Special Feature — April 17, 2014, 12:30 pm

Native Lands

Photographs from the birthplace of quinoa

Many people consider quinoa to be a vital tool for food security in the era of climate change. But in order to be grown outside its native climate, this crop must be adapted by plant breeders. The challenge is that quinoa’s seed is tightly controlled by Bolivia and other Andean nations. Working with the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), writer and photographer Lisa M. Hamilton has investigated the worldwide fight over the genetic resources behind this miracle grain. “The Quinoa Quarrel,” in the May 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine, is available on newsstands and online (subscription required). In this photo essay, Hamilton shows us the unique land from which quinoa originates.

To write “The Quinoa Quarrel,” I visited the Bolivian Altiplano, a vast, spare plateau in the Andes. With sharp mountain peaks rising on every horizon, the place has a vivid, raw beauty. But on the ground, natural wealth is sparse. At its lowest points, the Altiplano is already 11,000 feet above sea level, which means the air is thin, the sun is searing, and trees are rare. What plants do grow here have coarse leaves and hug the ground, to survive the chilling winds.

And yet, the Altiplano has supported indigenous communities for nearly twenty thousand years. These people credit their survival, in part, to quinoa. As some tell it, the story begins long ago, when drought brought hunger to the land. To help, the Aymara god Thunupa sent to earth a beautiful young emissary, who walked the length of the Altiplano. In her footsteps grew a miraculous plant that could withstand drought, cold, and even salt, and still produce a nutritious grain. It was the people’s deliverance, and to this day quinoa evokes in them both gratitude and pride. They call it el grano de oro, “the golden grain.”

One might guess that if transplanted to Iowa, this husky plant would flourish. But while at lower altitudes and with generous precipitation quinoa will often grow vigorously, it will not necessarily produce food. If the temperature gets too high, its flowers simply abort. It could be said that when Thunupa gave quinoa to the Altiplano, she was not concerned with the rest of the world. But with the global market clamoring for the immensely nutritious grain, and an increasingly food-insecure world looking for more-resilient crops, plant breeders are now trying to coax it down to the lowlands.

These photographs from my journey are a glimpse of how distant quinoa’s homeland is from the familiar farmlands where Americans and others want to grow it. But it is also a record of the connection the Altiplano’s people have to their home, and to this miraculous plant.

All photographs © Lisa M. Hamilton


Thunupa © Lisa M. Hamilton
The Aymara believe that Thunupa is embodied in a volcano, on the left, whose soft peak rises above the town and fields of Jirira, in Bolivia’s Southern Altiplano.


Quinoa harvesters in Jirira, Bolivia © Lisa M. Hamilton
Quinoa harvesters in Jirira use a weed whacker to cut the stalk at ground level. Plants are then stacked, dried, threshed, and winnowed by hand.


Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia © Lisa M. Hamilton
Jirira lies on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest saltpan. Because quinoa tolerates saline soil, it can grow right up to the slushy edge of the salar.


German “Thunupa” Nina © Lisa M. Hamilton
German “Thunupa” Nina of Jirira is a leader in the fight to ensure that the quinoa boom benefits indigenous farmers like him rather than corporations or foreign growers.


Harvested quinoa, Viacha, Bolivia © Lisa M. Hamilton
Harvested quinoa at the PROINPA Foundation’s research station in the Northern Altiplano town Viacha. This Bolivian organization works to conserve and improve indigenous Andean crops.


Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio © Lisa M. Hamilton
Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio, an indigenous Aymara and a world authority on quinoa, strums the charango and sings a love song to his home on the Altiplano. His native village is Lluqu, which in Aymara means “heart.”


PROINPA greenhouse © Lisa M. Hamilton
A whiteboard reading NO DESORDENE POR FAVOR (DON’T MAKE A MESS, PLEASE) inside the PROINPA greenhouse, where Bonifacio and his staff breed improved varieties of quinoa.


Mylar maypole © Lisa M. Hamilton
A Mylar maypole, erected on one of of PROINPA’s research plots to scare off birds. People around the world agree that quinoa needs protection, but the question remains: Who should be allowed to shepherd it into the uncertain future?
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More from Lisa M. Hamilton:

From the May 2014 issue

The Quinoa Quarrel

Who owns the world’s greatest superfood?

  • slgnunez

    Wonderful pictures! Can’t wait to read the full article in the printed edition. Small correction: Alteños is a term used to describe the residents of the city of El Alto in Bolivia. It is erroneously used here in reference to the people who live on the Altiplano. El Alto may be on the Altiplano, but Alteños certainly do not grow much quinoa in their city!

    • http://harpers.org/ Harper’s Magazine

      Thanks for the catch — we’ve fixed the references.

  • com

    Incredible photographs!

  • Frank

    I certainly hope that the indigenous people of Bolovia can secure the legal rights for the genetics of the quinoa plant. Monsanto has already stolen too much from humankind.

  • Abroadia

    I agree with Frank. The people of Bolivia should stake rightful claim to quinoa.

  • kingless

    The article is great, alone worth the price of the magazine.

  • Veronica Lopez-Parker

    Such a load of Horseshit!!! If you want to solve the problem of food security, come to the Central Valley of California where we have to fight for the right to water. Rich people come into California because it’s so great, but then they want farmers and native Californians to give up there share of our most valued resource. The Central Valley feeds the world but farmers have to fight for water rights against Rich SoCals who may actually have to give up filling their swimming pools if they don’t get our water soon. The Valley feeds the world. Got it!! If we can’t have water to irrigate fields, THEN, the world will die and it will have nothing to do with Bolivia. Make sense? There is fight going on right now about exporting farmer’s water south, to the dessert, where people should only live if they are prepared to put in the hard work to procure your own water. Otherwise, thirsty people should move out of the dessert or stop complaining about water shortages. And then there is fracking, which a whole other argument but significant to this very argument. The point is, Bolivia giving up its rights is not going to make a lick of spit if we don’t do something in the Central Valley of California today!!! Write your congressperson and tell them to Save the Humans, Say No to the Tunnels! This is not just a California issue, this is a world issue. As members of the world community, you owe it to yourself to make your voice heard.

  • Veronica Lopez-Parker

    Thought you might also benefit from my written reaction on FB. Here it is:I
    was so angered by this article, I felt compelled to write. This was my
    first thought after reading this article… This article is
    pitting indigenous quinoa farmers against the world because quinoa is so
    awesome that someone should be able to make a buck off of it. The
    article is written so poetically as to pull, ever so gently, on the
    heartstrings of whoever was reading the article. If the world’s people
    don’t have quinoa, they are all going to starve, and worse, no one will
    be able to profit off of it. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Have
    you even thought this out to it’s logical conclusion? Here’s a thought,
    why not make Monsanto give up all it’s seed patents that it owns and
    leave poor Bolivia alone? Bolivia has virtually no economy but has the
    potential to become a sustainable nation through quinoa. You know that
    as soon as ownership is extricated from Bolivia, it will just be going
    to Monsanto instead. Come on. Did no one else see that the dude’s
    brother is trying desperately to get his job back at Monsanto? Come on.
    And on a similar note, you’re going to have a hell of a time convincing
    Bolivians of their duty to feed the world, when no one’s given a good
    fuck about starving Bolivians. Oooh, I’m steamed.