01/10/2013 02:05 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2013

Expanding the Realm of the Possible in 2012

In New Mexico, I drove into the thick haze of a forest fire. Across a long line of mountains, red flames flicked up like snake's tongues amongst dense black ropes of smoke. Where the blaze had worn down, thinner smoke wisps arose above charred, black land.

One helicopter moved high above the flames, dangling from a rope a bucket of fire retardant. I knew that the aircraft would make many runs, restocking and then returning to drop anew. The repetitive pouring of small quantities of chemicals over an inferno that stretched as far as the eye could see seemed either nobly brave or insanely quixotic. It appeared a fool's attempt at a solution far outstripped by a problem.

Four hours later, I again drove to the fire site. There were no angry flames. No oily plumes billowing upward. There remained only one diffuse column of smoke, exhaling a dying breath. The minute but steady interventions of that helicopter pilot, his patient commitment to his mission, had won the day.

This is precisely the story of organized communities and movements the world over. So vast and fiery are the problems that it may seem impossible to imagine that solutions exist or that change may be imminent. And yet, 2012 brought advances and victories that shifted the debate, transformed power, and won real gains in quality of life. Below is a round-up of some such news, a small representation of the campaigns, public actions, and collective strategies that last year changed pieces of history. Many were made possible by people without money or connections, those whom the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano called "the owners of nothing."

Who might have imagined that the past year would make the failures of capitalism -- especially as seen through inequality -- standard dinner-table conversation in the U.S.? Motley Occupiers around the country achieved that.

In the Philippines, a broad-based movement successfully pushed through a reproductive rights bill against heavy pressure by the Vatican. Signed December 21, the law guarantees contraception for those too poor to buy it, and promotes contraception and sex ed in schools.

Who could have imagined this? At the beginning of December, after 39 years of tenacious grassroots pressure, a Chilean judge ordered the arrestof eight former army officers for having assassinated folk singer Victor Jara at the time of the U.S.-backed military coup in 1973. Jara was a leader in the grassroots cultural flourishing under socialist president Salvador Allende.

Of course there was the new flurry of organizing for higher wages and better conditions by workers of Walmart. The organizing drive shook up the country on Black Friday, with strikes at reportedly 1000 stores. Beyond that, workers have engaged in many actions over the past months, and show no signs of abating.

On November 19, significant pressure from different social sectors of Colombia brought the government and the FARC rebels to the negotiating table, a complicated but correct move for the five-decade internal armed conflict. Back in July, the indigenous Nasa people in the Cauca region had already taken the peace process into their own hands, after having been terrorized for decades by the military on the one hand and FARC on the other. They expelled the army and dismantled their installations, took prisoner FARC guerrillas and convicted them of crimes against humanity.

A referendum in Iceland in late October, regarding a draft constitution, included this question: "In the new Constitution, do you want natural resources that are not privately owned to be declared national property?" In a resounding display of support for the global commons, 81 percent voted yes.

In February and again in October, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) won two more in a string of 11 victories against major food and restaurant corporations. Both Chipotle Mexican Grill and Trader Joe's signed onto the Fair Food Program, almost doubling the wages for tomatoes picked and guaranteeing a code of fair conduct. The CIW, a small group of farmworkers from the hardscrabble Florida town of Immokalee, prove true the source-disputed quote, "If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito." Publix, CIW's current target, may as well just give up now.

Cornell University terminated its contract with Adidas over labor violations, the first university to do so. The victory came October 1 after a student campaign against Adidas, which had closed a plant in Indonesia without warning, leaving almost 3,000 workers unemployed and without severance pay.

More than 29,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike last September for better health benefits, job security, and changes in teacher evaluation systems. While winning many concessions from the district, the strike also elevated discussion of systemic problems resulting from school "reform" efforts around the country, such as growing racial segregation of schools, school closings, and the corporate-backed move toward privatization of education.

In South Africa, thousands of Lonmin platinum mineworkers who survived the August 16 massacre kept striking, won a 22 percent wage increase, and inspired a wave of strikes throughout the world's most unequal country.

In Argentina, media activists and progressive intellectuals pushed through a next step in freeing the press from its singular control by the elite. Their consistent pressure finally won the granting of radio licenses to many groups who had long awaited the ability to control their own media, including indigenous peoples, cooperatives, and rural low-frequency stations.

In Haiti, advocacy, protests, and legal efforts finally resulted in some progress in deterring and punishing rape. Last summer, the criminal court session included the unprecedented number of 22 rape cases. Of the 13 results that were posted, 12 were convictions.

The Kichwa people of Ecuador won two precedent-setting victories. In April, the national government acknowledged responsibility for illegally granting a license to an oil company to do business on indigenous territory without the community's consent. And in July, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the government to pay the Kichwas $1.34 million in damages and to reimburse their legal fees.

In May and June, the world saw a Mexican-style Occupy arise with the Yo Soy 132 (I am 132) movement against control of elections and the press by the elite. The Mexican Spring also included the reappearance of the Mayan Zapatistas, beginning December 21, when more than 40,000 marched to five cities for a silent demonstration of strength.

In Senegal in March, sustained protests and a landslide vote blocked President Abdoulade Wade from an unconstitutional third term.

Are we winning? Of course not. But Noam Chomsky once said in a Democracy Now interview, "If you want things to stay exactly the way they are, just do nothing." Alternatively, with the knowledge that almost anything is possible in 2013, but that we never know where or how change will spark, we can choose to do as much as we can, all the time.

To slightly revise the anonymous quote: Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you may land among the stars.

Thanks to Saulo Araújo and Sara Mersha of Grassroots International (US), Patrick Bond of the Centre for Civil Society (South Africa), Juan Carlos Houghton (Colombia), Ernesto Lamas of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (Argentina), Mary Ann Manahan of Focus on the Global South (Philippines), Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (US/Haiti), and On the Commons (US).

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Beverly Bell has worked for more than three decades as an advocate, organizer, and writer in collaboration with social movements in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the U.S. Her focus areas are just economies, democratic participation, and gender justice. Beverly currently serves as associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and coordinator of Other Worlds, and is a member of the advisory board of Truthout. She is author of Walking on Fire: Haitian Women Stories of Survival and Resistance and of the forthcoming Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti's Divide.

Copyleft Beverly Bell. You may reprint this article in whole or in part. Please credit any text or original research you use to Beverly Bell, Other Worlds.