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Zest for lemons factor in birth of Mafia, Queen's academics find

By David Reed

A lemon craze may have given rise to the Sicilian Mafia in the 19th century, evidence uncovered by Northern Ireland academics suggests.

The Sicilian Mafia appeared in the 1870s, infiltrating the economic and political spheres of Italy and the United States.

Experts now believe the public demand for citrus fruits was a surprising factor in their rise.

The surge in demand for lemons arose during the Napoleonic Wars after James Lind, a Scottish doctor and pioneer of naval hygiene, discovered that citrus fruits cured scurvy.

Researchers claim that the Mafia appeared in locations where lemon producers made high profits for overseas export.

A team of academics from Queen's University Belfast, in collaboration with the University of Manchester and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, investigated.

Dr Arcangelo Dimico, a lecturer in economics at Queen's Management School, said: "Although outcomes of the Mafia's actions such as murders, bombings, and embezzlement of public money have been observed over the last 140 years, the reasons behind its emergence are still obscure."

Researchers used two data sets from Sicilian towns and districts gathered from a parliamentary inquiry conducted between 1881 and 1886, and from 1900.

They found that Mafia presence in the 1880s is strongly associated with the prevalence of citrus cultivation.

Dr Dimico added: "Given Sicily's dominant position in the international market for citrus fruits, the increase in demand resulted in a very large inflow of revenues to citrus-producing towns during the 1800s.

"Citrus trees can be cultivated only in areas that meet specific requirements... guaranteeing substantial profits to relatively few local producers.

"The combination of high profits, a weak rule of law, a low level of interpersonal trust and a high level of local poverty made lemon producers a suitable target for predation, as there was little means to effectively enforce private property rights.

"So, lemon producers resorted to hiring Mafia affiliates for private protection and to act as intermediaries between retailers and exporters in the harbours."

Until now the Mafia's origins have always thought to have been a consequence of the weak institutional setting related to the failure of the feudal system in Sicily and from the political instability in Italian history.

However, this research is the first piece of evidence to suggest their rise to power was actually due to the boom in the economy.

Belfast Telegraph

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