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?
Single Page

More from Lisa M. Hamilton:

From the May 2014 issue

The Quinoa Quarrel

Who owns the world’s greatest superfood?



April 2019

Works of Mercy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Destined for Export·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Five years ago, Jean-Sebastien Hertsens Zune went looking for his parents. He already had one set, a Belgian church organist and his wife, who adopted him as a baby from Guatemala and later moved the family to France. But he wanted to find his birth mother and father. When Zune was a teenager, his Belgian parents gave him his adoption file, holding back only receipts showing how much the process had cost. Most people pay little attention to their birth certificates, but for adoptees, these documents, along with notes about their relinquishment, tell an often patchy origin story.

Nowhere Left to Go·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I can’t take chances with my life.”

Like This or Die·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Alex and Wendy love culture. It’s how they spend their free time. It’s what they talk about at dinner parties. When they go jogging or to the gym, they listen to podcasts on their phones. On Sunday nights they watch their favorite new shows. They go to the movies sometimes, but they were bummed out when ­MoviePass went south, so now they mostly stream things. They belong to book clubs that meet every couple of weeks. Alex and Wendy work hard at their jobs, but they always have a bit of time to check their feeds at work. What’s in their feeds? Their feeds tell them about culture. Their feeds are a form of comfort. Their feeds explain things to them that they already understand. Their feeds tell them that everyone else is watching, reading, listening to the same things. Their feeds tell them about the people who make their culture, people who aren’t so different from them, just maybe a bit more glistening. Alex and Wendy’s feeds assure them that they aren’t lonely. Their feeds give them permission to like what they already like. Their feeds let them know that their culture is winning.


= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Once, in an exuberant state, feeling filled with the muse, I told another writer: When I write, I know everything. Everything about the characters? she asked. No, I said, everything about the world, the universe. Every. Fucking. Thing. I was being preposterous, of course, but I was also trying to explain the feeling I got, deep inside writing a first draft, that I was listening and receiving, listening some more and receiving, from a place that was far enough away from my daily life, from all of my reading, from everything.

Setting the World to Rights·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

All his life he lived on hatred.

He was a solitary man who hoarded gloom. At night a thick smell filled his bachelor’s room on the edge of the kibbutz. His sunken, severe eyes saw shapes in the dark. The hater and his hatred fed on each other. So it has ever been. A solitary, huddled man, if he does not shed tears or play the violin, if he does not fasten his claws in other people, experiences over the years a constantly mounting pressure, until he faces a choice between lunacy and suicide. And those who live around him breathe a sigh of relief.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:


A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

In California, a 78-year-old patient and his family were informed that he would die within days from a doctor who was communicating via video call on a screen mounted to a robot on wheels.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today