After only a week in the fields listening to the farmers, we realized that the crop substitution program, a key component of the American effort to eradicate coca, was a fantasy. Harvested by hand every four months or as often as six times a year if fertilized and sprayed, coca outperformed every other agricultural product in the valley, earning eight times as much per acre as coffee, twenty-five times more than cacao. Ideally adapted to the poor well-drained, and highly eroded slopes of the montaña, and suffering from few natural pests or predators, it flourished where most other cultivated plants could not even grow. At a hacienda in the upper reaches of the Santa Ana valley, we asked a group of farmers whether it might be possible to substitute other crops for coca. The men laughed aloud and then inquired who would possibly want to do so. One of them bent to the ground and grabbed a handful of dry soil. Letting the dirt fall between his fingers, he said, “Es imposible. ¿Qué es lo que podemos sembrar en este suelo cansado?” What else could we possibly plant in this tired earth?
From One River, by Wade Davis.