Like many students, John Rouse MPA-DP ’18 brought varied experiences to SIPA—and his role as a consultant at Asociación ANDES last summer only widened the scope. Rouse went to Cusco, Peru—the historic home of the Incas—to work on a project dedicated to the conservation of native varieties of potatoes produced by indigenous tribes in the region. The project seeks to maintain the biodiversity and cultural heritage of the region. He spoke with SIPA News about this experience and more.
What did you do before you enrolled at SIPA?
I had a pretty weird path. I lived in Cambodia for more than a year, working as a quasi-tour guide and coordinating volunteer projects for an elephant sanctuary. I also worked on building an artificial coral reef off the Cambodian coast.
From the Khmer Rouge period [in the 1970s] until relatively recently, Cambodian fishermen practiced grenade fishing and dynamite fishing, which destroyed a lot of coastal marine life. To create an artificial coral reef, we used iron rebar and welded it into semi-domed reef pods, coated them in an epoxy, and anchored them to the sea floor. The project helped revitalize marine life around Koh Rong Island.
After Cambodia, I came home and went through a bit of a quarter-life crisis, during which I got my pilot’s license and my scuba diving instructor license in Florida.
Tell us more about your summer work with Asociación ANDES and the Parque de la Papa project, which translates to “Potato Park.”
Asociación ANDES is a small NGO devoted to conservation and indigenous rights. In 1998 it started the Potato Park in a 9,000-hectare region that is theorized to be where potatoes originated. It was an experiment to see if they could bring six indigenous Quechua communities together and improve their livelihood while conserving potato biodiversity.
In the past, these communities had engaged in territorial conflicts. Through this experiment they created some sources of income, of which 10 percent went to the Potato Park entity so that it could make collective investments for the communities. They made an agreement with the International Potato Centre in Lima, Peru, under which the Center would help repatriate lost varieties to the Potato Park.
Through participatory plant breeding, agronomists and local farmers collaborate in replanting repatriated variaties and experimenting with them. The idea is to breed these repatriated potato varieties to improve their resilience to deal with climate change, the prevalence of pests, and changes in growing conditions
What was your role in this project?
The Potato Park is trying to develop eco-tourism, and they wanted me to help them with that. Before I got to Peru, my projected role was clearly defined—they essentially expected me to carry out an evaluation to see what was working and what was not.
Once I got there, [the position evolved] and they started giving me additional things to do. They had me write a proposal and create a program for the 2018 World Potato Congress, and once they found out that I had some videomaking skills and a drone (camera), they asked me to document the park. Before that, I had only made three videos in my life.
What was it like working for a small NGO?
I built a relationship with director of the NGO pretty quickly. In a small NGO, you’re close to the decisionmakers, so you can get in and exercise influence and be keenly aware of how everything works in the organization. You also have the opportunity to observe the decisionmaking process. I’m still working with them now to build their website, which will hopefully launch by the end of December.
How does a project like this provide practical experience for someone who aspires to work in public policy?
In policy terms, I got to work directly with a national ministry, Peru’s Ministry of Culture. The minister himself came to the Potato Park and we tried to convince him to have the government invest more in the project. The director of our NGO also had a close relationship with the vice president of Peru, who also visited the Potato Park.
Speaking more to the MPA Program in Development Practice, something like this puts you right in the middle of the development process. I spent about half my time in the Potato Park, so I got to see the state of these communities firsthand, and assess the impact of the Potato Park initiatives. I got to interview people in the area, including local business owners in the park and small holder farmers.
This interview, conducted by Neha Sharma MPA ’18, has been condensed and edited.
Watch Rouse’s video of the park: