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Transforming conflicts from the bottom-up? Reflections on civil society efforts to empower marginalized fishers in postwar Sri Lanka

Joeri Scholtens, Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam
Maarten Bavinck, Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam; Norwegian College of Fisheries, UiT Arctic University of Norway


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We analyze the efforts of an international consortium of academics and activists to understand and address a transnational fisheries conflict in South Asia. The so-called REINCORPFISH project (2010–2016) focused on an asymmetrical conflict between trawler fishers from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu who frequently transgress into Sri Lankan waters and northern Sri Lankan fishers, whose livelihoods are affected by these intrusions as well as by a long history of civil war. Guided by notions of bottom-up governance and empowerment, the consortium engaged in action research focusing on three types of remedial activities: (a) facilitating dialogues between fishers from both countries, (b) supporting the creation of a unified fisher organization in northern Sri Lanka, and (c) engaging in an advocacy program promoting assistance for the northern Sri Lankan fishers. Although the consortium succeeded in creating widespread attention of the problem, we analyze how the project’s rationale of bottom-up governance was thoroughly challenged by divisive national and transboundary politics. The fisheries conflict intertwined with geopolitical power play, military bluster, and ethnic tension, as well as with governmental suspicion toward NGO activity of any kind, marginalized civil society and compromised its assumed role as an agent of change. We therefore demonstrate how supporting marginalized resource users through action research requires handling a multiplicity of coexisting conflicts (resource, ethnic, and geopolitical) and that studying or dealing with such conflicts in isolation is both conceptually and practically flawed.

Key words

action research; bottom-up governance; empowerment; fisheries; marginality; postwar reconstruction; Sri Lanka; transboundary conflict

Copyright © 2018 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087