Spatialising illicit commodity chains: Comparing coffee and cocaine

Peer Reviewed
20 May 2021

Anayansi Dávila, Nicholas Magliocca, Kendra McSweeney, Ximena Rueda


Among geographers, recent focus on the illicit and illegal has tended to fall into two camps. Economic geographers focus on regimes of illicitness and corresponding production of specific forms of economic space; political ecologists and land change scholars, on the other hand, scrutinised how illicit commodity flows shape land and resource use, especially in the global South. This paper offers an initial integration of these two relatively separate subfields, specifically in terms of their complementary attention to uneven development. We use the concept of “global commodity chains” to explore the ways in which the regulation of agricultural commodities shapes how they are trafficked and embed in space, with particular attention to sites of international transshipment. When a commodity is illegal, spaces of transit take on significant analytical importance. As a heuristic, we present a comparative mapping of two agricultural commodity chains linking Colombia and the USA: coffee and cocaine. Their comparison highlights how “illicitness” fundamentally transforms cocaine’s spatiality, requiring risk evasion that results in characteristically enlarged transit spaces and huge differentials between producer and consumer price. We show how rents circulate in those transit spaces, socially and ecologically embedding in diffuse, fluid networks with severe consequences for people and environments. We conclude with implications for work on illicit commodities and the collateral social and environmental harms they produce.

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Dávila, A., Magliocca, N., McSweeney, K., & Rueda, X. (2021). Spatialising illicit commodity chains: Comparing coffee and cocaine. Area. doi:10.1111/area.12724

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Publication | 29 June 2021