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18 January 2018

Lemon trade led to the rise of the Sicilian Mafia, new study claims

The Sicilian mafia, arguably one of the most infamous institutions in the Western world, arose as a response to a huge rise in demand for oranges and lemons, claims a new study Origins of the Sicilian Mafia: The Market for Lemons published by Cambridge University Press in the Journal of Economic History (2017). 

Following a discovery in the late 18th century that citrus fruits cured scurvy, the rapid increase in demand for lemons and oranges resulted in a very large inflow of revenues to those producing these citrus fruits.

Alessia Isopi, an author of the study, said: ‘These extraordinary revenues, combined with a high level of local poverty, general political insecurity and weak rule of law, resulted in the emergence of a mafia who were hired by lemon producers as private protection and to act as negotiators between the retailers and exporters in the harbours.’

The authors - Arcangelo Dimico, Ola Olsson and Alessia Isopi - digitized data from the Damiani Inquiry, a parliamentary inquiry conducted between 1881–1886, to show that mafia presence in the 1880s is strongly associated with the prevalence of citrus cultivation and no other crop or industry has had such a robust impact on mafia activity. They also found similar results using additional data from 1900 (Cutrera 1900).

After the Sicilian mafia’s first appearance in Sicily in the 1870s it soon infiltrated the economic and political spheres of Italy and of the United States and has, at times, been considered a serious threat to the rule of law in both countries. Outcomes of the mafia's actions such as murders, bombings, and embezzlement of public money have been observed during the last 140 years, and the reasons behind its emergence have been unclear. 

Unlike existing works that emphasize political and historical factors, this study identifies the previously unrealised importance of lemons in the rise of the mafia.

The article Origins of the Sicilian Mafia: The Market for Lemons is free to read online until the end of February 2018. Access it here.


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