Negotiating access to land in eastern Sri Lanka: Social mobilisation of livelihood concerns and everyday encounters with an ambiguous state


Email PosterConflicts around land in eastern Sri Lanka are often explained as a consequence of colonisation schemes by the powerful and ethnically biased state. But does this (political-cultural) emphasis on a strong state, its patronage networks, and above all on ethnic identity suffice to understand local land conflicts? To revisit these assumed causalities, we studied a range of conflicts around land in the Akkaraipattu and Gal Oya Right Bank regions. Our bottom-up research approach highlighted the importance of renewed attention to political-economic issues. Indeed, rural people’s concerns with land are above all informed by everyday livelihood needs that vary enormously, as do people’s economic capabilities to meet them, across ethnic markers of identity. To strengthen claims on land, many organise around very specific concerns. This highly differentiated and at times divided rural populace encounters a state at the local level that is fragmented, compartmentalised, and ambiguous. Local organisations display agency in negotiating the land-related claims of competing local groups and demonstrate surprising skill in dealing with the local state, leading to differentiated practices of land-related mobilisation. All of these insights escape the easy shoehorning of land conflicts into explanations centered around ‘ethnic disputes’ or the state’s ‘paternalistic patronage’. This study is above all an attempt to re-empiricalise state-people relations in eastern Sri Lanka and to dispassionately document the diversity and complexity of the land conflicts in which people are involved. We believe that while such detailed analyses may not solve conflicts, they do provide a starting point in the search for possible solutions.

event flyer (PDF)

Wednesday, 4th September 2019, 4:30pm

International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 554/6A, Peradeniya Road, Mulgampola, Kandy