Deadly geographies (1)

The four questions of geography:

  • Where is it?
  • Why is it there?
  • So what?
  • What if?

We apply these to some deadly geographies today.

Globally, there are many deadly things that move around in geographic space –ideas, money (legal and illegal), people, culture, diseases, and so on.

Among the deadliest things to move in geographic space are narcotic drugs. As with any commodity in the world, these too have geographies associated with them.

Get your atlas out and let’s look at some of these perilous geographies.


Narcotics are defined as: “any of a class of substances that blunt the senses, as opium, morphine, belladonna, and alcohol, that in large quantities produce euphoria, stupor, or coma, that when used constantly can cause habituation or addiction, and that are used in medicine to relieve pain, cause sedation, and induce sleep.” We get the word from the Greek narcosis meaning, “a state of stupor or drowsiness.” (

Large numbers of people in the world are addicted to one or other kind of narcotic. This brings a lot of suffering and danger to users as well as suppliers. Such addictions are national concerns because an unhealthy population is an unproductive population and can lead to violence, social breakdowns, loss of morale, and to damage to national economies. These, in turn, make nations vulnerable to external threats … threats from other countries.

There are a wide variety of narcotics. Broadly, we can think of them as

  • Derived from natural sources but not extracted (tobacco is an example of this; as are coca leaves),
  • Derived from natural sources and extracted (heroin, cocaine, etc.), and
  • Synthetic – not derived from natural sources but chemically manufactured.

Here I am looking at only the second of these.


Different plants yield different kinds of narcotic chemicals. Of course, different plants grow in different kinds of locations, i.e., geographical conditions – latitude, altitude, climate, and soil.

The methods of production and processing also vary.

Coca to cocaine

“Coca is traditionally cultivated in the lower altitudes of the eastern slopes of the Andes (the Yungas), or the highlands depending on the species grown. Coca production begins in the valleys and upper jungle regions of the Andean region, where the countries of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia are host to more than 98 per cent of the global land area planted with coca.” (Source) [accessed: Dec. 2017] (All links open in a new tab/window)

As with many such plants, coca has been cultivated for millennia (traces have been found in mummies from 3000 years ago) and has been part of traditional medical use in those areas. They are chewed rather like our betel leaves – “When chewed, they produce a pleasurable numbness in the mouth, and have a pleasant, pungent taste. They are traditionally chewed with lime or some other reagent such as bicarbonate of soda to increase the release of the active ingredients from the leaf.” (Source) [accessed: Dec. 2017]

Use of coca

“Chewing coca leaves is most common in indigenous communities across the central Andean region, particularly in places like the highlands of Argentina, Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, where the cultivation and consumption of coca is as much a part of the national culture…” (Source) [accessed: Dec. 2017]

Traditionally, coca leaves have been used as a stimulant to fight fatigue, suppress hunger, thirst, headache, etc.

These uses have been particularly important for poor people, especially the small farmers in the region. The chemical that does all this is cocaine, found in very small quantities in the natural plant.

When this chemical is extracted from the plant and concentrated, it becomes a high-value commodity that is sold in many countries of the world at high prices. See the routes of cocaine distribution in the map.

Geography angle

Each coca leaf only has a tiny amount of the chemical cocaine. To get more, we need a large amount of leaves, and processing facilities. Where to locate these facilities best? This is one of many geography questions. Every where question is a geography question. (To see a larger version of the image, click on it)

Vast quantities of coca leaves are transported to processing facilities in the tropical rainforest areas of South America. Why there?

Map of the geography of cocaine. Source: UNODC. (2010) “The Globalization of Crime – A Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment.” [Accessed Nov. 2017]

Bulk reduction, value addition

The vast amount of coca leaves means that the bulk is high – huge volume. This is difficult to transport to far-off markets. So, the leaves are brought to processing facilities where cocaine is extracted from the leaves using various chemical means. These are done in small sheds or shacks inside the jungles.

These shacks can be easily set up or dismantled as the need arises. The governments of countries in the region often raid these places and burn up the shacks, kill or arrest the people producing it, etc. These are real dangers. Here is a slightly more annotated map of the geography of cocaine:

Map of the geography of cocaine.
Source: Vice News (2016); 26 April 2016: “The Golden Age of Drug Trafficking: How Meth, Cocaine, and Heroin Move Around the World.” [Accessed Nov. 2017]

However, a large amount of leaf can be reduced to a small amount of cocaine – this is bulk reduction. It’s the cocaine that the market wants, not the coca leaf! It’s the cocaine that has high market value – this is value addition. A small amount of the cocaine produced fetches a higher price than the amount of leaves it took to produce it.

(This is like rice cultivation. The market wants only rice, not the husk or the stalk or the stem. So, only rice is shipped off to distant markets. The processed rice has greater value, less bulk.)

Summary sheet on the geography of cocaine.
Source: UNODC. (2010) “The Globalization of Crime – A Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment.” [Accessed Nov. 2017]

Leaves have been transported to nearby small processing facilities that produce a small amount of cocaine. A number of these smaller production facilities send their product to a higher-order place that collects from the smaller producers and sends that collected material to the next center and so on.

(This is similar to a dairy cooperative collecting milk from individual cow-owners and send it to the Karnataka Milk Federation () who then supply the milk to us with the brand name Nandini.)

Each of these cocaine collection centers is called a trans-shipment point … they are way-stations. And most are in the jungles, trying to hide under the thick canopy of the vegetation.

Let’s stop here for a while, rest a little and continue on our deadly journey next week.

A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition, December 2017.

Featured image, courtesy: Vice News (2016); 26 April 2016: “The Golden Age of Drug Trafficking: How Meth, Cocaine, and Heroin Move Around the World.” [Accessed Nov. 2017]