On November 27, 2017, Ricardo Villalba, a geoscientist and former director of the Argentinian Institute of Snow, Ice and Environmental Research (IANIGLA), was charged with “abusing his authority” and “violating his duty as a civil servant.” The charges relate to a national inventory of glaciers he led in 2012.
Dr. Villalba led IANIGLA in Mendoza, Argentina from 2005 to 2015, and, in 2012, launched Argentina’s first comprehensive glacier inventory, which he and other scientists report was conducted according to international standards.
In the years following the study, a group of environmental activists filed a lawsuit against Dr. Villalba, accusing him of modifying the study’s methodology in order to exclude smaller glaciers. The activists argue that this would benefit a Canadian mining company pursuing a project near those glaciers. This particular mining project reportedly resulted in cyanide spilling into a local watershed.
On November 27, 2017, a federal court charged Dr. Villalba, along with three former government ministers, with “abuse of authority” for “failing to protect water sources under a 2010 law aimed at preserving glaciated areas.” (The law prohibits mining in the areas near the cyanide spillage.) The court ordered Dr. Villalba to remain in the country and seized his assets up to 5 million pesos, or $289,000 USD. On March 5, 2018, Argentina’s Federal Criminal and Correctional Chamber confirmed the indictment of Dr. Villalba and his travel ban.
It is unclear what evidentiary bases the activists have provided to support allegations that Dr. Villalba modified his methodology or was working to support the mining company. Members of the geoscientific and glacial studies community have supported Dr. Villalba’s claim that his study was conducted according to international standards, which limit the size of ice masses in such surveys.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the prosecution of a scholar in retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the right to academic freedom—conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Argentina is a party. While states have the right to establish reasonable regulations and express concern over environmental protection, such decisions and judgments should not arbitrarily prevent or be used to retaliate against scholars for their nonviolent exercise of the right to academic freedom. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such attacks have a chilling effect on academic freedom and democratic society generally.