI. It is also striking that the Judge continues to mention several of these people as IANIGLA collaborators in the realization of the NGI, despite Dr. Villalba clarifying in his statement that they were never hired nor collaborated with IANIGLA in this task. It should be noted that everything that IANIGLA has done in relation to the NGI has been audited by the National Audit Office with a favorable opinion to this CONICET institution (Resolution AGN 019/17).

We also want to make clear that, although for technical and operational reasons the NGI includes the ice bodies greater than one hectare, it does not mean that the smaller bodies are not protected by the Law, because the spirit of this Law is to protect all ice bodies regardless of their size. The NGI, like any technically correct inventory of natural resources, requires establishing reference dimensions of the entities to be inventoried. In a forest inventory, for example, is a single tree a forest? If one tree is not a forest, then two trees form a forest? Probably not. What is the minimum area for ​​a group of trees to be considered a forest? Clearly it is necessary to agree on an a priori dimension. Once this dimension is established, the inventory can be made, but an inventory of natural resources (be it forests, wetlands or glaciers) cannot be defined until the base unit of that inventory is properly established. Furthermore, beyond these purely technical issues, the Law establishes that the activities projected in the glaciers and in the periglacial environment must be subject to environmental impact assessments and strategic environmental assessments that should include the identification of all potentially affected ice bodies. Therefore, it is correct to consider the NGI as the basic tool for the protection of ice bodies, but we must remember that the Inventory is not the only protection tool in the context of Law 26.639.

This unjust accusation against Dr. Villalba as the former Director of IANIGLA and of the National Glacier Inventory has had the immediate effect of discrediting IANIGLA, which for forty years has been the leading national institute in the study of the environment and natural resources of the Argentinean Andes. This is exacerbated by the indictment of Dr. Villalba, who was the key scientist promoting the “Law for the Protection of Glaciers” promulgated by the National Congress of Argentina in 2010. During his prolific career(1), Dr. Villalba has demonstrated a strong commitment to public engagement and outreach on the topic of water resources for which the Law of the Glaciers is an extraordinary milestone. Among Dr. Villalba’s many other achievements and recognitions, he is a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, which recognizes both his scientific accomplishments and sustained engagement with decision makers through his work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

One of the unfortunate inevitable consequences of this unjustified accusation against Dr. Villalba is the chilling effect it will have on future engagement of Argentinean scientists with policy makers. Scientists supported by CONICET are expected to share their scientific expertise with the Argentinean public in general and specifically with decision makers in the realm of natural resource protection. The National Glacier Inventory is an iconic example of a potentially highly beneficial and effective interaction between scientists and policy makers because it addresses the societally critically important issue of hydrologic resources in the context of climate change. This scientific and policy achievement is without precedent in Latin America, and for the first time will allow resource managers and planners to know the actual extent of glaciers in Argentina and how that extent is fluctuating with climate change. The false accusation against Dr. Villalba not only endangers the continuation of that long-term painstaking scientific program but it also defames the competency, honesty, and integrity of the collaborative team of researchers who implement the National Glacier Inventory as well as the sponsoring institution - CONICET.

(1) Dr. Villalba is among the top climate scientists in Argentina. He is a Senior Research Scientist of CONICET (National Research Council of Argentina) at the Argentinean Institute of Snow, Ice and Environmental Research (IANIGLA) in Mendoza. He holds the following academic degrees: BS in Forest Engineering (Universidad Nacional de La Plata, Argentina); MS in Photo Interpretation in Forestry (CIAF, Colombia); and PhD in Geography (University of Colorado, USA). Dr. Villalba was also a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (Columbia University, USA). This breadth of academic training is impressive by any standard.

Dr. Villalba is an exemplary model of an interdisciplinary, international, collaborative scientist. His distinguished research career includes publication of over 200 scientific papers in referred journals and books covering a wide range of topics across glaciology, climatology, dendrochronology, geomorphology, hydrology, ecology and water resource management. Dr Villalba has also made over 200 scientific presentations in Argentina, USA, Canada, Brazil, Italy, Switzerland, Chile, China, Ecuador, Venezuela, Perú, Bolivia, Uruguay, Australia and New Zealand. He has directed 15 doctoral students and 37 scientific fellowship holders at IANIGLA, several of whom now work as internationally respected independent scientists at IANIGLA or at other research institutions in Argentina. Although most of these early-career researchers have been Argentinean, Dr. Villalba has also had profound influences on visiting young scientists from Chile, Bolivia, USA, Germany, France, Switzerland, Canada and other countries who have worked with him at IANIGLA. Over the last 20 years, Dr. Villalba has formed an exceptional research team of young and early-career scientists al IANIGLA who have been motivated by and benefited from the contagious energy and enthusiasm that Ricardo puts into his collaborative work.

Dr. Villaba’s research and scientific contributions have earned him international recognition. Because of his national and international contributions in climate science, Dr. Villalba was elected to be a member of the Steering Committee of the leading international paleoclimate research program PAGES (Past Global Changes) of the International Geosphere and Biosphere Program (IGBP of UNESCO). Dr. Villalba’s meritorious awards and honors include: Mention of Honor of Scientific Merit, granted by the Honorable Deliberating Council of San Rafael, Argentina (December 2007); the Legislative Distinction of the Honorable Senate of the Province of Mendoza (October 2007); Recognition for Scientific Achievement awarded by the Honorable Chamber of Deputies of the Province of Mendoza (April 2008); appointment as Outstanding Personality of the Province of Mendoza in April 2008; and the Tree-Ring Society “Harold C. Fritts Award” for Lifetime Achievement in Dendrochronology (April 2016).

(2) The National Glacier Inventory and the methodologies used to derive it follow the best practices and the recommendations from the international glaciological community. These methodologies are in line with the recommendations made by the Global Land Ice Measurement from Space (GLIMS), an international collaborative project that includes more than sixty institutions world-wide with the goal of creating a globally comprehensive inventory of land ice. In particular, the application of a minimum area threshold for inclusion of glaciers is a standard and, in fact, a mandatory scientific practice. The 0.01 km² (1 hectare) minimum value used in the National Glacier Inventory is smaller (i.e. a higher standard) than the one used in many others scientific studies of glaciers. Given the enormous extension of the Andean portion of the country, the specific characteristics of the satellite images used to make glacier inventories of this magnitude, and the relative importance of the different ice bodies as water reserves in the Cordillera, this minimum area ensured that virtually all of the country's frozen water reserves were included in the inventory.

(3) Link to the documents provided by Dr. Villalba during his preliminary statements.

Declaración Indagatoria Villalba

Anexo 1a – Paul et al. 2010

Anexo 1b – UNESCO 1970

Anexo 2 – Nota WGMS

Anexo 3 – Nota GLIMS

Anexo 4 – Noticia derrame de cianuro en Catamarca

Anexo 5 – Primer borrador ley glaciares Mafei

Anexo 6 – Solicitud áreas prioritárias SAyDS

Anexo 7 – Glaciar Toro 1

Anexo 8 – Solicitud apoyo institucional a Villalba – Setiembre 2017

Ampliación declaración indagatoria

Anexo 1 ampliación

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