Peru is a land of contrasts— sky-painted mountains and the mysterious Amazon, a wide desert that brushes the blue Pacific, and areas of a thriving tourist and natural resources-based economy paired with smoldering socio-economic unrest and political turmoil. A resilient but vulnerable nation committed to developing a strong educational ecosystem and the largest annual GDP growth in Latin America in recent years, Peruvians also struggle with significant environmental issues that impact the quality of their water and the food they produce, the need to adapt to a changing climate, and the need to transform their economy from one focused on natural resources extraction to one centered on value-added products and technology-driven innovation.  It is at this crossroads of past and future, resilience and vulnerability, that the Arequipa Nexus Institute was born, an enterprising marriage of institutions on a quest to make a sustainability and technology-drive innovation a reality for Peru’s future generations.

The Arequipa Nexus Institute is an ambitious collaboration between Purdue University and the Universidad Nacional de San Agustin (UNSA), located in Arequipa, Peru. Launched in April 2018, the goal of the institute is to work together to develop high social impact solutions to the numerous challenges that lie ahead for the Arequipa region, and for Peru and Latin America. Measuring the economic and social benefits that mining, intensive agriculture, and burgeoning urbanization have brought against the inevitable downside (desertification, soil erosion, and damage to water resources, to name a few) generates a dangerous equation.  The fallout from climate change is an undeniable fact of life in Peru.  The cost to economies, ecosystems, and livelihoods cannot be underestimated.  Any attempt to balance this equation must contain solutions that are grounded in the unique lifestyles, behaviors, and attitudes of the residents of the region, and be tailored to local ecosystems, conditions, and ecologies.

Discovery Park’s Center for the Environment is Purdue’s administrative and collaborative link to UNSA and the Nexus Institute. Working with leadership and faculty at Purdue and UNSA, C4E has developed a research and educational ecosystem that leverages Purdue’s strengths and maps them to UNSA’s and Arequipa’s needs. The Nexus Institute links over 50 Purdue University faculty spanning 7 colleges with 40 faculty from UNSA into a program to study the interconnected food-energy-water systems in the region. The institute also provides funding for 23 postdoctoral researchers working between Purdue and UNSA, and myriad students at both institutions are involved in the research as well.

The vision of the Nexus Institute is for UNSA to build core research capacity and capability in the Arequipa region of Peru in relevant areas, nurture the research ecosystem to provide novel, best-practice solutions to the area’s challenges, and turn research and education into practical applications and local solutions with high societal impact. The research underpinning this institute is coordinated through the activities of thematic programs that emphasize 1) Sustainable Watershed Management and the development of data, models, and tools to address food, energy, and water management, 2) Research on Soil and Water Quality that establishes and supports monitoring stations for soil, sediment, and water, and creates research facilities for analysis of soil and aquatic microbiology, geochemistry, and environmental contaminants, as well as  research in spatial mapping and visualization, 3) Work on Agricultural Innovation and Demonstration to promote sustainable crop and animal production using advanced technologies in genetics, breeding, storage, and pest control,  and 4) Social Sciences and the Environment addresses socio-environmental challenges related to food and water security, agriculture, and mining, and empowers the local community to be involved in decision-making.

Projects in the Nexus Institute are designed to accelerate solutions to Peru’s complex, interconnected socio-economic and environmental challenges.  Key to success are meaningful collaborations among U.S. and Peruvian university researchers, local communities, government, industry, and other stakeholders.  For instance, a team led by Laura Bowling (Purdue) and Edwin Bocardo (UNSA) is working to address concerns about the sustainability of water resources management in the Arequipa region, which is threatened by water scarcity, degraded water quality and a changing climate.  The team uses an iterative approach to stakeholder engagement within the region’s urban and rural communities to co-produce cutting-edge decision-making tools based on the application of state of the art land surface models. Their work will help understand how climate change is impacting local and regional resource management and how community livelihood, structure, and vulnerability are affected by these changes.  Other digital mapping platforms will be created to put existing and newly acquired data in the hands of decision makers and practitioners allowing for science-based management and assessment of the impact of nutrients, metals, and salinization on soil quality in this this newly-created, intensively managed landscape.  Coupled with the on-going collaborative development of new interdisciplinary laboratory’s and analytical facilities at UNSA, these types of projects will form the basis for science-driven, culturally-relevant, and co-produced land management best practices.  

Establishment of the Nexus Institute laid the foundation for expansion to other areas and universities in Peru.  Indeed, two new MOUs have been signed, one between Purdue and Asociación Nacional de Universidades Públicas del Perú (ANUPP-Perú) — the national association of Peruvian public universities, and the other between Purdue and REDISUR (the Interuniversity Network of Southern Peru) that will foster continuing cooperation in education and research between the entities.  These agreements have established a collaborative framework for conducting international research for all public universities in Peru and for all the public and private universities under REDISUR.  By standardizing this framework, future partnerships have a clear roadmap which will facilitate a smoother path to more productive, high societal impact research.

Peru and other like-minded countries in Latin America have the natural resources, the educational systems, the culture and the people to become future global economic growth engines. Their way of life and their global views are consistent and aligned with those of the West in general, and of the U.S. in particular. The value of interdisciplinary, international cooperation has been demonstrated and is incontrovertible. By creating these research and education-driven programs like the Arequipa Nexus Institute, not only do we hope to have a positive impact on major societal challenges, but to open up new pathways for stronger relations that will lead to a better understanding between the peoples of Latin America and the United States, and to better and stronger economic development and opportunities for all.

Tomas Diaz de la Rubia is the Vice President for Purdue’s Discovery Park. Tim Filley, professor of geochemistry and soil science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences and the Department of Agronomy at Purdue University, is the director of Discovery Park’s Center for the Environment.