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NextGen Magazine


Research Links Rise of Sicilian Mafia with Lemon Production

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Jan 11, 2018

While the Mafia has long been associated with Prohibition-era booze running, a recent academic paper pins the rise of the Sicilian Mafia on increased demand for lemons and other citrus fruits in the 19th century.

The paper, "Origins of the Sicilian Mafia: The Market for Lemons," published in the Journal of Economic History, notes that once James Lind discovered that citrus fruits could ward off scurvy, the demand for lemons and other citrus fruits skyrocketed, as it allowed sailors to remain at sea for a much longer period of time. Citrus fruits, however, were very difficult to cultivate, as the trees required specific environmental conditions to thrive, such as those found on the island of Sicily.

The paper says that rising demand for citrus fruits happened around the same time that Bourbon-era land reforms increased the total number of land owners in the area. These new small landowners were often the target of brigands, and with the government too weak to do much, they would often turn to local toughs to protect them. The paper notes that this is the common explanation for the rise of the Sicilian Mafia, but the authors felt this was incomplete: organized crime initially appeared in only a small number of localities and then spread through the region, meaning this was not a uniform phenomena. Land fragmentation and weak government alone, the paper says, cannot explain everything. This is where lemons come in. 

Citrus farmers, with their extremely valuable product, were particularly ripe targets for theft, which in turn made them especially likely to hire these proto-mafiosi. They not only provided physical protection, but also manipulated market prices and acted as intermediaries between producers and exporters. This, the paper says, soon degraded into full on extortion. 

"Why would the mafia focus on citrus production and not, for example, on the cultivation of wheat or wine?" said the paper. "There are three basic reasons for the special importance of citrus fruit. First, the market value and profitability of citrus fruits was unusually high at the time, certainly much higher than for basic food crops like wheat. Second, the large fixed costs associated with irrigation and the long time before trees matured, made producers sensitive to predation. Third, the technology of predation on citrus fruits was relatively easy and cheap. According to Lupo (2011), a harvest of lemon fruits is very difficult to protect when the fruits are still on the trees. Picking a few hundred ripe lemons from a grove during a dark night should have been much easier for a thief than harvesting olives or grapes, not to mention wheat. As a consequence, lemon groves were more vulnerable to predation, despite the frequent construction of walls and the use of dogs and guards." 

The researchers based this conclusion on data from a Sicilian parliamentary inquiry into the assets and peasant conditions of the island conducted from 1881-1886 and an additional one from 1900. They found that Mafia presence in the 1880s is strongly associated with the presence of citrus cultivation. The more citrus, the more Mafia. This result holds even when controlling for variables like climatic conditions. 

The paper noted that this calls to mind the phenomena of the "resource curse," where the presence of valuable natural resources, paradoxically, depresses economic development due to corruption, patronage and rent-seeking behaviors. It pointed to, for example, Nigeria, where any benefit from oil revenues were cancelled out by political corruption. 

"A recurrent theme in this tradition is that resource windfalls might actually destabilize and deteriorate institutions, if key groups in the society believe that predation is more profitable than production," said the paper.