Climate injustice, criminalisation of land protection and anti-colonial solidarity: Courtroom ethnography in an age of fossil fuel violence

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As plans for expanding fossil fuel infrastructure continue to ramp up despite threats to the planet, how are geographers to address the criminalisation and prosecution of peaceful acts of defending earth, water and land? Reflecting on a courtroom ethnography and debates spanning legal geography, political ecology and social movements studies, this article explores embodied struggles around oil, ‘justice’ and geographies of caring – discussing how Indigenous youth, grandmothers in their eighties and others were convicted of ‘criminal contempt’ for being on a road near an oil pipeline expansion project. The project (“Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion”) was created to transport unprecedented levels of heavy oil (bitumen) across hundreds of kilometres of Indigenous peoples' territory that was never ceded to settler-colonial authorities in Canada. Focusing on a controversial injunction designed to protect oil industry expansion, the discussion explores the performativity of a judge's exercise of power, including in denying the necessity to act defence, side-lining Indigenous jurisdiction, and escalating prison sentences. Courtroom ethnography offers a unique vantage point for witnessing power at work and vast resources used by state actors to suppress issues fundamental to the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Paris Climate Accord. It also provides a lens into the intersectional solidarity and ethics of care among those who dare to challenge colonialism and hyper-extractivism, inviting engagement with multiple meanings of ‘irreparable harm’ at various scales. The article calls for more attention to power relations, values and affects shaping courtroom dynamics in an age in which fossil fuel interests, climate crisis and settler-colonial control over courts are entwined in evermore-complex violent entanglements.
Original languageEnglish
Article number102298
JournalPolitical Geography
Early online date8 Oct 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 8 Oct 2020


  • climate justice
  • courtroom ethnography
  • Indigenous rights
  • oil
  • Trans Mountain pipeline


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