The purpose of this paper is to further the understanding of how unequal access to commons is (re)produced and contested. I do so by looking into the thwarted struggle of small-scale fishers in post-war Northern Sri Lanka to contest encroachment of an Indian trawler fleet. I contend that for understanding marginality in the commons we need to make two conceptual shifts in understanding resource access and collective action: one is from access as a bundle of rights to access as a bundle of powers (Ribot and Peluso 2003); and two is from collective action geared at fostering institutions for resource stewardship towards collective action geared at contesting marginalizing access mechanisms. This paper uses this political perspective to explain how Indian trawlers’ superior technology and political agency allow them to illegally operate in Sri Lankan waters, and prevent North Sri Lankan fishers to rebuild a livelihood after decades of war. I subsequently demonstrate that fishers are unable to collectively challenge this status quo due to political repression by the Sri Lankan government, the post-war erosion of fisheries cooperatives, and fishers’ inability to articulate and politicize their Tamil identity. This elusive quest for access and collective action has forced fishers into silent and cynical adaptation to the reality of trawler intrusions. I conclude that struggles for resource access are not only struggles for legitimate property rights, but also about the ability to influence the multiple mechanisms of access through processes of contestatory collective action.
Scholtens, J., (2016). The elusive quest for access and collective action: North Sri Lankan fishers’ thwarted struggles against a foreign trawler fleet. International Journal of the Commons. 10(2), pp.929–952.