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How Climate Change Affects Organized Criminal Group Behavior


Climate-generated stress has been linked to multiple socio-political outcomes, many of which are violent. Scarcity is a key mechanism behind these violent outcomes. I argue that climate-induced scarcity creates conditions for organized criminal groups to capture the markets of legal commodities. Scarcity drives prices up, creating incentives for criminal groups to capture the production and distribution of these commodities with pernicious consequences. Using qualitative evidence for the abalone shellfish market in two South African provinces, I trace the process connecting climate-induced scarcity to price changes, to criminal market capture. In doing so, I make three contributions: I propose a new theory about the climate drivers behind the behavior of organized crime by bringing together scholarship on climate and conflict and criminal violence; I extend research on organized crime from markets of illicit goods into markets for licit ones; and I provide evidence suggestive of brokerage as a specific mechanism to illegally control a market.

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  1. Decisions are available online through the Southern African Legal Information Institute, from the University of Cape Town, and can be accessed here:

  2. See Statistics South Africa provincial profiles for the Eastern and Western Cape, available here:, Crime statistics can be found here:

  3. The term “colored” is one of the remnants of apartheid racial segregation, and it denotes individuals of mixed race. It is still used to classify ethnicities, as reported in the census data.


  5. Available here:

  6. See

  7. See: accessed July 30, 2018.

  8. See: also High Court of South Africa, case number SS 13/2012, Western Cape, 2018 (sentencing memo).

  9. The history of South African organized crime, as well as research on it, is extensive. Providing an exhaustive account is not the goal of this paper. Some authors trace the origins of criminal groups back to the nineteenth century and the development of the gold mining industry in the country. Over time, groups evolved to become street gangs, prison gangs, and mafias, with varying degrees of territorial control and organizational life spans. These criminal groups are involved in a variety of markets, from protection, to drug trafficking and sales, to wildlife trade (van Onselen 1984; De Greef and Raemaekers 2014; Shaw 2014). For in-depth studies, see for example extensive work by Mark Shaw; Stephen Ellis; Simone Haysom; Annette Hübschle, among many others.

  10. “State Unlikely ‘winner' as Poachers Plunder Sea,” The Sunday Times, 9 October 2016. Available from accessed August 17, 2018. See also: Warchol (2017).

  11. See accessed August 17, 2018.

  12. See Labor Court of South Africa, case number JR1524/06, Johannesburg 2006.

  13. See

  14. For a map, see Fig. 9 in the Appendix.

  15. See Fig. 10 in the Appendix for a map.

  16. Conversation with an expert on abalone aquaculture from the Eastern Cape, August 13, 2018.

  17. See

  18. Data from MARAM. For specific details on estimate construction, see: Brandão and Butterworth 2013, 2015; Plagányi et al. 2010, 2011. Since estimations were done differently at different time periods, Anabela Brandao (MARAM) generously provided estimates for the entire time series applying a calibration factor to ensure that estimates are comparable across zones.

  19. See accessed July 30, 2018.

  20. Data on boat detections adapted from Raemaekers and Britz 2009:188.

  21. Data on confiscations is from the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries Report on the Status of the South African Marine Fishery Resources, 2012, available here: Although reports for subsequent years are available, they do not contain additional data on confiscations.

  22. Further reductions in 2010 may be the result of private reseeding efforts utilizing private security. It is likely that these efforts displaced poachers from the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape. Author’s conversation with Peter Britz, Rhodes University, July 31, 2018.


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I thank Anabela Brandão, Doug Butterworth, Eva Plagányi, and Peter Britz for graciously sharing their expertise and for facilitating access to data. I am also grateful to Patrick Regan for his contributions to earlier versions of this project.

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Fig. 6
figure 6

South African provinces. Map in Fig. 6 created by author


Fig. 7
figure 7

Annual temperature change in the southern coast of South Africa, 1980–2016


Fig. 8
figure 8

Ocean temperatures in the southern coast of South Africa (°C)


Fig. 9
figure 9

Abalone poaching locations in the Western Cape. Maps in Figs. 9 and 10 created by author


Fig. 10
figure 10

Abalone poaching locations in the Eastern Cape


Fig. 11
figure 11

Hong Kong abalone imports from South Africa (%). Data from the Census and Statistics Department from Hong Kong, available here:

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Tiscornia, L. How Climate Change Affects Organized Criminal Group Behavior. St Comp Int Dev (2022).

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  • Organized crime
  • Climate change
  • South Africa
  • Illicit markets
  • Abalone