Scurvy, lemons and the Sicilian mafia: Why natural resources are often a curse, not a blessing

What’s the link between lemons grown on an impoverished island at the foot of Italy, and a violent criminal organisation? Len Williams investigates

Tuesday 06 July 2021 21:30
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<p>Alleged members of a mafia syndicate arrested in a mass roundup known as ‘Occidente’ in Palermo in 2007</p>

Alleged members of a mafia syndicate arrested in a mass roundup known as ‘Occidente’ in Palermo in 2007

When Professor Ola Olsson, an economist at the University of Gothenburg, and his colleagues began investigating the origins of the Sicilian mafia, they noticed a curious pattern emerge in the data. During the mid-19th century, the newly minted Italian state conducted surveys of municipalities in Sicily to find out about crime on the island. Sure enough, in about a third of the island’s towns, reports of mafia activity came up time and again.

But why was the mafia present in some localities and not others? The economists began correlating the places where criminal elements were reported against other variables – from industry to mining to various agricultural goods. “The only significant positive association was in places with citrus groves,” says Olsson.

Lemon groves can only grow in certain altitudes and temperature ranges, so much of the Mediterranean island was not suitable for their production. Yet the economists found that everywhere that lemon groves could be grown, reports of the mafia featured too. What was the link between this innocuous fruit and a violent criminal organisation?

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