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Perito Moreno glacier, in southern Argentina.
Credit: Public domain
Accents
Fighting for Argentina's Glaciers as They Retreat
By Marcela Valente

In two decades, Argentina's glaciers have lost an average of 10 to 15 percent of their area.

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 13 (Tierramérica).- Argentina's glaciers, along with Chile's the most extensive of South America, manifest the damage caused by climate change, while they also face the threats associated with mining and major transportation infrastructure projects. A law to protect them has been postponed yet again.

Glaciers are vast reserves of freshwater, vital for feeding rivers, lakes and underground water tables. But rising global temperatures are shrinking their ability to serve that function.

"Climate change is the main cause of glacier retraction, but also affecting them are the petroleum industry, large-scale mining, high-impact tourism and infrastructure projects," glaciologist Ricardo Villalba, director of the Argentine Institute of Snow and Glacier Research and Environmental Sciences (IANIGLA), told Tierramérica.

From 1984 to 2004, the glacier decline in eight areas studied averaged between 10 and 15 percent, he said. In some cases, the loss was greater, such as the Upsala glacier, in the southern province of Santa Cruz, which is shrinking rapidly. It is the second largest glacier in South America, with an area of approximately 870 square kilometers.

Other glaciers are more stable, and some are even growing, like Perito Moreno. Both feed Lake Argentino.

Experts from IANIGLA and environmental organizations are promoting a law to preserve these ice masses, which the Argentine Congress passed in 2008, but President Cristina Fernández vetoed it, saying the law was "excessive" in banning productive activities on or around the glaciers.

After that failure, the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, voted in August on a new text, which was to come up for debate in the Senate on Sep. 8. But the Senators decided to put it off until the end of the month.

The greatest resistance comes from lawmakers representing Argentina's western mining provinces, including San Juan and La Rioja.

The text of this new bill "is better" than the previous, in the opinion of activist Hernán Giardini, of Greenpeace Argentina, because it establishes "glaciers as a public good."

The proposed legislation "protects the resource, restricts activities that threaten the glaciers and requires an inventory with the information necessary for appropriate protection and monitoring" of the ice masses, Giardini told Tierramérica.

It also prohibits any activity that implies the "destruction or relocation" of glaciers, and particularly activities that involve the use of contaminating substances or which generate waste, and sets strict sanctions for violators.

The proposed legislation calls for the creation of a national glacier inventory, an essential tool that would be entrusted to the experts at IANIGLA. If the law is passed, the Institute would be given the authority to decide on every mining or infrastructure project.

Controversial projects like Pascua Lama -- an open-pit gold mine extending into both Chile and Argentina, run by the Canadian company Barrick Gold -- would be subject to audit by the Institute, and could be suspended if preservation of the glaciers is not guaranteed.

Pascua Lama is located in the northern Chilean region of Atacama and the western Argentine province of San Juan.

With an estimated investment of 2 to 3 billion dollars, the company says it would exploit the mine for about 21 years. The company's website says the mine has proven reserves of 17.8 million ounces of gold and 718 million ounces of silver.

Construction has already begun at the mining site, and production is slated to begin in 2013. The approval process faced sharp resistance from farmers on the Chilean side.

Argentine environmentalists and farmers from the valley below are also opposed because the mine could accelerate the melting of the glaciers, and the cyanide used in processing the gold ore could contaminate the water that flows down to them.

Another initiative that has caused controversy is the proposed Agua Negra tunnel, in the Andean mountain pass of the same name, which would connect Argentina and Chile at about 5,000 meters above sea level. It would complete an inter-ocean route between the Chilean port of Coquimbo, on the Pacific, and the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, near the Atlantic.

That initiative is located in the central-western region of Cuyo, where the glacier decline is more critical than in the Patagonian Andes. Freshwater is already a scarce resource, states the study, "Climate Change: Dark Future for Glaciers," published in August 2009 by Greenpeace Argentina.

Farming and hydroelectric energy plants in that area depend on the water supplied by the glaciers.

Over the past decades, global warming and, in some areas, less-than-normal precipitation have caused nearly all glaciers of the Patagonian Andes to shrink, according to the report.

Villalba said the glaciers are also crucial for protecting the high-mountain ecosystems, providing electricity, and as tourist attractions.

One example is Los Glaciares National Park, declared a Natural Heritage of Humanity site in 1981 by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

The Patagonian Ice Field is located in the park, feeding 47 large glaciers, and more than 200 smaller, independent glaciers.

The park is also home to the Upsala glacier and the majestic Perito Moreno, which in the first half of this year received more than 290,000 tourists. Visitors to the site provide 44 percent of all admission revenues to Argentina's national parks.

* Corresponsal de IPS

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