Conflicts 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 emphasis on a strong state, and on ethnic identity suffice to understand land conflicts? Our bottom-up research showed that peoples concerns with land are above all informed by everyday material livelihood needs that vary enormously, as do peoples capabilities to meet them, across ethnic markers of identity. This highly differentiated rural populace encounters a state at the local level that is fragmented and ambiguous. Local organisations display agency in negotiating land-related claims of competing local groups and demonstrate surprising skill in dealing with the local state. All of these insights escape the easy shoehorning of land conflicts into politicised discourses centered around ‘ethnic disputes’ or ‘state patronage’.