Media Briefings

MAFIA’S RISE WAS FUELLED BY DEMAND FOR SICILY’S MINERAL RESOURCES

  • Published Date: August 2015

High international demand for sulphur from Sicily in the nineteenth century led to a booming economy and a growing need for private protection, which was eventually supplied by the Mafia. That is the central finding of research by Giovanni Prarolo and colleagues, which goes against the conventional wisdom that the growth of the Mafia was a result of economic backwardness.

The study, published in the August 2015 issue of the Economic Journal, looks at Sicily in the mid-nineteenth century, when the industrialising chemical sector in England and France led a surge in demand for sulphur, which at the time was mainly supplied by the Italian island. Wealth generated from the sulphur suppliers at a time of lawlessness in Italy meant there was a high demand for protection. Where this was not met by the state, the Mafia emerged as a supplier of private protection.

By comparing areas in Sicily where sulphur was present with those with no sulphur, the study finds that having 15-30 more sulphur mines in a municipality (mines were often very small) increased the intensity of early Mafia activity by one third.

The information on Mafia intensity was collected by Antonino Cutrera, a former police officer who drew a map of the Mafia’s distribution in his 1900 book ‘La mafia e i mafiosi’, the first book to study the Mafia phenomenon.

Professor Prarolo says:

‘The Sicilian Mafia, which is still an active and prosperous criminal organisation in the twenty-first century, did not emerge as a product of economic backwardness, but rather as a consequence of the combination of economic wealth and poor institutions.’

His analysis considers other traditional explanations for the emergence of the Mafia and shows, for example, that the cultivation of citrus fruits, often put forward as one of the main determinants of the Mafia, is not systematically correlated with Mafia intensity.

This research stresses the lessons for organised crime beyond Italy:

‘The sudden availability of valuable natural resources, combined with a state unable to secure property rights, set the stage for the emergence of organised crime.’

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The Mafia emerged in Sicily during the nineteenth century from the combination of a weak state and large rents associated with the dramatic increase in the Industrial Revolution-led international demand for sulphur. Sicilian areas endowed with sulphur systematically experienced larger Mafia activity. That is the central finding of research by Giovanni Prarolo and colleagues.

The Sicilian Mafia, which is still an active and prosperous criminal organisation in the twenty-first century, therefore did not emerge as a product of economic backwardness, but rather as a consequence of the combination of economic wealth and poor institutions. Wealth derived from sulphur generated a high demand for protection and, where this was not met by the state, the Mafia emerged as a supplier of private protection.

The situation in mid-nineteenth century in Sicily was one in which issues of property rights protection, such as control over the land and its products, had to be privately organised by landlords, drawing from the large pool of former prisoners and former policemen that the process of dissolution of the Bourbon kingdom made available. The Mafia emerged as the blending of both demand and supply of protection, and it quickly gained the monopoly of violence in many parts of Sicily. Thus, once established, it also extracted additional rents through extortion.

At the same time, the chemical sector that was booming in England and France found in Sicily the main supplier of one of its fundamental inputs, sulphur. Sicilian mines were so rich that until the end of the nineteenth century, they served more than 90% of world sulphur demand.

The boom in sulphur was a sudden, unexpected shock that radically changed the economic environment of the areas endowed with the precious mineral. Sulphur reserves were not evenly distributed across Sicilian municipalities, and the research exploits differences in sulphur endowments to study the effect of sulphur on the Mafia’s emergence.

The econometric estimations show that having 15-30 more sulphur mines in a municipality (mines were often very small) increased the intensity of early Mafia activity by one on a 0-3 scale, where 0 means no Mafia activity and 3 denotes the highest Mafia intensity.

The information on Mafia intensity was collected by Antonino Cutrera, a former police officer who drew a map of the Mafia’s distribution in his 1900 book ‘La mafia e i mafiosi’, the first book that explicitly studied the Mafia phenomenon.

Other possible determinants of the Mafia have been suggested by historians, sociologists and other scholars, and many have been taken into account in this study. The empirical analysis shows for example that the cultivation of citrus fruits, often indicated as one of the main determinants of the Mafia, is not systematically correlated with Mafia intensity.

This research stresses how the sudden availability of valuable natural resources, combined with a state unable to secure property rights, set the stage for the emergence of organised crime. This mechanism goes beyond the specific case of the origins of the Sicilian Mafia, as it could also rationalise, for example, the development of the Russian Mafia in recent times.

It can also be used to warn about the possible formation of organised crime in countries or regions characterised by a weak presence of the state that experience a boom in the value of natural resource (or possibly in other lucrative businesses).

ENDS

Notes for editors: ‘‘Poor Institutions, Rich Mines: Resource Curse in the Origins of the Sicilian Mafia’ by Paolo Buonanno, Ruben Durante, Giovanni Prarolo and Paolo Vanin is published in the August 2015 issue of the Economic Journal.

Paolo Buonanno is at the University of Bergamo. Ruben Durante is at Sciences Po. Giovanni Prarolo and Paolo Vanin are at the University of Bologna.

For further information: contact Giovanni Prarolo on +39-328-123-1955 (email: giovanni.prarolo@unibo.it); or Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email: romesh@vaitilingam.com; Twitter: @econromesh).