Roots of Italian mafia may lie in lemon industry

"The most robust determinant of mafia activity is the production of citrus fruits," researchers wrote in the new paper.
By Brooks Hays  |  Feb. 22, 2018 at 7:58 AM
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Feb. 22 (UPI) -- The origins of the Sicilian mafia lie in Italy's lemon industry, according to new research.

It's not the first time historians have linked the explosion of Silicy's citrus sector with the birth of the mafia, but the study -- published in the Journal of Economic History -- marks the first time researchers have applied econometric analysis to the connection.

The group of researchers responsible for the new study were trying to better understand the impact of organized crime on the Italian economy and the challenges the mafia has posed to the institutions of the Italian government. To do so, the researchers set out to locate the mafia's origins and early history.

"While we were doing our preliminary readings we came across the book Cosa Nostra by John Dickie where we learnt about the anecdotal evidence of Doctor Galati and his lemon groves and ever since we decided to further explore this channel using econometrics methods," Alessia Isopi, an economist at the University of Manchester in England, told UPI in an email.

Gaspare Galati was an Italian farmer whose family fled Sicily after trying unsuccessfully to fend off the family business from the hands of local crime rings.

In the 19th century, the popularity of citrus, prized for its ability to ward off scurvy, exploded. The climate of Sicily, where citrus trees have grown since the 11th century, made the island an ideal place to profit from the increased demand. Almost overnight, lemon farming became extremely lucrative.

But to protect their profits, farmers had to deal with thieves and the brokers who controlled access to international markets. The newly lucrative but largely unregulated and immature market provided an opening for organized crime. Many farmers were forced to pay for protection and, increasingly, organized crime rings found ways to siphon off a healthy share of the industry's profits.

"The coalition between gabellotti, [guards], and [thieves] triggered a system of corruption and intimidation such that landowners who could not afford to hire a guard became the target of brigands," researchers wrote in the study. "This adverse institutional environment provided the breeding ground for the organization which would become known as the mafia."

Isopi and her colleagues surveyed the historical and economic literature from the late 1800s and found a strong correlation between the appearance of the word "mafia" and the growth of the lemon industry, shortly after 1865.

"The most robust determinant of mafia activity is the production of citrus fruits," the authors wrote.

Isopi said several people, in response to the publication of the study, have tried to draw connections between Silicy's citrus industry and Columbia's drug trade or diamond mining in the Congo.

"But I am not sure how comparable these phenomena are: the facts that we discuss in our paper are very peculiar where many things were going on at the same time that I would not stretch myself to make any analogy," Isopi said.

Still, Isopi and her research partners believe their work can help governments better understand the types of economic and political conditions that set the stage for organized crime.

"Our findings show how that whenever there is a power gap in the institutions, other groups might fill it," Isopi said. "And in particular, if the government in power is not able to regulate the revenues from a monopoly market, the monopolist -- or those willing to get into the business -- could make endless profits."

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