The Complicated Relationship between People, State, and Land in Eastern Sri Lanka
Urs Geiser and Shahul H. Hasbullah
Based on field research in Eastern Sri Lanka, we found that land conflicts can emerge for very practical reasons – when groups of people struggle to get access to state land, when people use (or want to use) land for different purposes, when the many branches of the local state administration do not coordinate such claims and demands, or when some local people are able to organise their interests better than others. Such insights challenge the dominant explanation which claims that people quarrel over land simply because they belong to different ethnic groups. Against this, we argue that arousing suspicion of ‘the others’ has become an accepted strategy of gaining political advantages in struggles over land – a routine, though, that misses the economic and social complexities people at the grassroots have to face. We therefore propose that land conflicts should be approached through (i) a critical discussion of the concrete political-economic realities at the grassroots; (ii) a better understanding of the everyday concerns of government officials in the local administration; and (iii) in making land use planning more democratic, including the explicit consultation of the many local organisations that engage in land issues.